Mary, Marist, Catholic and Kiwis, Paul Morris

Gods Farthest Outpost: A History of Catholics in New Zealand
Michael King
Viking, $49.95
ISBN 0 67087 652 6

Church in the World: Statements on Social issues 1979-1997
by New Zealand Catholic Bishops, compiled by Chris Orsman and Peter Zwart
Catholic Office for Social Justice, $29.95
ISBN 0 90863 123 5

Religions of New Zealanders
Peter Donovan (ed)
Dunmore Press (2nd ed.) $49.95
ISBN 0 86469 262 5

There are more than one and a half billion Christians living today, roughly a third of the population of the entire planet, approximately a billion of whom are Catholics. As the Roman Catholic Church, by far the largest global religious institution, prepares to enter triumphantly into the third Christian millennium, it continues to exercise considerable influence over the lives of its followers and countless others. Like all great corporations, the Catholic Church rarely speaks with a single voice. Under the broad wings of its magisterium, the authoritative body of Church teachings, one finds discordant and competing discourses – from Marxist liberation theologians to Neo-Hobbesian advocates of an unbridled free-market and from conservative biblical fundamentalists to liberals. The late 1960s and early 1970s modernisation of the Church, in the aftermath of Vatican II, has led to a more fragmented and divided church torn between the (perhaps content) majority and significant minorities of traditionalists and promoters of more radical change.

Catholicism is not just a Christian denomination, however, but has created a network of institutions and practices that have given rise to a discernible Catholic culture, albeit in a myriad of local forms. Many Catholics are religiously lapsed and yet still culturally Catholic (many others, of course, are beyond lapsed) in a way that has no real Christian parallel. Among Presbyterians, for example, those who lose their religious faith don’t become lapsed-Presbyterians but post-Christians, or simply fade away. It is the background of this cultural Catholicism that has been the inspiration for so many Catholic writers, artists, and filmmakers.

New Zealanders’ pride in thinking of ourselves as the most secular of nations was challenged and dented this last month as our Prime Minister [Jenny Shipley] ushered in New Zealand’s post-secular era. She referred to secularity as an idea “whose time has come and gone”. The value-neutrality of the classical liberal state has failed, we were told, to ensure the rooting of the right values in our children or citizenry. Issues such as religious education in schools and other educational establishments, and religious rituals in the public realm are back on the national agenda.

Running parallel to this secular-versus- religious-values debate was the ongoing saga of the protesters outside Te Papa. This unlikely coalition of Christian interest groups called for the removal of a small sheathed statuette and a gender-bender version of the Last Supper. The media debate has brought to the fore concerns about the secularity of our nation, our once sacred Christian heritage, and the place that religious values might play in a post-millennial New Zealand. Leading the protest and most visible has been a group of Catholics, Catholic Action and its supporters, who claim to represent the views of the majority of their claimed “half a million” co-religionists. Although supported by the Catholic hierarchy in their call for these two “blasphemous” works of art to be withdrawn, they have also called on the Pope to remove all ten of the country’s bishops for failing to uphold true Catholic values.

How representative are they? What sort of Catholic culture generates such protesters? Is there a Catholic vote in New Zealand? Is there a clearly delineated Catholic subculture? Is it growing or declining? What role do Christians and Christianity play in contemporary life? A first stab at an answer to these questions might be found by consulting the recently available 1996 Census.

The first thing to notice is that the number of self-declared Christians is steadily shrinking but still accounts for well over half the population. In fact, the three largest churches – Anglicans, Roman Catholics, and Presbyterians – alone make up 43.2% of the population. But then this is down from the 53.4% of 1991. Except for a few pockets of Pentecostal growth the churches are in a seemingly terminal decline. Proportionally huge increases are reported in the numbers of Buddhists, Hindus and Muslims, raising new questions about “our” heritage. One of the largest increases is recorded for the “no religion” response which now includes nearly a quarter of us.

Catholic numbers have remained remarkably stable at between 13-16% of the population since the middle of the last century. Since 1991 some 25,000 Catholics have “disappeared” and the 1996 figure is 473,082, or just over 13%. The only notable change is that Catholicism has moved into second place behind the Anglicans (17.46%) and in front of the Presbyterians (12.67%). The Catholic population is also younger in terms of average age. Catholics thus represent a significant segment of the New Zealand population. New Zealand’s Catholic profile is very different from that of the other English-speaking ex-colonies. So in the US, Canada and Australia, for example, Catholics represent the largest of the denominations and number more than a quarter of their respective populations.

From Oliver and Sinclair to Belich, New Zealand historians have tended to downplay or in some cases ignore the power and influence of the churches in our history. It is only in recent years that denominational histories have begun to be written and the impact of this work has yet to filter back fully into the mainstream histories. What has been the role of the Catholic background of our artists and novelists, or our politicians? What can we learn about a religious community that has produced Whina Cooper, Jim Bolger, Jim Anderton, Tipene O’Reagan, Bernie Galvin, and James K Baxter? What part has the Catholic Church played in New Zealand’s cultural, political and social history?

