Rhetoric and Action: The Policies and Attitudes Of The Catholic Church With Regard To Australia's Indigenous Peoples, 1885-1967

Stefano Girola (2007). Rhetoric and Action: The Policies and Attitudes Of The Catholic Church With Regard To Australia's Indigenous Peoples, 1885-1967 PhD Thesis, School of History, Philosophy, Religion and Classics, The University of Queensland.

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Author Stefano Girola
Thesis Title Rhetoric and Action: The Policies and Attitudes Of The Catholic Church With Regard To Australia's Indigenous Peoples, 1885-1967
School, Centre or Institute School of History, Philosophy, Religion and Classics
Institution The University of Queensland
Publication date 2007
Thesis type PhD Thesis
Supervisor A/Prof Richard A. Hutch
A/Prof Lynne Hume
Total pages 324
Collection year 2008
Language eng
Subjects L
430101 History - Australian
Formatted abstract

           This thesis analyses the policies and attitudes of the Catholic Church with regard to Australia's Indigenous people in the period between 1885 and 1967. The focus of this thesis is on the Catholic Church as a national institution within Australian society. Hence, specific consideration is given to the policies and attitudes of the Catholic bishops as a national group rather than to those of individual Dioceses or of individual Religious Orders. Findings for this research are predominantly based on sources from Catholic diocesan archives in Queensland and New South Wales and from the archives of the Australian Catholic Bishops' Conference in Canberra. In order to analyse policies and attitudes of the Catholic hierarchy on a national scale, this thesis also draws on the work of other scholars regarding the involvement of the Catholic Church with Aborigines in other Australian States.       

The thesis demonstrates that in the period considered a gap existed between the rhetoric of the Catholic bishops as a body and their action on behalf of Aboriginal people. Although the 1885 Plenary Council officially declared the importance of the evangelisation of Aborigines, the Catholic hierarchy did not devote significant resources to this aim. Missionary outreach to the Aborigines was primarily conducted by religious Orders coming from continental Europe and remained a marginal component of Australian Catholicism. While defending the common humanity of Aborigines against racist beliefs of the time, the Catholic hierarchy continued to perpetuate negative attitudes towards Aboriginal people, based on theological and religious assumptions of superiority.       

This thesis shows that outreach to Aborigines occupied a very low position among the dual priorities of the Catholic hierarchy in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries: to preserve the faith of predominantly Irish migrants in a hostile environment and establish and sustain a separate education system.       

I argue that during the 1930s there was a change in the official policies of the hierarchy. The 1937 Plenary Council acknowledged that it could not continue to rely on foreign missionaries for their evangelisation. Important Eucharistic Congresses held in the 193 Os showed unprecedented interest for the work of Catholic missionaries among Aborigines. These developments, however, were not motivated by a specific concern for the plight of Aborigines or a positive reconsideration of their society. Moreover, between the 1930s and the 1950s, the preoccupation of the Church hierarchy with the advance of international communism and the need to meet the demands of a burgeoning migrant population kept the Aboriginal plight at the periphery of the bishops' concerns.      

In analysing the views of the Catholic hierarchy on social and political issues within Australian society, this thesis investigates whether the bishops' teaching on these matters has inspired effective action by the Catholic community on behalf of justice for Aborigines. I argue that there was a failure of the Catholic leadership in this regard. The views of the bishops on the colonisation of Australia and on the future of the Australian nation were consistent with the national ethos that emerged at the end of the nineteenth century. This ethos ignored an Aboriginal presence both in the past and in the future of the new nation and fostered negative assumptions on Aborigines that were to influence the nature of race relations in Australia for a long time.        

The "invisibility" of Aborigines within Australian society continued to be a characteristic of the Catholic bishops' Social Justice Statements, issued annually from 1940 to 1966. The persistence of a classicist and hierarchical understanding of human cultures and the derivative nature of Australian Catholic social thought explain the omission of Aborigines from this important body of statements by the Catholic hierarchy. In the absence of any input from the top, the lay groups of Catholic Action also neglected the plight of Aborigines.        

Finally, the contribution of the Catholic hierarchy to the movement for Aboriginal rights that developed in the post World War II era is considered. I maintain that the strong anti-communist concerns of the Catholic Church and the persistence of paternalistic attitudes towards Aborigines weakened the Catholic contribution to the legal and political conquests of pro-Aboriginal organisations. Thus the gap between rhetoric and action in the Catholic bishops' dealings with Aboriginal people remained.

Keyword Aboriginal Australians -- Missions
Catholic Church -- Missions -- Australia
Catholic Church -- Australia -- History -- 20th century
Catholic Church -- Australia -- History -- 19th century

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