In August 1987 The Bulletin published an account by Tony Abbott of why he left the seminary. A link to Tony Abbott’s account is below. Following Tony Abbott’s account, Fr Bill Wright on August 25, 1987, replied. He was a priest at that time in the Archdiocese of Sydney and Vice Rector of St Patrick’s College, Manly. He is currently Bishop of the Diocese of Maitland/Newcastle. He is mentioned as a possible successor to Cardinal George Pell in Sydney.
Bill Wright’s Bulletin article ‘Abbott’s decision: the other side’ is published below. John Menadue
“Abbott’s Decision: the other side
Bill Wright responds to Tony Abbott’s account last week of why he left the seminary.
Tony Abbott came to St Patrick’s College, Manly, in 1984 after taking degrees in Economics and Law at Sydney University, tumultuous involvement in student politics – he was Students Representative Council president in 1979 – a Rhodes scholarship to study politics and philosophy at Oxford, a distinguished sporting career and a stint of journalism.
Physically large, loud in argument or jest, with the exterior self-confidence or brashness of those who have survived some tough schools, his was a commanding presence in the college community. Some were captured by his spaciousness; his warm, hearty and loyal friendship; his candor; and the moving sense that he was a man who had given up much in life to serve his Church. Others, however, found him just too formidable to talk to, unless to agree; overbearing and opinionated; and with his heart really still set on other things, in other places.
His first year here was not happy. Manly is not Oxford, nor even the law school. Not only is there less brilliance, with and sparkle to the acre – we draw on a broader constituency – but here also one has not only to enjoy or admire one’s companions for some aspects of their character, one has also to strike some more fundamental chord of fellowship with them, to find that they satisfy some vision of what a man, a Christian and a priest should be. Only on the extreme Left of politics is there as much need to believe in each other’s selfless devotion to the cause: only there is there as much faction and disillusionment. Tony was not, on the whole, impressed by his companions. He was certainly not fired by the stimulation of life at Manly.
Manly did its best for him according to its lights. He was accelerated through the first two years of study in 12 months. Law, politics and economics, however, count as well for studies in theology as they might for studies in medicine. Tony required three years’ further study in theology which meant for all practical purposes three years at Manly or at some other seminary.
Dr Grove Johnson, the rector at Manly, liked and believed in Tony. He saw the difficulty Tony had settling down to the constraints of life in the college and he believed that Tony should be sent overseas to study, as he had been. No student had been sent away for undergraduate studies for the priesthood since 1968. It was unlikely to happen. Johnson, however, hoped to encourage Tony and mentioned the possibility to him. This was a chimera which Tony would pursue almost until the day he left.
In 1985 Tony faced a new seminary rector and a new discipline, theology. One of the tragedies of this story is that the study of theology did not capture Tony’s imagination. He did passably: not as well as his academic background might have indicated. I do not recall that he ever talked about theology while at Manly. His concern – and it was a genuine one – was with practical churchmanship: how the Catholic Church could better commend itself to the hearts of Australians; how the individual priest could enliven and uplift those who were turning away from uninspired ministers.
As well as finding little real engagement with theology, Tony in 1985 fell out with seminary authority. The present rector, Fr Gerry Iverson, is not a debater. What he says is what he means and, even more importantly, what he feels. Tony, on the other hand is inclined to come on strong, to score points, to skate over or hold back any reservations he might have about his case. There was ample scope for misunderstanding between these two, and misunderstanding there was.
Iverson did his best for Tony. He tried to share his concerns with him; but Tony wanted tangible support, not an analysis of his difficulties and especially not an analysis couched in the terms of psychology. Iverson gave him a lot of time and a good measure of real support. He put to higher authority Tony’s case for some other arrangement of his studies, he urged patience on the bishops when they were irritated by Tony’s public pronouncements on the ills of the church or the seminary – an irritation which Iverson privately felt as least as much as they did. He risked the ire of the archbishop by granting Tony approval to speak on radio and finally he supported Tony, within the limits of honesty, as a candidate for priesthood before both Bishop Murphy and Bishop Heather as well as lending his support to my appeal to Heather that he consider making some rather special arrangements for Tony.
In any case, 1985 passed and in 1986 Tony was placed in the parish of Emu Plains for 12 months. He was not happy to be in this position initially but it turned out to be, I think, the best of his three years as a seminarian. Emu Plains and places like Emu Plains are what diocesan priesthood is all about. Maybe it could or should be about many other things as well but the ministry of a priest to the people of a parish is the raison d’etre of the diocesan priesthood. It is significant that Tony comments that he could not imagine this to be his life.
Finally we come to 1987. Heather agreed that Tony could live on in a parish and attend a theological college by day. I do not know of any similar arrangement ever having been made in Australia. I thought Tony had won as much as was winnable. There was still the soul-ache for the life of the university, still the chimera, perhaps, of studies overseas. Well, it was not to be. Tony quit, as he says, on March 27.
Quit? The word suggests giving up a struggle. The struggle for what exactly? I no longer feel that I know. For a time I thought that it was the struggle to be accepted, the struggle to get authority to say, ‘Yes, we’re behind you’. But that struggle Tony surely won. Two years of study stood between him and diaconate without the inconvenience of seminary life, without the continual appraisal of his performance. He had only to do his own thing to be home and oiled.
Another man, attempting to put his finger on the heart of Tony’s difficulties said that he had a developed inability to be really intimate and that ‘without the warmth and trust of real intimacy’ he would find ‘life in the celibate priesthood too frustrating and lacking in peace’. Tony himself, reflecting on that, feels that the issue of intimacy was in fact, ‘a symptom of a deeper difficulty, namely a growing fear that I was not, after all, suited for a priest’s work …’ Either way, it is tempting to consider the possibility that, once Tony had beaten the system and was no longer able to locate the ‘struggle’ as being between himself and authority, he had no one much else blocking his path but himself. For another to say this is, of course, too glib: especially if the other has a vested interest in absolving his church and his seminary from as much blame as possible. No decent historian, either, would reach such a conclusion without access to the letters and diaries. But it is the sort of working hypothesis that a reasonable historian might come to and seek to explore further.
There are many faults in seminary training. There are faults in those who administer seminaries, too. And there are special difficulties connected with the remoteness of the final authorities from the scene. In every student’s story, the problems that should not have occurred loom large.
How odd of Jesus to make Judas an Apostle! And to turn away the rich young man? How odd that Peter, and not someone more stable (James?), was chosen leader? How odd that Paul was first a persecuter? That Ignatius had to be struck by a cannon ball: that Aloysius died a scholastic; that Pius X is a saint? Why should a man such as Francis have lived to see the corruption of his work?
I do not presume to think, Tony, that I understand the interplay of freedom and providence. Neither, I am sure, do you. I only know that we must try to make things come out right, in the full knowledge that it may serve some higher purpose for them to come out wrong. Or it may not.”