Academic journal article Journal of the Australian Catholic Historical Society

The Enigmatic Santamaria: The Task Alter Ross Fitzgerald's the Pope's Battalions *

Academic journal article Journal of the Australian Catholic Historical Society

The Enigmatic Santamaria: The Task Alter Ross Fitzgerald's the Pope's Battalions *

Article excerpt

Despite his public prominence, B. A. Santamaria remains an elusive and enigmatic figure in Australian history. He attracted both intense loyalty and fierce opposition, yet much of his activity still remains obscure or veiled in secrecy. A number of writers have researched the years leading up to the Split, giving us a fairly accurate view of the issues and events of those years. However, Santamaria's later extensive activities in many fields remain largely unresearched. Val Noone critiqued Santamaria during the Vietnam War period, (1) but we clearly need a full-scale biography, particularly to explore Santamaria's ideas and involvements from the 1960s.

The Pope is" Battalions is the first major effort to cover the whole of Santamaria's career. This is a very daunting project, because of the sheer length and extent of his political and social involvements, the difficulty of relating the various worlds he inhabited--especially the links between the Catholic Church and political movements and ideas, internationally and within Australia and the fact that the Movement was a secret organisation involved in a national campaign against the equally secret Communist Party. Since much of this involved sensitive matters in foreign affairs and intelligence security, it will also be difficult to gain access to records. Yet the task needs to be done while colleagues and critics of Santamaria are still alive.

Given Ross Fitzgerald's background as a well-published historian, his analysis of Santamaria and his anti-communist organisations has been keenly awaited. His book reflects increasing interest in the religious undercurrents in Australian politics and culture that have often been overlooked in the past. It is with great regret that this reviewer found the book extremely disappointing, with an astonishing ignorance about aspects of Santamaria's activities and the Church. He displays little 'feel' for the intricacies of intra-Church debates, and has relied heavily on secondary sources. In addition, the title is somewhat misleading; perhaps it was chosen for marketing purposes, but it does not accurately reflect the content of the book.

Nevertheless, The Pope's Battalions not only offers the chance to evaluate an important and difficult work, but invites one to consider what further work needs to be done in the formidable task of understanding the Santamaria phenomenon.

As the author in 2001 of Crusade or Conspiracy? Catholics and the Anti-Communist Struggle in Australia, (2) I was particularly interested to see how Fitzgerald would take the historical analysis forward. Though he referred many times to my thesis on Sydney's Catholic social and political movements in the 1930s, 'From Ghetto to Crusade', (3) and to my 1991 work, The Church's Social Teaching: from Rerum Novarum to 1931, (4) imagine my surprise to find not a single mention of Crusade or Conspiracy? which overlapped so substantially with The Pope's Battalions. This is not because my book escaped Fitzgerald's attention. He reviewed it in the Australian Book Review in May 2001 (pp. 50-51).

Fitzgerald's book suffers from a major problem which in part stems from the title, The Pope's Battalions: Santamaria, Catholicism and the Labor Split; this suggests a focus on the Catholic mobilisation against communism and the problems that arose within the Catholic community, especially over the Church's role in politics. Instead we find the narrative is predominantly about Santamaria, the Movement/DLP/NCC and the Labor movement, with the Church gradually dropping into the background to the factional and political struggles of Labor. Hence the title sets up expectations that are not met, though in the early chapters the author plunges into his narrative with the impression that be intends to explore the inner workings of this political Catholicism. Whatever the success of this work as a history of Labor politics of the period others are better qualified to judge that aspect--as an exploration of this Church engagement in politics, it is truly disappointing. …

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