How far can you go? John Stenhouse

The Bishop’s Paper: A History of the Catholic Press of the Diocese of Auckland
Nicholas Reid
Catholic Publications Centre, $22.95,
ISBN 0473072181

Nicholas Reid sheds valuable light on New Zealand’s religious and cultural history in The Bishop’s Paper, a history of the Catholic press of the Auckland diocese from the mid-19th-century to the present. The Catholic-Protestant divide constituted the major ethno-religious fault line within Pakeha society until about the 1960s. As Reid shows, Catholic New Zealanders, mostly Irish in origin, sustained multiple loyalties and identities: to the Ireland they left; to the New Zealand they adopted; to the British Empire; to an international church; and to local parishes and communities.

Chapter 1, on the New Zealand Freeman’s Journal, the most important 19th-century Catholic paper, illuminated the ways local Catholics negotiated these overlapping worlds. On the one hand, their Irish Catholic heritage often set them at odds with the Protestant-and-secular mainstream. During the 1880s, for example, the Freeman’s Journal supported Te Whiti, as a fellow victim of British Protestant oppression. Yet colonial Catholics also felt loyal to the wider community, nation, and empire. The Freeman’s Journal supported George Grey, eschewed rabid sectarianism, and presented Catholics as loyal subjects.

In 1918, Bishop Cleary founded the Month, the focus of Chapter 2, to articulate a more temperate Catholicism than that of James Kelly’s Tablet. Cleary’s obsession with apologetics took him out of touch with ordinary believers, Reid suggests, the Month often reprinting “escapist” works by Hilaire Belloc and G K Chesterton, which were “remote from the immediate concerns of New Zealand”. We cannot assume without evidence, however, that ordinary Catholics were uninterested in such literature, or that a gulf separated the “Chesterbelloc” writers from “popular Catholicism”.

Bishop Liston controlled Zealandia, the subject of Chapter 3, from 1934 until 1962. Although largely concerned with promoting Catholicism at home and abroad, and rectifying the anti-Catholic bias of the “secular” press, Zealandia professed loyalty to the Crown, and let Irish issues fade, though not that of state aid to private schools. Liston defended Christianity against “atheistic communism”, and supported Franco. John A Lee condemned “clerical fascists” trying “to make thugs seem holy”, but Reid shows that, though implacably anti-communist, Zealandia regularly condemned Nazi Germany, and never uncritically idolised capitalism or the West.

Chapter 4, on Zealandia between 1962 and 1989, describes the fading of the old Catholic triumphalism, following the Second Vatican Council. Ernest Simmons, editor from 1962, abandoned Liston’s anti-communism, criticised New Zealand and American policy in Vietnam, published criticism of the papal encyclical Humanae Vitae, and got sacked by Liston in 1969. Dennis Horton, taking over in 1973, condemned the Arms Race and the 1981 Springbok Tour, and endorsed liberation theology and Ngati Whatua’s occupation of Bastion Point. Readership surveys, however, suggested that left-liberal editors were taking Zealandia out of line with an aging, conservative, and female readership.

Zealandia and its successor, New Zealandia, declined during the 1970s and ’80s as all newspapers struggled to compete with television and other media. Furthermore, aggiornamento [the consequences of Vatican 2] weakened a distinctive Catholic identity. Here Reid might have placed Catholic trends in a wider context by discussing the decline of mainline Protestant churches and secularisation, processes which, while often exaggerated, cannot be ignored.

Reid seeks to understand and illuminate rather than to take sides; The Bishop’s Paper is refreshingly free of religious and political partisanship. Reid has ably illuminated the many worlds – global, national, and local – that New Zealand Catholics inhabited simultaneously. The issues he explores remain with us. New Zealanders determined to create an ideal society free of class and sectarian warfare have managed our ethnic and religious differences not too badly, by world standards, although the process has been more costly for some than for others.

At different times and in different ways, Maori, Catholics, Asians, sectarian Protestants, and more recently Muslims have all, on the one hand, experienced the tensions generated by sustaining loyalty to distinctive cultural and religious traditions, while, on the other, seeking to participate fully in the public sphere. Sustaining our diverse traditions and communities, without identifying so completely with particular ones that we dehumanise those outside, remains a challenge for New Zealanders, and the world, as recent events remind us.


John Stenhouse teaches in the Department of History at the University of Otago.



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