Realities and surprises: a (very) personal reaction to Brenda Niall’s Mannix.

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Len Puglisi. 

Len Puglisi is an urban environmental writer. During the Mannix era, Len was in regular contact with Catholic Worker men, most notably Gerard Heffey, and saw at first hand the dismay – hurt, even – they felt at being kept pretty much at a distance from their Archbishop’s support.

photo mannixBefore I sat down with this new book by Brenda Niall, what came to mind as lasting memories of Archbishop Daniel Mannix, Dr Mannix, or ‘the Arch’ as he was popularly called? In terms of decisive impacts on the Melbourne and Australian community, I could remember friend and foe alike speaking of three of his principal interventions.

The first was Mannix’s controversial and politically successful advocacy of the ‘no’ vote in the two referenda on conscription, against the attempt by PM Billy Hughes to dragoon young Australians to serve with the armed forces (for Empire and Country) in the First World War.

Second was Mannix’s determined dedication to furthering Catholic school education, including a strong commitment to poor children, leading in later years to the great political achievement of federal governments – contributing financially to support the schools.

Third was the ‘Arch’s’ intense and ongoing support for the position of Bob Santamaria in instigating action in the cause of fighting communism at large and especially the communist power in trade unions. This concerted action would eventually have the effect of splitting the Australian Labor Party. If ‘beating communism first’ is your number one political strategy, then this too would be counted an achievement.

photo brenda niallThere were also, of course, oft-repeated stories about the ‘Arch’s’ personal habits: I knew of Mannix’s daily walks from Raheen in Kew to St Patrick’s Cathedral, wearing his signature top hat and black frock coat, handing out coins to local children along the way, and of lengthy sermons delivered at confirmation ceremonies at churches around the diocese.

Enter Brenda Niall’s book. It confirms that these are the most public realities of the Mannix era. But in a diligent and fine-grained analysis of this era, she is able to tell us much, much more.

It’s not my intention here to explain how Niall’s book refined my understanding of these three public ‘interventions’ during the last half of Mannix’s life (1913-1963), lived in Australia. She has subtly detailed, refined, and described the many nuances of all three. With this book, interested readers will be able to do that for themselves – and may see whether my initial thoughts were a ‘fair enough’ remembering!

But are there surprises in what the book unearths about Mannix, the personality of the man, nnix, both the man and ch story that emerges from Niall’his interests and causes? Certainly there are! At least surprises for this reviewer who hardly ever followed the ‘Arch’s’ activities as reported in Melbourne’s diocesan newspaper, the Advocate.

Mind you, Niall’s account doesn’t leave the impression that he’s a man, a fatherly-type, whom, in one of today’s highest accolades, one might like to hug. But my words ‘fatherly-type’ are chosen to explain an absence in Mannix’s personality, to emphasise something Mannix himself saw in Pope John XXIII. There’s this surprise in Niall’s text:

Mannix spoke freely and often about his admiration for Pope John. He felt that he himself had failed in the qualities the new Pope had in abundance. Several of the young priests who came to Raheen in 1962 and 1963 heard Mannix regret that, unlike Pope John, he hadn’t been a father to his people. Perhaps for the first time in his stormy relationship with the Vatican, Mannix felt an emotional closeness to the head of the Church. (p359)

Further, regarding Mannix’s personality traits, there are the many surprises in Chapter Nine, The Permissive Aristocrat. This is a fulsome presentation of his many human sides, his style of ‘reigning’, and the spiritual and social formation of his contacts and his flock to whom he directed his attention. Clearly, too, Mannix waswatchful and took great care of the corporate life of the Melbourne Catholic Church as an institution. And this Chapter presents a highly informative cross-section of his social preferences and points of emphasis – attacking non-conformists for their ‘blank and gloomy’ Sunday observance his refusal of invitations to dine at presbyteries and homes, ‘a good listener ready to learn and be amused, “but there was a line you never crossed with him”’. And so on, in rich personality-construction detail.

Then there was another surprise for me, the son of Sicilian parents who had something of a take-it-or-leave-it attitude to clerics: how far he was prepared to go to encompass not just the Melbourne diocese but also the Australia-wide church within a culture of ‘Irishness’ as God’s gift to the Australian people, and how he kept his distance from Rome. Says Niall: ‘It took two years for Vatican strategists to work out a way to diminish Mannix’s power and to make the Australian church less Irish.’ In Chapters Ten and Eleven, ‘The Vatican Chess Game’, and ‘The Cardinal’s Red Hat’, she sets out how that ‘game’ was played, both in the period before and after the arrival of Archbishop Giovanni Panico, the Vatican’s man in Australia from 1938. The chapters describe in labyrinthine and conspiratorial detail a story that the ‘unknowing flock’ of the Church might well have found, in the word of the time, ‘scandalous’.

It may of course be no surprise to many that what emerges very clearly from the book is Mannix’s special talent to spot people who had positions that he could nurture, encourage or perhaps manipulate in their advancement of political agendas that he himself supported most earnestly: Eamon De Valera in the cause of Irish independence; and Bob Santamaria for his opposition to communism. Says Niall: ‘Politicians watched him closely as the presumed deliverer of the Catholic vote’(p. 4), and so it’s no surprise then that he won over both Doc. Evatt and Robert Menzies to the cause of government funding for Catholic schools.

But beyond all this, what emerges for me as the greatest surprises from the book are two-fold: firstly, Mannix’s very early interest in the 1930s in (lay) Catholic Action, though quite what he understood by ‘Catholic Action’ by the laity is something that I feel was confounded by the style of his later support for Australian political interventions.

