The Catholic community in Australia has had its share of sinners and shameful moments but these don’t detract from its heroes and heroines, who helped to shape the country as we know it today, says Sydney’s Professor James Franklin.
The author of his new book Catholic Thought and Catholic Action: Scenes from Australian Catholic Life has compiled stories of greater and lesser-known Australians whose unique vision informed their individual and collective action to promote human dignity.
It also tells of darker moments of the church’s life in this country, through testimony of abuser priest Gerald Risdale at the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse.
Mr Franklin also tries to assess the little-known Magdalene laundries run mostly by the Sisters of the Good Shepherd which were intended as refuges for orphan and “wayward” girls and young women, but have been accused of harsh and oppressive conditions.
“History is about what really happened and trying to understand what happened, not what we would like to have happened,” Professor Franklin told The Catholic Weekly.
“What people did wrong doesn’t detract from what the heroes and heroines did, but we need to try to understand the whole picture.”
The editor of the Journal of the Australian Catholic Historical Society is also the author of The Worth of Persons: The Foundation of Ethics, Catholic Values and Australian Realities, The Real Archbishop Mannix, and books on Australian philosophy and the foundations of ethics.
His latest book is a collection of articles written over several years, that together present a perspective on Australian Catholic history.
It centres on the idea that a particular theological and philosophical mindset prompted some of our most inspiring Catholics to do the things they did.
They include the country’s first official saint, the Josephite St Mary of the Cross MacKillop.
“What motivated her was her thinking that these rural children out there were not being educated, and something must be done about it,” Professor Franklin said.
“Her Catholic perspective was that they need to know their religion but also they need to be properly educated in reading, writing and arithmetic.
“So she gets on to it and organises with other Catholic women and Fr Tenison-Woods to get it done.
“That seemed to me a perspective and way of thinking that was typical of the most impressive people in Australian Catholic history that I write about.
“They were people who were smart and informed by faith which was not a simple, but a very theoretical faith.
“They understood their scripture and then were energised with an energy that was extraordinary and directed not only internally within the church but opened out to wider society as well.
“Their perspective was based on what Jesus says in the Gospels about loving your neighbour and it seems to be different from both Protestant and secular perspectives on ethics.
“Jesus rather unusually compared to other ancient thinkers promotes a concern for God’s value of individuals, that individuals have value.
“People like Bishop Francis Xavier Gsell and Arthur Calwell were extremely active and effective in their different areas; in remote area missions to aboriginals in the far end of the Northern Territory, and as our first immigration minister respectively.
“Archival documents from the 1940s show the effort Calwell put in to try and force things through to get a shipload of people from the post-war camps in Germany out here.
“The difficulties in getting that done were unbelievable, but he hassled everybody and rushed over to Europe and signed agreements and he got it done whereas, other people couldn’t have.”
Catholic Thought and Catholic Action by Professor James Franklin. Connor Court (2023). 310 pages.