The Mannix Era: Melbourne Catholic Leadership 1920-1970 by Patrick Morgan

  • Publisher: Connor Court Publishing Pty Ltd, 2018
  • ISBN:  9781925826166
  • RRP: $29.95

Reviewed by Paul Henderson

Patrick Morgan’s book is a sequel to his book entitled Melbourne Before Mannix.  Indeed, in the preface of The Mannix Era he goes back and mentions some of the interesting issues before 1920. These include the Rerum Novarum and the Syllabus of Errors Vatican documents and the influence of capitalism and the 1890s depression on the Catholic Church. This helps the link between the two books.

He states that the four heroes of The Mannix Era are Dr Mannix, the Melbourne Archdiocese itself, the weekly newspaper The Advocate and the well-organised Catholic community. At the end of the book, the reader may choose to differ as to whether all of these were heroes over all of the 50 years.

The many abbreviations at the start of the book are helpful to the reader. Also scattered throughout are a number of illustrations, many of which I had not seen before, and charts which also aid the reader. On the other hand, there are only 51 footnotes in a book of over 280 pages. Often I was looking for a footnote to add to or to explain in more detail what I had read. There was an important statement made by Bishop Fox on p208 but no footnote.

This question about the small number of footnotes may be explained in that The Mannix Era is an encyclopaedia of who was who in the Catholic world in Melbourne from 1920 to 1970. The book is very detailed about the careers, achievements and contributions made by dozens and dozens of men and women, and therefore footnotes are not that necessary. Every last detail of these biographies is provided, and, if this were a major purpose of the book, then it has been achieved.

However, there are other parts of the book where more analysis could have been made. For example, Morgan writes on p123 “World War II revived and changed Mannix”.  This sentence needed more discussion than just saying that since WWII, Mannix was taking more interest in Australian affairs. What about WWI? Morgan does not elaborate on the change. In another part of the book (P204) he says that Santamaria came a cropper in 1954 and, as a result of this Santamaria “was the most reviled figure in public life for the next two decades”.  Given what happened in Australia over the next 20 years and the public people involved, this is a very big statement to make.

It might be nit-picking, but the title of Morgan’s book is The Mannix Years 1920 to 1970. Yet Mannix was Archbishop of Melbourne from May 1917 to November 1963. It is surprising that towards the end of the book a good deal of space is spent recalling events in the Catholic Church both in Melbourne and abroad which took place up to seven years after Mannix had died.

Patrick Morgan stresses the massive number of roles the Catholic Church took part in between 1920 and 1970. These include social justice matters, the building of hospitals and homes for people in need, book shops, libraries, immigration centres, rural movements and seminaries. University colleges, a huge number of parishes, primary and secondary schools also opened in these decades. The diocesan priests were supported by an ever increasing number of nuns, brothers and priests in religious orders. 

Dr Mannix in Morgan’s book, as in other books and articles, comes across as an enigma. He was a prolific public speaker on a range of issues concerning the church, politics, social awareness and current affairs and he had a very important following in Catholic circles. He was viewed as “a think tank.” The author refers to him as an aristocrat, a person who had no successors in line and no rivals for his position. He didn’t drive a car and he rarely socialised, but he was revered by a huge number of Catholics.

Mannix is the dominant person in this book. Morgan explains in careful detail about the Irish Civil War and the strong attitude taken by Mannix to support Home Rule and de Valera although he sometimes probably went too far in his public dislike of the British. He played a prominent role in the Conscription debates in World War I.  Mannix’s support for Sinn Fein at the time was not supported by some other Catholics.

As the Irish issue was pushed into the background, the church was increasingly worried by the rise of communism, fascism and capitalism. The major concern over the spreading of communism after WWII in both Eastern Europe and Asia became a dominant issue to people like Mannix and Santamaria in the decades that followed. The Spanish Civil War was another issue on which Catholics disagreed. Morgan points out how sections of the Catholic church differed on how to handle some of these significant happenings.

A considerable amount of space in the book is devoted to a number of  prominent Catholic lay men and women, highlighting their achievements and contributions; doctors, nurses, academics, writers, artists, lawyers, politicians, men of wealth and standing who were in Melbourne at the time.  Many of them also played a significant part in church matters. It is good that the author recognises this.  He also stresses the part undertaken by many of the clergy.

However, throughout the book, but particularly in the 1950s and 1960s, when the Catholic Church was deeply divided, the hierarchy of the church sometimes did not always handle matters well. Some of the leading Catholics such as B.A. Santamaria and Arthur Calwell, also do not come out unscathed. The division between the Melbourne and Sydney hierarchies did, on occasions, become toxic.  People who were involved in the events of the split included the Papal Nuncio Giovanni Panico, Justin Simonds, James Carroll, Daniel Mannix, Norman Gilroy and others.  Rivalries, dislikes and jealousies were often not far from the surface.

The importance of the Melbourne Catholic weekly, The Advocate is mentioned in many sections of Morgan’s book. It was the central, vocal point for the distribution of Catholic views for decades and became a sounding board for Bob Santamaria and his followers.  During the period under discussion it had many fine editors and committed contributors.

Many of the chapters after 1945 are devoted particularly to Australian and Victorian politics. The book covers these events in detail, constantly showing the machinations of the various individuals and groups who were involved.  It is handled very well.

Patrick Morgan speaks strongly about the short-term effects and even more strongly about the long-term effects of the 1954-55 Split in the ALP, which was particularly evident amongst Catholics. By the time of the 1960s and 1970s many of the structures had disappeared or were about to disappear. These include the DLP, the Catholic Social Studies Movement (replaced by the National Civic Council) and a new look Advocate.

In conclusion, Patrick Morgan has produced a fine book, which covers half a century of the happenings in and around the Catholic Church in Melbourne. It joins a number of good publications which cover this fascinating period of the 1950s and 1960s, dealing with particularly the Movement, trade unions, the ALP split, church participants in political current issues and all the personalities who were involved.

Paul Henderson is an author and educator