JOHN MOLONY. A review of Race Mathews, Of Labour and Liberty: Distributism in Victoria 1891–1966

Many years ago, I tried to review Ronald Knox’s lifelong study of the numerous minor sects or branches of post-Reformation Christianity. He named it Enthusiasm. Despite my own enthusiasm for the treasures amassed in the book, I was unable to write a review. The riches were so abundant and differed so much that ten reviews would not have done justice to its totality.

Race Mathews’ book confronts the reader with a measure of the same problem. In it we have a galaxy of character studies, including Jacques Maritain, Cardinals Manning and Moran, Bob Santamaria, Leo XIII, Daniel Mannix, H. V. Evatt, Henry George, Hilaire Belloc, G. K. Chesterton, Kevin Kelly, Frank Maher, Ted Long and many other greats, including Francis, now bishop of Rome. Through no fault of the author, it is glaringly obvious that women played, if anything, a minor role in his cast. They are not there in the narrative. But a vital missing name is that of S. J. Charlie Mayne (1906–90). In the entry on him in the Australian Dictionary of Biography, volume 18, I claimed that “No priest exercised a greater influence on the Catholic Church of his time in Australia.” He did so by unwearying support for genuine, apolitical Catholic Action, unflinching opposition to Santamaria’s Movement and encouragement of the laity, both male and female, to play their unique role in both Church and State – in other words in society at large. He would have stood worthily in this book but Charlie lived on the edge and worked only on the mind and heart. On Labour and Liberty essentially proclaims the truth that, without freedom, work becomes another face of slavery and this was made clear in the early years of industrialisation. On that stage the workers – men, women and even children – despite their numerical superiority, were the losers given their political, social and often legal inferiority. The rise and partial success of socialism meant that eventually, in places where trade unions could operate with some degree of freedom, their voices were gradually heard. But in the Vatican, wedded still to the prevailing system in which capitalism had swiftly replaced feudalism (although the barons still held control), there was silence.

In 1870 the papacy was greatly blessed, but not by the proclamation of its infallibility. It lost its temporal power with the occupation of the Papal States and Rome itself by the newly born Italian state. This meant at last that the bishop of Rome could become a true pastor to his world-wide flock. The aged, but wise Leo XIII had long realised that, in Europe especially, the Church had been deserted by vast segments of the workers. They had abandoned the Church because too often their bishops and priests, as well as their Catholic rulers, had preached a gospel of meek acceptance of their miserable fate with the assurance that they would be rewarded in heaven.

Leo acted swiftly when prompted to do so by necessity and the urging of others. His response was the first social encyclical to take the workers’ question seriously. It upheld their right to combine in their own organisations free from the interference of their employers, on the need for the State to intervene on such matters as hours and conditions of work and to insist that a just wage must be paid for their labour. Above all Leo dwelt on the maintenance of the human dignity of every worker and of the intrinsic value of work itself as a human act. The papal letter, named Rerum Novarum, was a pointer to the future in Church history as well as that of relations between the State and the Church. One major obstacle to any serious consideration by zealots of varying hue of the encyclical stemmed partially from its unfortunate title, which seemed to imply that the world was threatened by new things, Rerum Novarum, principally communism and socialism. To these matters Leo gave some justifiable thought, if only because of their consistent rejection of God and religion, often accompanied by outright suppression. Manning and Moran were both rightly regarded as stalwart supporters of the workers in London and Sydney respectively and equally so of Rerum Novarum. In fact, in his 1907 judgement on the Harvester case, Henry Bourne Higgins directly used the words of the encyclical regarding the wage needed to support a family “in reasonable and frugal comfort” (106).

Mathews then embarks on an analysis of the turbulent waters of the episcopate in Melbourne of Daniel Mannix. This has been so widely canvassed that little more needs to be said. Evatt did his utmost to cause havoc in the Australian Labor Party, but Mannix, as bishop and therefore primarily responsible for the actions of the Church in his care, has to be held in some considerable measure as permissive of the destructive intervention by the Movement into the secular, political field of party politics that resulted in the Split. Nonetheless, in a more lasting manner, the true legacy of Mannix is his total confidence in the role of the laity as full and irreplaceable members of the Church with their own unique responsibilities. Mathews fully acknowledges this but avoids remarking on the wide gulf between Melbourne and Sydney where, in the latter, Cardinal Gilroy led a church in which the laity were mute but paying passengers.

