THE CAMPION SOCIETY
and Catholic Social Militancy in Australia 1929-1939
by Colin H. Jory
(Sydney: Harpham, 1986)
Hardcover: 161 pages
Reviewed by Joseph Poprzeczny
Twentieth-century Australian political life was largely dominated by William Morris “Billy” Hughes, Robert Gordon Menzies, and B.A. “Bob” Santamaria. Colin Jory’s The Campion Society and Catholic Social Militancy in Australia 1929-39 is an excellent starting point in helping to understand the emergence, as distinct from the later nationwide impact, of Bob Santamaria.
As Jory published this book privately 20 years ago, it remains a little-known study of a crucially important organisation whose full impact was to be felt after World War II, well after it had vacated the public arena.
This reviewer accidentally learned of this book in early 2004 while speaking to Neil McDonald, biographer of Australia’s greatest wartime photographer Damien Parer who, like Santamaria, was a Campion, and had attended St Kevin’s Christian Brothers College in Toorak, Victoria.
Jory examines in great detail something that’s quite rare in Australian public life, a purposive intellectual fraternity, and places its role and the role of its many later influential members into national and even international context.
“For the Catholic Church in Europe, the French Revolution introduced a century of disorientation, persecution, and outward decline,” Jory begins.
“Already weakened by its struggle to maintain its universality and independence against the absolutist monarchs of the 18th century, it was now confronted by a new and more far-reaching kind of absolutism — the state-absolutism of the disciples of Rousseau, Robespierre and Hegel.”
Increasingly pluralistic federated Australia — often described as an outpost of empire and Europe — was from the late 19th century influenced by most of the vicious secular ideologies tumultuous Europe threw up.
The Campions responded by combating many of these, just as many of their co-religionists in Europe and across the British Empire were to do.
According to Jory, the Catholic Church by 1850 had reformed and reinforced itself. This continued under Pope Leo XIII, who further confronted the consequences of an industrialising world. In this he was greatly influenced by Bishop Emmanuel von Ketteler of Mainz, who can rightfully be seen as a founder of Catholic Action.
That said, it’s probably unlikely a Campion Society, or anything like it, would have emerged, had it not been for the arrival in Melbourne in 1927, from England, of a scholarly former Anglican, Denys Jackson.
Soon after disembarking, he was astonished to find that most Catholics he encountered saw their religion “as a revered part of the Irish heritage” rather than as a universal faith.
This prompted him to move to form a “study-group” that worked within the tradition of the then worldwide Catholic Action fold, but he ensured it never carried a name showing any hint of Irish lineage. He deliberately chose the name of the great Elizabethan Jesuit martyr, Edmund Campion (1540-81), who had attended St John’s College, Oxford, where he shone. Not coincidently, he was beatified by Leo XIII in 1886.
Jory’s account of the various ongoing tussles, disputes, achievements and wider Campion Society impact is based on detailed analysis of a huge array of primary and secondary sources and scores of interviews with, amongst others, Arthur Calwell, Senator Frank McManus and historian Father James Murtagh.
Nor is the picture Jory unfolds uncomplicated. There were differing outlooks amongst pre-war Catholics over many questions and personal fall-outs, arguments and differing emphases on a vast array of tactical and related issues during Australia’s last pre-war decade.
Not all Australian Catholics, for instance, agreed that embarking upon an overtly militant approach was appropriate. This was due, in part, to the failure, earlier in the century, of the now-forgotten Australian Catholic Federation.
The short-lived Campion Society’s heyday — from 1931 to 1939 — came during the reign of Pius XI who, Jory says, Catholics found an inspiring leader.
According to Jory, many Catholics “rallied to his call for a crusade to advance social justice, stem resurgent paganism and revivify Christianity as a cultural force”.
Jory introduces readers to a large number of now forgotten, outstanding public figures who wished to ensure Australia emerged as a nation based on social justice principles far removed from tenets then being propagated by secular salvationist proselytisers.
His sizeable index contains no fewer than 110 surnames, most of which can fairly be described as now falling into the unknown category. Who, for instance, recalls Father William J. Hackett SJ, who reached Melbourne in 1922 and “was disturbed to note the paucity of Catholic intellectual life in that city”?
“In order to help rectify the situation, he resolved to establish a first-class Catholic library in the central metropolitan area,” writes Jory.
“With the blessing of Dr Mannix, and the practical assistance of the now-skeletal Catholic Federation and the Catholic Women’s Social Guild, he opened his Central Catholic Library in May of 1924.
“Beginning as a room in the Federation’s office with 740 volumes, it soon acquired its own premises, and by 1930 had grown to 10,000 volumes.…
“During the ’thirties, in defiance of the general economic trends, the Library was to flourish, and was eventually described by Dr Mannix as ‘a real power house of Catholic Action’.”
Although Melbourne was to be the focal point of this self-strengthening movement accompanied by social militancy, it was not the only such centre. Sydney and, indeed, Adelaide also witnessed the emergence of impressive individuals.
This reviewer’s favourite find in Jory’s study is the outstanding Paul McGuire, founder of the Adelaide-based Catholic Guild for Social Studies (GCSS). McGuire and his wife Margaret, both of whom became successful authors, were to become major intellectual figures.
The forgotten McGuire, born in Peterborough, South Australia, in 1903, was educated at the University of Adelaide. After he married Margaret Cheadle, then a medical research scientist, in 1927, the couple left for England and lived there until 1932.
On returning to Adelaide, McGuire and Father James O’Dougherty founded the CGSS to “raise awareness of Catholic principles”.
McGuire was a columnist and author with titles such as Australian Journey (1939), Westward the Course (1942), Three Corners of the World (1948) and There’s Freedom for the Brave (1949).
He lectured and toured Europe, the United States and Canada and travelled to Spain during its Civil War as correspondent for the Catholic Herald (London) to investigate conditions for the return of expatriated Spanish children.
During the war, he was deputy director of the Far Eastern Liaison Office and later was closely associated with Robert Menzies.
Paul McGuire emerged as international correspondent for Melbourne’s Argus and continued publishing on Australian and international affairs.
In 1951, he was Mr Menzies’ adviser to the Commonwealth Prime Ministerial Conference. In 1953, he was with Australia’s delegation to the United Nations General Assembly.
He was Australian Minister to Italy (1954-1957) and Ambassador to Italy (1957-1959).
He became a Commander of the Order of the British Empire (1951), received the papal honour of the Grand Cross of the Order of St Sylvester and was awarded Commander of the Order of Merit of the Italian Republic (1967).
Joseph Poprzeczny is a Perth-based historian and writer.