February 13th 2016

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Articles from this issue:

COVER STORY Democratic Progressive Party ousts Kuomintang

CANBERRA OBSERVED Barnaby Joyce: enigma, loose cannon, deputy PM?

NATIONAL AFFAIRS Temporary protection visa holders left exposed

ENVIRONMENT Bob Carter, RIP: mythbuster and fact finder extraordinaire

FAMILY AND SOCIETY Farewell, religious liberty, farewell, conscience

EDITORIAL Syria: U.S. backdown opens door to peace talks

ECONOMICS Bubble has burst on globalisation project

EUTHANASIA Media drives sales in the death market

CULTURE What does a good music review sound like?

CULTURE Can we put a rocket under religious Sci-fi?

CINEMA A melancholy heroism: Snoopy and Charlie Brown: The Peanuts Movie

BOOK REVIEW Partial but thorough

BOOK REVIEW Brutality of battle


Books promotion page

Partial but thorough

News Weekly, February 13, 2016



by Benda Niall

(Text Publishing, Melbourne)
Hardcover: 439 pages
ISBN: 9781922182111
Price: AUD$50.00


Reviewed by Colin Jory


Brenda Niall’s biography of Archbishop Daniel Mannix is set in the contexts of the Irish and Australian affairs which influenced him or which he influenced over the course of his 99-year life, and she has researched those contexts extensively, in depth, and with perspicacity.

Her resources were not merely documentary but human, in that she did much interviewing, and she also draws judiciously on her memories. She had the excellent good fortune to be born into a well-to-do Catholic family (her father was a cardiologist) resident in Kew in close proximity to Dr Mannix’s Raheen and to several major Catholic institutions of incidental importance to her biography; and to have had among her parents’ friends many of the key figures in the saga of 20th-century Catholicism – individuals who knew much and told much which Dr Niall, when young, heard and remembered.

Further to this, she worked for Bob Santamaria from the mid-1950s to the early 1960s, at first in his capacity as director of the Australian National Secretariat of Catholic Action, then in other capacities. She was thus at the very heart of events of momentous importance for Australian political history and Australian Catholic history in which Santamaria was central. Perhaps most usefully of all, given her present volume and her equally excellent biography of Father William Hackett SJ, Santamaria had her do most of the early research for his own biography of Dr Mannix, which was eventually published in 1984.

When Dr Mannix arrived in Australia in March 1913 as coadjutor bishop to Archbishop Carr, with right of succession, he had just turned 48, and few could have expected him to make any great impact. He had been 30 years a clerical academic at Maynooth College in Kildare, rising to be president, admired for his exceptional intelligence and his clarity as a lecturer, a firm disciplinarian, aloof, unapproachable, respected by all but not loved.

He had neither participated in nor encouraged the fierce, romantic Irish nationalism which had taken a firm hold on the Irish literary class, including on many priests (such as Fr Hackett); nor had he taken a public stand on matters of social justice. Nobody could have dreamed that he would become the most outstanding episcopal leader in Australia’s history; the most politically influential; the most loved and revered, the most loathed and demonised – or that he would become the foremost international spokesman for Irish independence, along with his younger friend, Eamonn de Valera.

Above all, as Dr Niall observes, Dr Mannix proved a superlative leader of the ordinary Catholic people of Victoria, earning their love and admiration, inspiring their collective self-pride, self-confidence, group loyalty, commitment to their faith, and vigour as a social force. And yet, paradoxically, as Dr Niall demonstrates prolifically, he remained the most private of men, while yet always approachable as a spiritual pastor.

Few with any knowledge of Australian history would not know about Dr Mannix’s leading role in the successful opposition to conscription for overseas service in the referenda campaigns of 1916 and 1917. Few would not know of the brilliant propaganda coup organised on his behalf by John Wren in 1920, when to silence the accusations of treason and disloyalty against him, 14 Victoria Cross winners on grey horses rode in front of his open-topped limousine at the head of the St Patrick’s Day parade. Few would be unaware that so effective was Dr Mannix internationally as an advocate for Irish independence that later in 1920 the British government arrested him at sea to prevent him landing in Ireland. Dr Niall treats these events and their contexts in depth, and shows how they earned Dr Mannix the adulation of his Melbourne Catholic flock.

Dr Niall shows how Catholic education at all levels flourished in Melbourne during the Mannix era, and had a greater vitality than in many other Australian dioceses because of Dr Mannix’s lifelong policy of choosing competent people for key positions, then leaving them to get on with their work with no or minimal interference from him. She makes special note of his desire for a well-educated Catholic lay leadership as an antidote to “clericalism” (a special bogy of hers), and of his consequent encouragement of the Campion Society at Melbourne University in the 1930s; and, until after the great Labor Party “Split” of 1955, of the Catholic Worker. She is not blind, however, to the down-side of Dr Mannix’s hands-off style of overseeing his Archdiocese, in that in some areas failings occurred which need not have, had there been minimal intervention and back-up management by him.

She takes special pride in reporting the many ways in which Dr Mannix displayed wisdom and humanity beyond what might have been expected, given his austere, detached public persona. Few tales could be more touching, or touchingly told, than that of how Mannix and his great adversary of the conscription referenda, Billy Hughes, became firm friends in the wake of the death in childbirth in London of Hughes’ beloved daughter Helen in 1937, and of Dr Mannix’s letter of sympathy to Hughes.

