Tough Environments Breed Militant Catholics
(The Angelus, March 2021.)
“Everything in Australia is trying to kill you”. That was the ominous title of a video I once watched that outlined in chilling detail all of the shabby ways that native animals, insects, and flora, from the familiar kangaroo down to organisms totally unknown to me beforehand, were out to ruin human life “down under”.
Little did I suspect at the time that these life-threatening organisms would come to include the government of the State of Victoria, whose anti-Covid measures seem designed to liquidate the entire social nature of mankind. And little did I imagine that that State harbored a number of elements deadly to Catholic life in particular, from long before the irrational, degrading, and politically manipulated Reign of Terror raging there today. But tough environments seem to stimulate the emergence of brave men ready to take the steps necessary to deal with them. And no one battled against the difficult anti-Catholic problems in Australia in a more persistent and influential manner than Bartolomeo Agostino Santamaria (1915-1998).
Born of Sicilian immigrants living in Melbourne, the capital and largest city of Victoria State, “Bob”---as Santamaria was always known to friend and foe alike---experienced all the anti-Catholic prejudice that Anglo-Saxon, Protestant, and secularist-freemasonic Victoria could toss at him. He fought against these not just privately, but, much more importantly, publically, because of their dire effects in the socio-political and economic realms, becoming one of the model Catholic militants of the twentieth century.
What made Bob so exemplary was his clear awareness that effective “transformation of all things in Christ” had to be founded on two fundamental pillars: on the one hand, a total loyalty to sound Catholic doctrine which could never be sacrificed for “success”, but did indeed have to be applied—always with risks--- to the change and confusion of a “practical” daily life lived by flawed, sinful men, who did not necessarily act rationally and consistently; and, on the other, upon the cooperation of a militant laity committed to Catholic Action with a militant teaching clergy that guided it theologically and encouraged its daily activist battle with the foe.
Bob’s brilliant career was to unfold precisely because the model cleric ready to make this second pillar of effective Catholic Action a reality was ready to launch it: Daniel Mannix (1864-1963), Archbishop of Melbourne from 1917 until his death in 1963. Mannix, a prelate who understood---in the immortal words of an old friend of mine---that the job of a bishop was “to bish”, something that he often did with a great big stick, nevertheless paired powerful episcopal leadership with the deepest respect for the unique role of the laity and the wide autonomy in many questions of practical socio-political action that this required.
Santamaria came to Mannix’s attention in 1937, when Bob was only 22 years old, due to the impact that the young man made in a famous public debate with prominent Leftists on the Spanish Civil War. Already well grounded in Catholic Social Doctrine, and particularly interested in the ideas of the English Distributists, he fervently promoted the need for believers to build an economic system that rejected the materialism and injustices of both unrestricted Capitalism and Marxist or Marxist-Leninist Socialism. A member of the recently founded Campion Society and editor of an Australian review, The Catholic Worker, at least partly influenced by that of Dorothy Day in New York, Bob still presumed that his main work would be a career in law.
Mannix changed his plans dramatically. He enticed Santamaria into becoming one of two members of the new National Secretariate of Catholic Action, which began its work in 1938. It must be said that in making this choice the archbishop thereby also demonstrated his freedom from another prejudice that plagued men and women like Bob: the general disdain of his fellow Irish-Australian Catholics for believers of Italian background. Having won him over to full time militancy, Mannix’s protégé was made responsible for preparing almost all of the Annual Social Justice statements of the Australian Episcopacy between 1941 and 1956.
Bob’s foundation of the National Catholic Rural Movement in 1939, designed to promote small farm ownership, was certainly dictated by both intellectual and practical concerns, very much reflecting contemporary Distributist ideas. Nevertheless, nothing illustrates his insistence upon that joint commitment to sound doctrine and the reality of the need to make risky choices in implementing its vision under confused daily realities constituting the first fundamental pillar of effective lay action than the creation of the Catholic Social Studies Movement in 1941.
Catholic Social Doctrine clearly rejected both the atomistic, individualist materialism of classical liberal capitalist thought, as well as the collectivist materialism of Marxist Socialism most effectively represented after the First World War by Marxist-Leninist Communism. Some Catholics, due to a primary fear of the latter, inclined towards supporting the Australian Liberal Party, which was anti-Communist but not on the same wavelength as the Church regarding the problems of capitalist society. A large number of working class believers, suffering from economic injustices, saw greater hope coming from the Labour Party, which was, however, quite subject to anti-Catholic and outright Communist influences. Unfortunately, given the general lack of intellectual formation regarding Catholic Social Doctrine, both Liberal and Labour leaning believers tended bit by bit to gravitate towards the unacceptable teachings prevalent in both parties.
