My first thought about the Royal Commission was that it was a device to distract citizens from the daily episodes of the Julia-Gillard-as-young-lawyer saga. My second was to wonder where the Commonwealth would derive the power to establish such an enquiry. The third was to wonder how long it would be before someone objected in court to its establishment.
The fourth, the subject of this essay, was that if it survived a challenge, the Royal Commission would show us just how fragile the Catholic Church now is. My adolescent years were spent in Armidale, NSW, a diocesan centre for both the Catholic and Anglican Churches, with two Catholic high schools, two Anglican ones, one for the Presbyterians and one state high school as well. The DLP was strong there, and the Catholic/Protestant divide was manifest. Various tradesmen and shopkeepers catered almost exclusively for the Catholic community, which possessed its own tennis club, its own social club, and its own youth organisations. It wasn’t until we went to University that I met some of the Catholic boys and girls of my own age. Inter-faith marriages were rare, and frowned on.
What I experienced there and then was the outcome of a long process in which an English/Scottish, Protestant, moneyed, landed, governing class faced an Irish, Catholic, poor, convict, working class. There had been an opportunity to bring these two groups together when compulsory public education began in the 1860s and 1870s, but it foundered over the issue of the teaching of religion in schools. The Church set up its own school system, and its own hospital system as well, though there was no Catholic hospital in Armidale.
The 1951 census showed that thousands of men and women belonged to religious orders, those that staffed the schools and ran the hospitals, and more thousands served as priests. The Church maintained its hold on the Catholic tribe through attendance at weekly Mass. In the 1950s the Catholic edifice looked remarkably strong. Today, in Australia at least, it is almost in ruins. I was given access to some internal Church documents a few years ago that showed that in one large diocese in Victoria there was only one member of a religious order left, while of its 55 priests, 45 were over 55 years old. The weekly Mass had gone except for the large population centres, the schools and hospitals, though nominally still Catholic, were staffed by lay people, and church attendances were way down.
What happened? Well, after the Second World War parents wanted education for their kids, girls as well as boys, governments began to provide money for church schools, an expanding economy attracted women into the workforce, the oral contraceptive gave women control over their own fertility, Vatican II breathed some fresh air into the Church and allowed parishioners to ask questions, and women, for so long the unpaid basis of so much Church work, were no longer available, and so on.
In two generations what had looked like a powerful and everlasting social structure has become in many respects an empty shell. The enquiry into the sexual abuse of children would never have happened in the past because the Church was much more powerful then. It has lost its power. No doubt Cardinal Pell is right, and it has now got its own house in order, but at least one reason is that house is so much smaller now, the teaching orders have gone, and the numbers of priests is tiny. Introducing marriage for priests, and women priests, would help, but of course those decisions are made in Rome, and Australia is just a sideshow. The Church is actually flourishing in South America and Africa.
If it survives a challenge the Royal Commission will be the sorriest affair our country has known. One ghastly story after another will emerge. Sexual abuse has caused suicides in the past, and I expect the uncovering of it will cause one or two in the future. What will it tell us about the kind of society we are, and have been?
I escaped the clutches of organised religion, partly because my parents were not churchgoers (my mother liked so sing in the best church choir, but that had little or nothing to do with religion), and partly because my agnosticism arose early. And I have mixed feelings about it. Where would we be without the monasteries of the first Millennium, which preserved what was known of Greece and Rome? The Christian churches have been the basis of charitable work for hundreds of years. And they have inspired some great music, and some great art.
But they attract regulators, too, people who love to tell us how we should live our lives, and what we should think, and believe. I can do without them. Will the Royal Commission do any good?