With the background spelt out in such clarity, Mathews gives a thorough account of three Catholic organisations, and he succeeds in this with keen understanding, despite the complexities involved. As defined in the text, Distributism means “the restitution of property to the average citizen” achieved by wage earners becoming “sharers in ownership, management and profits” (6). It is precisely this objective that the organisations in question accepted as vital and, in that sense, they became the foundation stones of the Distributist movement in Victoria. They were the Campion Society, the Australian National Secretariat for Catholic Action (ANSCA) and the Young Christian Workers (YCW). The young Catholic lawyer Frank Maher founded the Campion Society in 1931 and it lasted about 15 years, having, to its credit, turned its back on Santamaria’s Movement in its earliest manifestation. ANSCA lasted longer, but it too lost its purpose once manipulated by Santamaria into becoming a mere tool to foster his futile aim of the creation of a theocratic state.

Santamaria hoped to use the YCW as a recruiting ground for his troops, a step that Mannix, to his lasting credit would not permit. Two valiant priests, Frank Lombard, and the Jesuit, Jerry Golden at Newman College, helped the YCW maintain its integrity as a genuine movement of Catholic Action, but it was sorely weakened. Nonetheless, the YCW was able to act on and pass to the future a means of formation of its members based on the “See Judge Act” formula initiated in Belgium by Joseph Cardijn and developed largely in Australia by the YCW. Thus the necessity for  the formation of the young workers through the enactment in daily life of their convictions became the lodestar. But inevitably, given the uncertainty of its purpose and the difficulty encountered of persuading many bishops and priests of its value, within a few short years the YCW had to any genuine extent ceased to exist; the lay apostle became a robed servant of the sacristy and clericalism flourished, not merely in Australia, but around the Catholic world.

Insofar as the Distributist organisations are concerned, they were bound to fail when the formation of those in whose hands they were entrusted was neglected, if ever even understood, and the direct, but imperative, necessity of maintaining a close relationship with the members ceased to function. Whether as cooperatives, building societies or trading associations, they inexorably fell into the hands of profit-making bodies or they simply wound up. There was another element at work that impinged on the success of Distributism. Given the Spilt and its dreadful consequences with the destruction of the trust of vast numbers of decent men and women in the ALP, there was a fear that to move into the Distributist world might lead onto pathways fraught with the danger of politicisation or, worse perhaps, into its capitalisation. The latter is a fait accompli.

Today only one striking Distributist body seems to exist. At Mondragón in the Basque region of Spain, it grew out of the YCW and was founded by a priest, José María Arizmendiarrieta (1915–76), who had fought for the cause of the Republic against Franco whose forces had him waiting on their list for execution from which he narrowly escaped. It has a membership of over 80,000 workers and annual sales of US $20 billion. Mathews dedicates his book to José María and sums up his own motive for writing it with the words “Light in darkness. Hope in the face of despair.” It is something but not enough to say that this is a good book. What other word can describe it except, perhaps, to say that it is complete? It is complete in its basis in thorough and exhaustive research, in its clarity of expression and argument and in its dignity as a material object without flaws, for which Monash University Publishing deserves credit. Above all it is complete in the fulfilment of its promise to tell the story of a noble enterprise that deserves to live again. Of Labour and Liberty is truly a good book.

Race  Mathews,  Of  Labour  and  Liberty:  Distributism  in  Victoria 1891–1966 (Melbourne: Monash University Publishing, 2017). pp. xi + 397. AU $34.95 paper).

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One Response to JOHN MOLONY. A review of Race Mathews, Of Labour and Liberty: Distributism in Victoria 1891–1966

  1. David Moloney says:

    Yes, a noble enterprise, and a noble book that might encourage reflection within local Church of its social mission, and within society of the Distributist vision. So much insider and scholarly knowledge in this article – would be valuable to learn more. The description of “neglected, if ever understood” formation particularly interesting. I wonder how much the limited support of “bishops and priests” was due to poorly understood purposes and methods of Cardijn’s YCW. And how much was due to suspicion of them, or at least the privileging by many bishops, not least Mannix, of the very different priorities and methods of the Movement and the NCC. Lots of reasons for YCW decline no doubt, including cultural revolution and economic and technological changes, but divided episcopacy and limited moral and financial support didn’t help. While their original Distributist values, and significant Catholic origins, have been largely lost, perhaps some legacy of this truncated history survives in Australian institutions such as Victorian police, teachers, firefighters, nurses credit unions, and probably some of the large Australian credit unions. And – still – in thousands of formed and active citizens and Christians.

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