“The Movement” was to a large degree a machine for overcoming practical obstacles to the achievement of integral Catholic goals in economic life through a specific targeting of the working classes and the Labour Party they supported. It pursued its aim through the “Groupers”---“Movement” members who became part of “Industrial Groups” which fought to rid trade unions of Communist domination and guide them down a Catholic direction. So successful was the work of the Groupers that the trade unions, all but of two of which were under Communist control in 1949, were almost entirely in Catholic-influenced hands by 1952.
Although we have seen that the Labour Party, which was under the leadership of Herbert Vere Evatt (1894-1965) from 1951 onwards, was no friend of Catholics, support of the trade unions was central to its political life, and Grouper effectiveness led it openly to seek Santamaria’s support for the General Election of 1954. When it lost that election, and control over Victoria as well, remaining out of power over the central government of Australia down to 1972, Evatt openly and violently blamed Santamaria and the Catholics for the defeat.
Any possible leadership opening to the Groupers was now closed, and the Labour Party suffered what was called “The Split”, with Catholics expelled from its ranks and forming their own Democratic Labour Party under Santamaria’s influence to carry on fighting for the cause. So pathologically outraged was Evatt over the consequent inability of Labour to regain power over the central government that Santamaria and his pursuit of Catholic influence over Australian political life became for him public enemy number one.
Although Bob moved forward with his work through the Democratic Labour Party, trouble was brewing for his profound understanding of Catholic Action and Catholic Social Doctrine. This was not due to competition from those Catholics, with powerful clerical backing in New South Wales, who supported cooperation with the Liberal Party. It was rather a direct result of the revolution in the Church brought about by Vatican Council and its aftermath. For that revolution overturned the two pillars upon which Santamaria had built his work---accepting the risks of practical action only if in union with sound doctrine, and guiding a militant laity that could count upon the support of a vibrant teaching clergy respectful of that laity’s distinctly active role in promoting the Christian mission. What went wrong?
In supposedly “liberating” the realm of the “practical” from the supernatural guidance of doctrinal truth, all that the “spirit of Vatican Two” achieved was to allow for exactly what anti-Liberal, anti-Pluralist Catholics since the nineteenth century had predicted would happen: 1) the giving of carte blanche to the strongest worldly passions successfully to proclaim their right to dominate Church life, unguided and uncorrected by supernatural truth and grace; and, 2) the creation of a craven episcopacy eager to give its blessing to whatever “worked” according to the standards of willful fallen men, thereby wreaking havoc with the entire project of a corrective ‘transformation of all things in Christ”. To make matters worse, just as this evil was unfolding, Bob’s protector and soul mate, Archbishop Mannix, went to his eternal reward.
One victim of the revolution was the Democratic Labour Party, which now suffered internal divisions of its own and ceased to function. Still, Bob soldiered on for many, many years to come, working more and more in ways that avoided the emasculating control of real Catholic Action coming from an arrogant episcopacy that ironically was in practice an increasingly puppet like servant of the goals of powerful but morally corrupt lay forces. He fought on by means of organizations like the National Civic Council and the Australian Family Association, as well as through his writing and a long-lived television commentary called “Point of View”. Moreover, his Thomas More Centre and its literary voice, AD2000, gave support to the causes of the growing Traditionalist Movement, which alone was seriously defending the kind of Catholic Action he had approved of all of his life.
One man deeply influenced by Santamaria is George Cardinal Pell (b. 1941). Bob died in March of 1998 during Pell’s tenure as Archbishop of Melbourne (1996-2001), and it was he who delivered a panegyric at the FuneralMass.Calling attention to the great opposition and outright hatreds that Bob had aroused, along with his inevitably risky and not necessarily successful battles for control of the social sphere, Pell praised Santamaria most for having made it clear that the battle of Catholicism with the world, the flesh, and the devil was a deadly serious one:
We are told that the sure mark of the false prophet is that all people speak well of him. In death, as in life, Bob Santamaria has triumphantly escaped such a fate…. Thanks to Bob Santamaria much more of this struggle is now in the open, with the issues available to public scrutiny. This represents progress. He could not remove or much deflect the mighty forces damaging faith and morals in the Western world, but he has managed to alert an increasing number of us to the folly of embracing the forces seeking our destruction.
Tough environments breed militant Catholics who pass the torch on to others inspired by them. Cardinal Pell himself now knows the price one must be prepared to pay for following in Bob’s footsteps. For the forces against which Santamaria fought in Victoria State and elsewhere have struck at him as well. But he knows from Bob that this was to be expected not just in Australia, but all across the globe. Because in our time especially, it seems that not just “down under”, but everywhere “everything is trying to kill Catholics”.
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