ANDREW HAMILTON. Labor Party reform through Catholic Social Teaching

Apr 14, 2017

It can be disconcerting to hear our family history told by a sympathetic but unaligned outsider. We may recognise the partisanship that coloured some of our past judgments and be led to reconsider them.  

I found Race Matthews’ new book that treats Catholic engagement in public social issues over the last 150 years fascinating in that respect. I grew up with the perspective of the Catholic tribe, proud of its warriors but critical of the overreach of its authorities.

Matthews’ perspective is that of a member of the Labor Party who admires Catholic Social Teaching, especially its commendation of the communal ownership of business enterprises. He sees the possibilities this tradition presents for the reform of Australian society, particularly if adopted by the Labor Party. That leads him to reflect on the crucial international and Australian relationships between the Catholic Church and labour and capital.

His story begins with Cardinal Manning, the 19th century Catholic Archbishop of Westminster, whom I had considered an authoritarian Ultramontane figure, hostile to the more exploratory Cardinal Newman. Matthews dwells on his fearless defence of workers and their right to strike to secure just wages, and sketches his strong influence on the development of Catholic Social Teaching.

This radical vision was carried into Australia by Sydney Cardinal Moran and by the young Bishop Daniel Mannix. They sought to defend the human dignity of workers in the face of the brutal power of capital.

For me Mannix was the Catholic tribal hero who had discomforted the Protestant British in his defence of Irish freedom and had routed tricky Billy Hughes in the Conscription referenda. For Matthews these triumphs are the work of a divisive and prejudiced man whose actions created sectarian bitterness. They also fatally divided the Labor Party, rendering it ineffectual in its development of a social justice policy.

Matthews regards the 1930s as the time of opportunity for Catholic thinking to influence policy. The writing of Belloc and Chesterton in England and the rise of cooperatives in Europe and Canada had inspired many young Australian Catholics to study the Catholic Social patrimony and to form Catholic study groups. This led to the formation of Catholic Action which grew rapidly, due in part to the intellectual leadership and organisational skills of Kevin Kelly and Frank Maher.

The rise of Communism, the Spanish Civil War in which Catholics and Communists were ranged on opposing sides and the world war made for more simplistic forms of engagement. Bob Santamaria saw Catholic Action as a resource for organising resistance to Communist union dominance, and consequently as a means of shaping Labor Party policy. He had the support of Mannix. This direct Catholic involvement in politics finally led to the split in the Labor party.

“I value the strength of the cohesive Catholic community in which I grew up. But Matthews demonstrates its weaknesses, particularly the ways in which sectional interests threaten the common good.”

As a boy I saw the Split as a sectarian putsch by Evatt and his supporters. From Matthews’ perspective, however, the identification of Catholic Action with the Movement destroyed the possibility that the Labor Party would see Catholic Social thinking and the energy of young Catholic reformers as allies in shaping a just society. It left a vacuum that eventually led to the Party passively accepting liberal economic theory.

In this splendid book I was most taken by the practical alternatives to Capitalism: cooperatives and the Distributist movement. I had regarded these as romantic ventures with no future. Matthews acknowledges the historical weaknesses of cooperatives: they begin well by engaging members to meet common needs, grow to a stage where they bring in administrators and marginalise their members, and conclude with demutualisation in which they are stripped by investors. But as a successful cooperative that had continued to involve employees in its management and growth he describes the Basque Mondragon cooperative. It is financially stable and has continued to engage and support its workers.

Matthews’ book invited me to reflect on my own journey. I continue to value the strength of the cohesive Catholic community in which I grew up, with its clearly identified heroes, friends and enemies. It provides a dramatic context for living. But Matthews rightly demonstrates its weaknesses, and particularly the ways in which sectional interests can threaten the common good.

Although I would put a higher importance than Matthews does on the defeat of communist influence in the unions at the end of the war, the paralysis of a broader Catholic concern for social justice was a heavy price to pay for it. The de facto identification of the Catholic Church with the Movement had heavy consequences for the Catholic Church, the Labor Party and Australia.

Matthews laments the decline of the YCW and other reflective and active movements in the 1960s, attributing it largely to the effects of the Split. I believe that even without Mannix and Santamaria they would have declined. Their fate reflected growing Catholic affluence and the rise of individualism in culture. This sharpens Matthews’ question of how in a society deformed by neoliberal economic settings support for a cooperative economy can be gathered.

The collapse of neo-liberal economic ideology provides the opportunity. Its bitter fruits of gross inequality, the failure of privatisation to provide basic services and the power of vested interests to entrench the effects of global warming are now recognised. But for alternatives to be introduced they must be embraced enthusiastically and advocated for by strong individuals and communities. Where will these now be found?

Andrew Hamilton is consulting editor of Eureka Street. This article first appeared in Eureka Street on 4 April 2017. 

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