And secondly, there was his determined response to the Secretariat of the Second Vatican Council on its original Schema De Ecclesia paper (and through contacts with particular cardinals) in the deliberations of that Council. In a most informative Chapter Fifteen, ‘The Final Act’, one that I suspect Niall clearly enjoyed writing, Mannix’s interest in theological development – an interest of his unknown to me – shows up in the year before his death in 1963.

It’s a radical and progressive stance that places him with the Church’s most innovative reformers – the details of which Niall briefly outlines in pages 349-351, such as being against the Schema’s excessive legalism, its use of particular images of the church, its unsatisfactory view of the role for the laity, its ‘inopportunely proposed’ notion of the union of Church and state, and containing nothing about the obligation of the Church to provide religious liberty to all people of good will.

It seems that in the last few years of his life, Mannix summoned all his strength to confront some of the Church’s deepest spiritual blind-spots.

These two positions of Mannix have ramifications for the church in our times. Of Mannix’s attitude to Catholic Action Niall writes (p. 224-25):

All through the 1930s Mannix was stirring his fellow bishops to do something about Catholic Action. This initiative of Pius XI was designed to bring the laity into greater participation in the life of the church. [Sydney’s] Archbishop Kelly saw it as a way to piety through prayer. Mannix had a much more vigorous idea of its possibilities. Leo XIII’s encyclical Rerum Novarum (1891) called on Catholics to work for social justice. Mannix wanted to strengthen the laity, to make leaders in the secular world. That had been his leitmotif in 1917 when he (Mannix) wrote a foreword for the short-lived nationalist magazine, Australia [the paragraph is quoted in full in text]…

More than a decade later, Mannix was still waiting for an active, intellectually informed laity to assert itself. He wanted leaders to emerge, not under clerical direction but with their own sense of mission. He hoped that Catholic Action would show the way for a new, independently minded laity to change the world. The sufferings of the poor in the Depression of the 1930s were to be seen each day as Mannix walked to work. He gave coins to the needy; he helped fund St. Vincent’s Hospital; he encouraged religious orders to undertake social rescue work. But until the laity asserted itself, he believed, nothing would really change.

Overall, Mannix’s input to the development of Catholic Action and social justice strikes me as while permissive, it was not without its limitations. Here I’ll simply present a few comments, assertions and questions:

  • Young Christian Worker activists of the era from the 1930s to the 1960s: what comments will they make about his support or otherwise during this time?
  • The Catholic Worker group with their strong support for social justice, co-operatives, etc. was allowed to go its way, tolerated but not promoted, in fact, finally so severely frowned upon as to be interpreted as a ban on sales outside most churches.
  • Would Mannix, for example, have been prepared to present the opening talk to the seminal 1955 Newman Lay Apostolate seminar, ‘The Incarnation in the University’? Archbishop Simonds did the job and laid out in scholarly fashion the traditional teaching of the Catholic Church on Christ’s Incarnation. This Apostolate developed as a leading lay movement, taking seriously the student/intellectual milieu of study and its Christian humanist mission ‘to search for the truth’ (See Golden Years Grounds for Hope: Father Golden and the Newman Society 1950-1966, edited by Val Noone with Terry Blake, Mary Doyle, Helen Praetz, 2008.) Again, Mannix was permissive, and defended its separate existence from opposing groups in the universities, but was not a proponent of its activities.
  • For fuller details and analyses of the background to much else in church activity during the very perplexing times for the church in Australia during the Mannix years, two pivotal texts are those of Bruce Duncan, Crusade or Conspiracy? Catholics and the Anti-Communist Struggle in Australia (2001), and Kevin Peoples, Santamaria’s Salesman – Working for the National Catholic Rural Movement 1959-1961 (2012). They are important supplements to Niall’s analyses of these issues of Mannix’s (and others’) involvement in Catholic social action during relevant years.

Was there, then, a culmination, with relevance for our 21st century times, of Mannix’s interest in advancing Catholic Action and lay development of social justice? It would have to be in his major response to the Vatican Council – and to leading Cardinals: Suenens of Malines, Lienart of Lille, Dopfner of Munich, Bea (German Jesuit), Gracias of Bombay and Doi of Tokyo. This is a submission that on Niall’s extracts could stand the test of time for their perspicacity and wisdom; and especially for today, in view of the continuing discomfort of many Church leaders with the outcomes of the Council, might still deserve wide circulation.

The disclosure, too, that he saw Cardinal Suenens as a ‘kindred spirit’ would come as a surprise, especially to Newman Society lay apostolate people. For them, Suenens’s monograph on The Growth or Decline of the Church was a key resource in the face of the prevailing triumphal state of mind at the time that really all that was required was ‘by example and by prayer, to bring all souls into the arms of mother church’.

In the end, was Mannix someone who saw the Church as a spiritual guide for the times – not just an impregnable force that all should bow to eventually? He certainly tried to be such a guide, and Brenda Niall’s fine piece of scholarship will help you make up your mind about that question, about whether he stumbled along the way in his ‘50 year reign’, and about what we can find relevant for the future.

A reading of Mannix’s submission to Vatican II might prove a most useful starting point as the Catholic Church goes through another tumultuous period of soul-searching, and as it labours to throw up new vistas of social justice against a rampant global neoliberalism and new vistas of interfaith ‘Care for Earth’ agendas in groups such as Social Policy Connections, EarthSong, and other locations of action and hope.

 

 

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