Troubled Times: An Overview of the History of the Catholic Federation of New South Wales

By Kildea, Jeff | Journal of the Australian Catholic Historical Society, Annual 2002 | Go to article overview

Troubled Times: An Overview of the History of the Catholic Federation of New South Wales


Kildea, Jeff, Journal of the Australian Catholic Historical Society


Between 1913 and 1924 the Catholic Federation of New South Wales articulated and advocated the political interests of the Catholic Church in the state. As part of a world wide movement, having its origins in the successful resistance of German Catholics to Bismarck's Kulturkampf during the 1870s, the Federation was one of four such bodies that were established in Australia and which enrolled tens of thousands of Catholic men and women as members. (1)

At its peak the NSW federation claimed a membership of over a hundred thousand and there were times when its activities dominated news reports in the major metropolitan newspapers for days on end. Yet less than eighty years after its demise, few Catholics have heard of the Catholic Federation of NSW, let alone are aware of what it did during its short existence. This article aims to give an overview of the history of the Catholic Federation of NSW so as to fill that gap in the awareness and understanding of the organisation and its significance in the history of the Australian Catholic community. (2)

Catholics in early twentieth-century Australia

When the Catholic Federation of NSW was established in 1913, Catholics were mostly Irish by birth or descent, the Irish were mostly Catholics, and the Irish Catholics were mostly on the lowest rungs of the socio-economic ladder. This three-fold identification of religion, ethnicity and class had long been a feature of Australian society. (3) From the earliest days of European colonisation, Irish Catholics had perceived themselves as a persecuted minority. The degree to which, if at all, Catholics were in fact subject to persecution in this country is a question which has frequently been debated in the historiography of religion in Australia. (4) Whatever may have been the reality, it was the perception which was most important in shaping the attitude of Catholics as to their place in the wider community, and during the period of the Catholic Federation's existence persecuted Catholicism was the orthodox Catholic historical interpretation.

In the first quarter of the twentieth-century Australian society comprised two communities: one was British in origin and Protestant in faith, the other Irish and Catholic. At a functional level these two communities generally co-existed and cooperated peacefully and effectively, but viscerally they were quite distinct and often in a state of tension. From 1910 political and industrial troubles magnified by the stress induced by the Great War saw these tensions increase to a point that at times threatened the social fabric of the nation.

The education question

The issue that chronically and most clearly divided the two communities concerned the financing of education. Originating in the 1870s, the struggle between the Catholic Church and the NSW government over the withdrawal of state funding for denominational schools had by 1910 endured far longer than either side initially contemplated and had in fact assumed a de facto stability.

The Catholic Church regarded the restriction of government assistance to state-run schools as imposing an unjust burden on Catholic parents who in good conscience could not send their children to state schools. Protestants and secularists, on the other hand, were suspicious and hostile towards Catholics' insistence on conducting their own schools. According to the Methodist, the Catholic Church 'seeks to segregate its young people, and to bring them up under influences which imbue their minds with the narrowest and most bigoted notions, separating them in the most sacred relations of life from the rest of the citizenship of the State'. (5)

With the election in 1910 of an avowedly non-sectarian Labor government, the Church sensed an opportunity to reopen the education issue. At first, Catholic Archbishops of Sydney, the scholarly patrician Cardinal Patrick Francis Moran, and his successor, the rotund and pious Michael Kelly, endeavoured to do so by a strategy of constructive engagement with the new government. …

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