Writing Religious History in Australia

By Mansfield, Bruce | Journal of the Australian Catholic Historical Society, Annual 2006 | Go to article overview

Writing Religious History in Australia


Mansfield, Bruce, Journal of the Australian Catholic Historical Society


I am honoured by your invitation to give this keynote address. At the same time, I am conscious of my inadequacies for doing so. Though my interests in Reformation history, and especially in Erasmus studies, and, to a degree, in Australian religious history have obliged me to engage with Catholic history, I cannot claim to be a historian of the Catholic church. You might fairly have called on someone in that category to deliver your keynote address.

Earlier this year the conference of the Religious History Society commemorated the achievements of two eminent members, supporters and mentors of this Society, Patrick O'Farrell and Tony Cahill. Would that they were still among us today, and even, we might add, performing this function!

I have thought to begin by taking these two friends and colleagues once again as our guides and to explore through two small, occasional pieces of theirs issues that arise in "Writing Religious History in Australia'. My selection is a rather self-indulgent one. In December 1989 the Journal of Religious History produced a special number, a kind of Festschrift, celebrating my twenty-eight years as founding Editor of the journal. Both Patrick and Tony, who was then Editor, contributed pieces; Patrick's was entitled "Spurious Divorce? Religion and Australian Culture' and Tony's 'Cardinal Moran's Politics'.

These are characteristic pieces, though I would not for a moment suggest that they are fully representative of the two men's work. Patrick's is in essay form, highly personal and challenging in its judgments. We find similar judgments in his larger works, similar ironies and even paradoxes, but there they are embedded in books of original and summative scholarship on a grand scale. There is a greater immediacy, even rawness, to the essay form, and those confronted here might, if sensitive enough, have been set to thinking about their historiographical and cultural assumptions. Tony's piece is a more conventional learned article, one of a series of papers which, taken together, make up a very substantial, if not complete, study in Moran biography. But there are aspects of the piece which remind us that Tony was renowned among Sydney historians for the range of his reading across many fields of history and his innovative thinking about the subject. We get a glimpse of this in his historiographical reflections on the literature about Moran, to which we will come.

I want now to take these two pieces in turn and draw out from what they say points of interest for those writing religious history in Australia. Patrick early makes a shift from the place of religion in Australian culture to its presence or absence among the interests and preconceptions of Australian historians. 'Do we', he asks, not just rhetorically, "need to investigate the historians before we accept their history?' He then, in the most sensitive part of his essay, deals with the marginalizing of Christopher Dawson by a historical profession unresponsive to the sweep of his studies of religion and culture and the sad outcome of the application by Dawson's pupil, J. J. Saunders, for an Australian academic appointment. To this historiographical issue, asking about the historians as well as the history, I will return in considering Tony's paper, as I have said. Patrick moves from the power relations in the historical profession, which could stand in the way of certain trends or approaches appearing or prospering, to the realities of Australian white culture. Resettlement could involve desacralization for many migrants, separated from the sacred places and associations of home. In the nineteenth and into the twentieth century, the clergy in all denominations remained more 'home'-oriented, the laity more acclimatized to Australia. The gap was plastered over, he says, in the Catholic case 'with an artificial culture of elastic Irish-manufactured consistency' and, among the denominations deriving from Great Britain, with "composites of flags, patriotism and various social appurtenances and rituals" of distant cultures. …

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