Academic journal article Journal of the Australian Catholic Historical Society

Vatican II and the Dying Gasps of Australian Sectarianism

Academic journal article Journal of the Australian Catholic Historical Society

Vatican II and the Dying Gasps of Australian Sectarianism

Article excerpt

This article explores the ways in which Vatican H contributed to the demise of residual sectarianism in Australian society. It surveys the nature of sectarian tension in the period leading up to Vatican Has well as points of ecumenical engagement and argues that the responses of the Australian churches to Vatican H accelerated the push of sectarianism from the mainstream to the fringe of Australian religious culture. (1)

Sectarian tensions in post-war Australia

The 1950s were generally an optimistic and expansive time for the major denominations in Australia, with membership and resources stimulated by postwar prosperity, conservatism and the baby-boom. (2) While not marked by the sectarian violence of Britain and Ireland, there was a sectarian dynamic in Australian religious culture at this time, characterised largely by institutional rivalry, theological suspicion and distrust. This rivalry often spilt over from religious polemic into the public and political arenas, as the controversies over the establishment of a Catholic University, Anzac Day observances, precedence among church leaders--a 'major' issue at the time of the Queen's first tour of Australia--and state aid for church schools all demonstrate. Protestants frequently worked together to oppose perceived Catholic aggrandisement or influence and the major pattern of interdenominational relation throughout the 1950s was 'Protestant co-operation, Catholic isolation'.

Protestant solidarity or unity was an important theme in Protestant propaganda and self-image in the 1950s. The 'necessity and urgency of Christian unity' became a rallying cry for Protestants as they combated what they saw as their major opponents of the era: Catholicism, secularism and communism. (3) This Protestant coalition was forged not only from shared theological opinions but also shared political and ideological goals. Protestant leaders sought to portray Protestantism as a third way: an alternative to what they considered to be the menaces of communism and the 'totalitarianism' of Rome. (4) Protestant denominations co-operated both formally and informally in various ways: under the auspices of organs such as state councils of churches and through mission work, theological education, political lobbying, social work, campaigning together in support of Temperance and Sabbatarianism, and in evangelistic endeavours, such as the 1959 Billy Graham Crusade.

Across the sectarian gulf, Catholics were also crusading, not with Billy Graham, but with the help of B.A. Santamaria and 'the Movement', they were on an anti-communist crusade. For Catholics, this was the 'Age of Mary' in which Marian piety, in particular devotion to Our Lady of Fatima, was deployed to combat communism: Large Catholic rallies and religious processions, such as the 1951 Marian Congress in Adelaide, the 1953 Family Rosary Crusade and the tour with anti-communist rhetoric: These displays of militant and mobilised Catholicism raised the ire of Protestant commentators--uncomfortable with Marian piety and any flexing of Catholic muscle--and further stimulated the exchange of sectarian volleys by Protestant polemicists.

Political skirmishes, polemic and institutional rivalry were significant aspects of Protestant-Catholic sectarianism in the postwar era, but it was where sectarianism penetrated beyond institutional rivalry into personal lives that it was often most potent. One of the most significant ways by which sectarian division reached into Australians' lives was through liturgical segregation. The rules preventing Catholics from attending worship in other churches, as well as the rules governing mixed-marriages, pronounced that the difference between Protestant and Catholic was so absolute that one could not enter into the church of the other. The Catholic injunction against inter-denominational worship meant that where friendships and family bonds reached across denominational boundaries--which occurred even in the most well-regulated families--many of the significant life events sanctified by religious rituals, such as weddings and funerals, were overwhelmed by sectarian complications. …

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