Michael King, one of New Zealand’s most popular and widely read historians, has recently published a study that promises to address these questions. The book jacket informs us that the author welcomed the commission from Viking as “an opportunity to explore (his) own cultural and religious heritage”. And the Prologue, “Being Catholic – A Memoir” is King at his impressionistic best. We gain something of the feeling of what it was like “growing up Catholic”, for the solemnity and bliss of the mass, the intensity of the accountant-like earning of remissions, the sublime attractions and dismal truths of confession – you can almost smell the rich incense! It offered a life that all but completely wrapped its followers in the protective cloak of its seemingly timeless certainties, its calendar, rituals, and wonderful, mostly Irish, characters. We can only but agree with what Catholic children were taught, that “being Catholic was more interesting than being Protestant”. But we leave young Michael as a Catholic lad never to return. Instead of the bland list in the Epilogue of the man or developments that took place following Vatican II it would have been fascinating to learn something of the author’s responses to these changes – a sort of parallel to Being Pakeha. The potentially most interesting chapter is not there.

The book is lavishly illustrated and contains some delightful early photographs. The text, however, offers very little that is new. There are no new historical insights or interpretations and the book is unduly reliant on the work of Ernest Simmons and the brief sketches in the volumes of the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography.

The story itself is fascinating, beginning with the Church’s French origins and the arrival of members of the Society of Mary (the Marist fathers), who were to play such a central role in Catholic education in this country. The history of the Church runs parallel to the history of the country with the Vicar of Oceania, Bishop Pompallier, being present at the meeting that led to the first signing of the Treaty of Waitangi. The gold rush brought the Irish, and numbers and confidence led to the establishment of independent institutions: in particular, schools after the 1877 Act, a Catholic press, seminaries, and welfare agencies. What developed was an indigenous church and a rich culture, the construction of a New Zealand version of Catholicism with its own cultural peculiarities and tensions, peopled by the descendants of Irish, and to a lesser extent later European, immigrants.

There are overlaps between King’s and other recent New Zealand Catholic memoirs. We have read of Catholic boys and of Catholic girls, of the best and the worst of nuns, brothers and priests. These parallels are revealing and bring me to my biggest difficulty with King’s book. The authors of these autobiographical portraits have in the main escaped from religious into lapsed Catholicism, sometimes at significant personal cost. The wonder, and to the Church’s great credit, is that so many have such a positive memory of their early years of Church and Catholic school. It appears as if a standard stock of reminiscences has been drawn upon. The shared perception is of a quite discrete, confident and independent Catholic culture that formed an integral part of the national culture. Also, many contain a tone of lament. Lament for the loss of enormous certainties, of a seemingly fixed community and of childhood and even a peculiar Catholic innocence. From these perspectives the Church did indeed become the Church triumphant in the years between the wars, a status that it retained up until the 1960s, as portrayed in the last two chapters of King’s book. This is the Church before Vatican II, before its transformation, and these writers move to a new and for them lapsed Catholicism. But was this ever really the case? Was the Church ever the Church triumphant in New Zealand? Was Catholic culture that separate? Or is this a confusion of maturation and the coming of age with history?

Unlike Australia, Canada and the US, the Catholic Church in New Zealand has always been a minority and on the back foot, as it were. A close reading of the “Church triumphant” reveals that Catholics were defensive about their minority status and fought hard in the attempt to create just that sort of separate culture. More recent studies convincingly argue that the Catholic Church was highly integrated into the mainstream culture. The Catholic perception that was so eagerly promoted among the faithful appears to be no more than a perception, rather than an historical reality.

Catholic Action, the Te Papa protest group, clearly indicated that its real enemy was not a secular museum at all but the Church hierarchy. And the Pope, of course, will ignore their call for replacing all New Zealand’s bishops. The group points to the real divide within the churches rather than between them and a so-called secular society. The “fundamentalists” feel that it has all gone too far and that every perceived assault will bring the house down. Arthur Skinner, one of Catholic Action’s founders, refers to the majority of Vatican II priests as “wallies” who follow Marx and not the gospel. He argues that they have replaced their holy truths with social action on behalf of minorities and have become little more than social workers. Is this a justifiable attack? The collection of statements on social issues by the Catholic bishops of New Zealand presents the Church’s official views on education, employment, housing, family violence, euthanasia, abortion, aids, homosexuality, the arms race and the 1981 Springbok tour. They are filled with sound advice, sensible and reasoned arguments and offer clear guidance for action. They indicate a Church leadership in touch with the issues that have dominated public debate in New Zealand in the period 1979 to 1997.

There are two comments I wish to make. First, except for issues of sexual morality on which the Church’s views are well known, there is little in these books about God or his actions in the human arena. Any one of many groups in the public sphere might well have written these statements. Secondly, if one were of a cynical bent one might note that during the Bolger years the bishops appeared reluctant to openly criticise government polices! In response to Catholic Action, however, it is clear that the bishops of most countries have prepared similar statements and one imagines that they are in accord with HQ in Rome.

I find myself still awaiting the history of Catholics in New Zealand and anxious that Catholic Action’s claim that their position is non-negotiable is a challenge to exactly the sort of Catholic integration that has so painstakingly been achieved by Catholics in New Zealand. This represents a triple failure: to grossly overestimate the level of Catholic support, to misunderstand their own history, and to fail to grasp that the “rot” lies in Rome at the very heart of the Church.

Paul Morris is Professor in the Religious Studies Department at Victoria University of Wellington.

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