Dr Niall tells that immediately after Hitler’s assumption of power in 1933, the Archbishop “sent a message of sympathy and support to the Australian Jewish community” – this at a time when few non-Jewish Australians were even aware of anti-Semitism – and subsequently was a strong supporter of the admission of Jewish refugees into Australia. In 1938, when social justice for Australian Aborigines was not a fashionable cause, he called for reparation for the wrongs done to them.

Dr Niall tells how the Archbishop saw to the care of the Vienna Boys’ Choir during World War II, when they were stranded in Australia. He sought an easing of the White Australia Policy when public opinion was strongly the other way. He refused to support the Menzies’ government’s attempt to ban the Communist Party in 1950, even though his most trusted adviser, Bob Santamaria, and presumably most Catholics supported a ban.

He was not vindictive, and was tolerant of dissent from his own political positions among his clergy and active laity. (In-Church dissent from Catholic doctrine or discipline was, of course, unthinkable during his lifetime.) He desired, but did not compel, sensible sex education in Catholic schools, and deplored the representation of natural sexual curiosity per se as necessarily sinful.

He strongly believed in educational opportunity for Catholic girls. He had a cynical attitude towards the Vatican bureaucracy, and had no more dealings with Rome than were unavoidable. In a written submission for the Second Vatican Council, he advocated ecclesiastical reforms and a strong affirmation of the right of religious liberty.

The most enduring controversies over Dr Mannix’s legacy will be inextricably intertwined with the legacy of Bob Santamaria. Santamaria, a once-in-a-century multifaceted genius, would have stood out in whatever fields and whatever ways, had he never met Dr Mannix; however, without Dr Mannix’s support he would not have had the far-reaching impact he did have as founder and first editor of the Catholic Worker; as deputy director then director of the Australian National Secretariat of Catholic Action; and as founder and controller of the National Civic Council (initially “the Show” and later “the Movement”).

What Dr Niall says about Santamaria has special value not only because she worked for him, but because her personal friendships seem to have been largely with his in-Church and more-or-less intellectual foes, and so is thoroughly acquainted with the perspectives of both the pro-Bobs and the anti-Bobs.

She puts to rest on the basis of her personal experience the long-cherished myth among Santamaria’s opponents that Santamaria manoeuvred Frank Maher, founder of the Campion Society and first director of ANSCA, out of his office (in 1951) in order to succeed him. (Alas, Gerard Henderson in his fine biography of Santamaria has revived the myth, on the basis of strained interpretations of a number of letters.)

Her personal experiences allow her to give many other insights into Santamaria; into his relationship with Dr Mannix and others; and into the effects in the Victorian Catholic community of the great Labor Party “Split” which brought him to national prominence. She shows respect and admiration for Santamaria while recognising where there is truth in allegations against him made by his detractors.

Yet there is a downside to Dr Niall’s book. She sporadically makes little genuflections to feminist ideology and mythology, and to theological liberalism in the Church. She deplores Catholic “triumphalism”, which is simply Chester-Bellocian, Dawsonian-style pride in the Church’s contributions to Western civilisation. Her praise for Dr Mannix’s support for a sound education for Catholic girls is tempered by regret that he took for granted that girls who did not become nuns would find their lives’ vocation in full-time motherhood; and that he did not envisage, let alone encourage, their having long-term wage-force careers. She cites approvingly persons who maintain that the Church should teach that its sexual moral strictures are non-binding on any Catholic whose “conscience” – as defined and identified by himself or herself – is averse to them.

Paradoxically, one of Dr Niall’s core themes in her treatment of Dr Mannix’s early years in Australia, his immense popularity with his people, is underdeveloped. Her book is judiciously peppered with well-chosen quotations from his public appearances and private conversations, and she leaves no doubt that his public statements had a wide impact, but except in her treatment of his words and actions during the Great War and the years immediately following, she does not impart an appreciation of – a feel for – that impact. She gives no attention to the ordinary people’s lay societies and sodalities; to popular devotions; to communion breakfasts; foundation-stone layings; school presentation nights; or of Dr Mannix’s effect in relation to these, although they were at the heart of Catholic communal life.

Strangest of all, despite her many light feminist jibes, she shows zero interest in or sympathy for ordinary Catholic girls and women, except as persons denied career opportunities (which very few of them wanted). Why did ordinary Catholic women love the Church and revere Dr Mannix? What did Dr Mannix do to cultivate and encourage the kinds of devotions and activities which Catholic women especially valued (but feminists despise)? Dr Niall does not tell.

Of course, it would have been impossible for her to cover every possible aspect of the relationship between Dr Mannix and his people in one book. A companion volume is needed, whether written by Dr Niall or by another, on popular Catholicism in Victoria during the Mannix era – and on its ruthless suppression after the Archbishop’s death, by episcopally appointed crypto-secularist bureaucrats who loathed it.

My few reservations notwithstanding, I cannot recommend Dr Niall’s book highly enough. Anyone who is interested in the history of Australian Catholicism before its post-Vatican II substantial disintegration, and above all in the history of Victorian Catholicism, should read it, savour it, and display it prominently on their bookshelves. It is to be treasured.

Purchase this book at the bookshop:


All you need to know about
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TRANSGENDER: one shade of grey, 353pp, $39.99

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