Come in Spinner: A tale of two clerics

How will Cardinal George Pell be regarded in 50 years’ time, what will be his legacy to the Church and Australia, how will it compare to the legacy of that other controversial cleric, Archbishop Daniel Mannix and what does it say about Tony Abbott?

While Cardinal Pell is currently controversial so far the level of controversy has yet to meet that generated by Mannix who came to Australia in 1913, when the Catholic-Protestant sectarian disputes were bitter and deep, and died in 1963 when divisions were still around but much dissipated.

The questions about their respective impacts and legacies spring to mind in the light of a new biography of Mannix, Daniel Mannix – Beyond the Myths, by James Griffin which will be published this month. Griffin sadly died and the book has been completed and finally prepared for publication by Paul Ormonde. Ormonde and Griffin were two of a group of Catholic political activists and scholars who stayed on the Labor side after the Split. Ormonde edited Santamaria: The Politics of Fear to which Griffin along with other such as Max Charlesworth, Xavier Connor and Val Noone contributed. Ormonde also produced an excellent book. The Movement, on the Industrial Groupers and has been a highly respected journalist and a very effective corporate communications practitioner.

Ormonde’s chapter in the Mannix biography is interesting because it puts Mannix and his achievements in a context which might be surprising to those who see him simply as a reactionary who helped bring about the long exclusion of the ALP from power. Ormonde says: “He encouraged the emergence of Catholics out of their tribal isolation into the wider community with his development of Catholic secondary schools which slowly but inevitably led to more Catholics in universities and the professions and in more recent years, even as executives in large corporations many of which, through most of the Mannix era, would have subtly excluded them.”

A more dramatic change Ormonde talks about is in politics. In 1965 there was one Catholic (F.C.Chaney Minister for the Navy) in the 31 member Menzies Cabinet. Forty years late, in the last Howard Government “there were 11 Catholics (not necessarily practising) in the Ministry of 30 with seven in Cabinet,” Ormonde says.

Now Mannix was no theological liberal, as Ormonde points out, had no enthusiasm for the emerging ecumenical movement, was deeply religiously conservative and “by his example encouraged Catholics to maintain their distance from their non-Catholic fellow Australians.”  But he was also a social democrat: openly supportive of the working class and unions; supported the 1916 Easter Rebellion Irish and never visited Government House (“presumably because it represented the seat of the British establishment”); and, led the anti-conscription campaign in World War One.

He also opposed the death penalty; thought the Great Depression and the World War were caused by capitalism; opposed the 1951 Communist Party Dissolution Bill; supported limited Asian immigration; criticised white treatment of Aboriginals as ‘a blot which can never be atoned for in the history of the nation’, and (within the Church and not publicly) had surprisingly liberal views on teachings about sex.

Yet despite this social liberalism some of the things he started, allied with wide social changes and the aspirations of working class Catholic parents, were major contributors to the shift from the traditional Catholic/ALP and Protestant/Conservative Australian divide. Now, if you are looking for the remnants of DLP thinking you don’t look to the sole member in Victoria’s Upper House but to the Liberal Party and Tony Abbott. Of course, if you are looking for Catholic conservative theology you can still look to clergy such as Pell whose views on most theological issues are very close to those of Mannix. We will never know if Mannix would have accepted climate change as a scientific reality, as Pell apparently does not, but alongside his obdurate theological conservatism was his reputation as a scholar and professor at Ireland’s Maynooth seminary.

Ormonde and Griffin also discuss how the Mannix legend was created – the daily walks from Raheen to the Cathedral, the friendliness and courtesy, the monetary gifts to some he passed – by an ascetic man who burned all his papers making it difficult for biographers.

Mannix will have been dead for half a century next year. Pell is still with us. Mannix mentored Bob Santamaria although disagreeing with him on some big issues (outlawing the Communist Party for instance). Pell seems to have mentored Tony Abbott and it looks from the outside at least that they agree on most of the big issues.

But Pell and Abbott are living in a different Australia – more liberal, more multicultural and more complex – even if attitudes to Muslims today are not unlike some of those to the Catholic Irish at the start of the 20th century.

We can’t know what Australia will look like in 50 years nor how Cardinal Pell will be regarded or whether even remembered by then. But it is difficult to see whatever memories or legacies of Pell by then being as complex and profound as those of Mannix today.