There is a moment, towards the end of this biography when the subject, Archbishop Daniel Mannix (1864-1963) is in his nineties, when any thoughtful reader will pause. Commenting on the Archbishop’s decision to buy his first electric razor at such an advanced age, his friend, Father Hackett said that Mannix didn’t like to be touched. I think that is terribly sad. No matter what you may think about the priesthood and its scandals, it seems to me to be a dreadful thing not to have the comfort of human touch in old age. This one small snippet from the book really brought home to me what a lonely life is imposed by the Catholic priesthood…
Daniel Mannix was a man associated in my mind with destructive authoritarian power wielded from the pulpit to interfere with Australian politics. He died when I was a child, but his protégé B.A. Santamaria (1915-1998) was active long after that, and the name of Mannix used pejoratively often made its way into the newspapers and books when I was old enough to take an interest in politics. But elsewhere in the book Niall comments on the man’s loneliness, and this, I think, is her achievement in this book – not only does she tell the story of his life to correct so many of my erroneous impressions, she also shows the human price he paid for the way he lived it.
Mannix was born in Catholic Ireland to a family of six at a time when it was customary for a son to be gifted to the priesthood. Daniel was the clever one and in time off he went to the seminary at Maynooth. He was ordained in 1890 but never had a parish: he became an academic at the seminary instead and remained there until – in his forties, and without consultation – he was despatched in 1912 by the Vatican to be Coadjutor (archbishop-in-waiting) to the Archbishop of Melbourne. Niall begins her book by noting that Mannix had his personal papers destroyed after his death, so there is no record of what must surely have been dismay. He was passionately interested in Irish nationalism, and to the consternation of some in the church had been to some extent intemperately involved. He was – publicly – a supporter of Sinn Fein, an admirer of the then radical Eamon de Valera and an opponent of making the Irish language compulsory for Matriculation. Mannix was an Irishman, with a keen interest in Irish politics. But off he went to Melbourne…
Catholics in Melbourne then, were almost exclusively Irish Catholics, disdained by the Protestant majority as a matter of course and automatically considered suspect in the matter of loyalty to Britain. Nobody was expecting a local man to replace Archbishop Carr because all the archbishops were Irish then, just as all the Governors-General were Brits. But the Irish Catholics were delighted with their new coadjutor who was tall, handsome, beautifully spoken and an impressive orator, and the rest of Melbourne looked on with apprehension.
As well they might. When Mannix entered the political fray over WW1 conscription, he brought (most of) the Irish Catholic vote with him and Prime Minister Billy Hughes‘ referendum was defeated. Twice. Notwithstanding the disastrous Easter Rising in 1916 in the middle of the war. Mannix was a man of power.
As anyone with more than a passing interest in Australian politics knows, Mannix went on to support B.A. Santamaria who led the crusade against communists in the ALP, which led to the Labor Split in 1955. Mannix was therefore influential in keeping Labor out of government for 27 long years. It might seem surprising if you know about the toxic enmities of the era to read in Niall’s biography that Mannix and Calwell (the Labor Leader of the Opposition) remained friends, but there was precedent. Niall tells us that Mannix kept his friends for life, but also that friendships could transcend politics: Mannix had reached out to Billy Hughes on the death of his only daughter and the two were reconciled.
Aside from these personal touches, what is so interesting about this portrait of Mannix is (for me) the discovery that the man was quite liberal in many ways. He was pro Santamaria and his anti-Communist activities, but he refused to quash the opposing Catholic Worker. He never deviated from his belief in the right to exercise one’s individual conscience. He is on record reassuring dissident priests who feared repercussions from Santamaria’s Movement that in his diocese
no priest should be afraid to say what he thinks… I do not agree with you but I respect your right to take that position. (p.314)
Paradoxically perhaps, this Cold War activist opposed Menzies when he tried to ban the Communist Party.
Mannix thought that the church was too fussed about sex; and although it was a rare example of failure to influence his flock, in 1942-45 he told his teachers to be frank and open because he ‘wanted people to be able to talk about sex without feeling ashamed or embarrassed’. (p. 212) It seems amusing now, but we can imagine the shock when he told principals of girls’ schools that ‘Sexual curiosity is good and natural… All of us are too puritanical in matters of sex.’ (p. 213). Niall says that ‘there is no reason to think that Mannix questioned priestly celibacy‘ (p.213) but he was apparently an approachable confessor. He was good at listening.
Most unusually for his time, Mannix argued for the abolition of corporal punishment in schools (but as many people I know can attest, this message passed by both nuns and brothers for long years after his death). He was alert to Nazi anti-Semitism long before most other people; he was open-minded about Asian immigration. It would be fascinating to know what influences had led him to these positions, but he left nothing behind that reveals the reasons.
