Abbott and Santamaria’s undemocratic Catholicism
by Paul Collins
I grew up surrounded by the Democratic Labor Party, the ‘Movement’, Jesuit Father Harold Lalor and the Labor split. My parents distributed how-to-vote cards for the DLP. My uncle edited the Richmond News for the federal member for Yarra, Stan Keon, one of the Labor MPs who defected to the Anti-Communist Labor Party. That same uncle worked full-time for the Movement and was later Victorian country organiser for the right wing Clerks Union.
My parents eventually abandoned the DLP because of its extremism, and when Bob Santamaria attacked me in 1986 over my book Mixed Blessings my uncle severed all contact with him. So I don’t look back with nostalgia to either Santamaria or the Movement. I experienced the toxic divisiveness.
Apparently unlike Tony Abbott who, at the January 2007 launch of Santamaria’s Selected Letters said, ‘I was lucky to know B. A. Santamaria for the last 22 years of his life, to have attended diligently to his writing and speaking.’ Santamaria, he says ‘left Australian Catholicism more intellectual and less politically tribal’, by which he presumably means there are now Catholics in Coalition as well as Labor ranks.
Santamaria’s influence on Abbott’s policies has been much discussed lately by The Australian‘s Paul Kelly, Labor’s Maxine McKew, John Warhurst in Eureka Street, Gerard Henderson in the Sydney Morning Herald and Robert Manne in The Monthly. Reference has been made to Abbott’s close relationship to Cardinal George Pell, another self-proclaimed disciple of Santamaria.
But more important than the influence of particular policies is the ‘type’ of Catholicism Santamaria represented and the subtle, even unconscious influence this might have on Abbott.
Essentially Santamaria embraced a form of theological integralism which sees everything in the world as tainted unless it is ‘integrated’ or brought into the orbit of Catholicism. Integralism assumes that the Church has an unchallengeable, complete and accessible body of doctrine that gives guidance in every possible eventuality — social, political, strategic, economic, familial and personal.
As Santamaria said in 1948: ‘the most important objective of Christians … [is that they] should be capable of formulating or willing to follow a distinctively Christian policy on every social and public issue.’
But what is a ‘distinctively Christian’ (for ‘Christian’ read ‘Catholic’) policy? For Santamaria this was not a problem. He identified Catholicism with his own vision of faith. He refused to recognise that there were other equally sincere Catholics who had other theological ideas about the relationship of the church to the world and the state, people like Archbishop Justin Simonds, Dr Max Charlesworth, the YCW and the Catholic Worker group, who were influenced by the French philosopher Jacques Maritain and the Belgian Cardinal Joseph Cardijn.
Integralism has much in common with Italian Fascism, Franco’s Spain or Salazar’s Portugal. It is also at odds with the Vatican II Declaration on Religious Freedom: ‘Freedom means that all are to be immune from coercion … in such wise that no one is to be forced to act in a manner contrary to his own beliefs.’
It is a real threat to democracy and to the freedom that Catholics have to make their own decisions on a whole range of issues, particularly political.
Nowadays Santamaria is praised for being an agrarian socialist and anti-capitalist. While this has made him popular with some aging secular leftists, they forget that these movements are romantic, backward-looking, authoritarian and linked with high immigration rates and the mantra ‘populate or perish’ with its racist overtones.
So what does this have to do with Abbott? I think it would be worrying if this kind of integralist Catholicism infected contemporary public life. It has no place in a pluralist, democratic state. It is also the manifestation of the kind of Catholicism that was abandoned by serious, mainstream Catholics five decades ago.
Abbott is wrong to suggest that it has made Australian Catholicism ‘more intellectual’. It is, in fact, a form of doctrinaire conformism that is the death of thoughtful commitment and is the antithesis of a faith seeking to base itself in reason and understanding.
I am not claiming that Abbott consciously follows Santamaria’s integralism. But there is always the danger of osmosis, of absorbing attitudes without realising it. If I were a politician — or an archbishop — I’d want to put considerable distance between myself and the most divisive man in the history of Australian Catholicism.
Author and historian Paul Collins is a former specialist editor — religion for the ABC.
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