There is also nothing to suggest that he knew anything about the sexual abuse scandals now revealed, but there were offenders who were ordained under his watch, including the notorious Father Kevin O’Donnell. Mannix was a laissez-faire administrator, but Niall says there has been insufficient work done to show whether such crimes were any more or less numerous than under the interventionist Archbishop Gilroy in Sydney. (p. 218). People will draw their own conclusions, perhaps, about the Mannix papers burned by his successor, but it was Santamaria, appointed Mannix’s official biographer, who went through those papers first and removed those of interest, keeping them to himself until his death in 1998 when his family passed them on to the diocesan archive. If there were dubious reasons for this insistent privacy, they are lost to history.
According to Online Opinion,
it has been observed by Cardinal George Pell that no other figure in Australian history has inspired as many biographies as Daniel Mannix, with the sole exception of another Irish-Australian, Ned Kelly.
However, I haven’t (and probably wouldn’t) read any of these other biographies – it is Brenda Niall’s brilliance as a biographer that made me want to read this one. So I can’t be sure that she is the first to reveal the astonishing Vatican campaign to cut Mannix down to size. I use the word astonishing advisedly: I read Susan Howatch’s Starbridge novels about the Church of England in the 20th century so I had some idea of the less-than-Christian shenanigans of church politics, but the Vatican’s strategy to destabilise Mannix’s leadership takes the prize for sheer bitchiness…
In 1933 the Vatican took exception to his criticism of General Eoin O’Duffy, a supporter of Mussolini and a threat to the first de Valera government. As was the case so often, Mannix was eventually shown to be right to be critical of this drunken buffoon, but Pius XI sent his man Archbishop Giovanni Panico to destroy Mannix’s Irish power base in Australia. Panico did this by appointing Australians to senior positions regardless of merit or their own personal preference, and by transferring Mannix’s staff elsewhere. In the case of his loyal deputy Monsignor John Lonergan, who was forced to replace the intellectually mediocre and stubborn Bishop Norman Gilroy who was made Archbishop of Sydney, the decision was cruel. Gilroy was a young man of forty who had thrived in the demanding desert parish of Port Augusta. Lonergan was in poor health.
No sooner had the appointment been made than Lonergan collapsed from a heart attack. He died some months later, without having been consecrated a bishop, and without leaving Melbourne. Mannix farewelled ‘the bishop that never was’ with a heartfelt tribute. The requiem mass, which was sung by Mannix himself, and the panegyric, showed the affection and respect in which Lonergan was held. (p.239)
Panico went on to elevate Archbishop Gilroy to Cardinal, giving him a vote in the election for a new pope. Well, Mannix wasn’t always tactful, and he did polarise opinion, but he was not only Gilroy’s intellectual superior, he also led his church through a period of enormous expansion, from 160 churches in the diocese in 1913 to 300 in 1963 when he died. And not just churches: during his leadership he set up the Corpus Christi seminary; expanded primary and secondary schools including the elite St Kevin’s College for bright boys from poor backgrounds; welcomed numerous orders of nuns and their convents; and the hospitals too. From the start he campaigned for state aid for the schools, as a matter of religious freedom and national identity and finally persuaded Menzies to agree to it (a policy never since abandoned, leading to the shocking taxpayer-funded disparity between government schools and private schools which exists today). By any measure, love him or hate him, Mannix was the spiritual leader of Australia’s Catholics, and the appointment of Gilroy was a calculated insult. The chapters about Panico, titled ‘The Vatican Chess Game’ and ‘The Cardinal’s Red Hat’ are the most interesting in the whole book.
I should say that I expected to take my time over this biography, as I usually do, reading a chapter every other day. But not so, I could not put it down, and read it in three days. No wonder Brenda Niall is Australia’s pre-eminent biographer!
Perhaps by coincidence, there is another book about Mannix, just released. Authored by James Franklin, Gerald O Nolan and Michael Gilchrist, it’s called The Real Archbishop Mannix, from the Sources and it’s published by Connor Court Publishing. According to Wikipedia, Connor Court Publishing publishes books on religion, global warming scepticism, culture and education. A member of the IPA (Institute of Public Affairs) sits on its editorial board and its authors include Cardinal George Pell, Peter Costello, Tony Abbott and Jeff Kennett. I haven’t read this other book and have no comment to make about it, but my advice is, be careful, if you’re buying, to remember the title and author that I’m recommending here … you might be disappointed if you accidentally bought the wrong one. (Sometimes when I’m in a bookshop, I go browsing for a book I’ve just read about but can’t remember its title or author).
Author: Brenda Niall
Publisher: Text Publishing, 2015
Source: Review copy courtesy of Text Publishing
or direct from Text Publishing (where you can also buy the eBook) and all good bookshops.
PS Be careful of delivery charges and/or loading up the purchase price to cover ‘free’ delivery; it’s a heavy book.