Thank God Bill Shorten was elected Labor leader on Sunday. At the very least, it will diminish an emerging conspiracy which depicts Australia as being run by the Society of Jesus, or Jesuits. Prime Minister Tony Abbott (born 1957) was educated at St Ignatius College in the Sydney suburb of Riverview. Coalition cabinet ministers Joe Hockey, Barnaby Joyce and Christopher Pyne were also educated at Jesuit secondary colleges. So was Shorten (born 1967), who attended Xavier College in the Melbourne suburb of Kew.
The Prime Minister is a constitutional monarchist who is critical of the abuse of power by trade union officials and opposes same-sex marriage. The Opposition Leader is a republican who is an advocate of trade union privilege and supports same-sex marriage. Which indicates graduates of Jesuit schools reflect political diversity.
There is a view the Society of Jesus in Australia consisted of anti-communist and social conservative priests who educated young men to advance such views in the world. It’s a myth. Certainly, during the Cold War, many Jesuits were anti-communist and supported the Catholic political activist B.A. Santamaria and the Democratic Labor Party. But others were not.
In any event, the Jesuits tended to keep politics out of the classroom. This was my experience as a student at Xavier College in the late 1950s and early 1960s. We were not politically indoctrinated. Indeed, the Jesuits at Xavier employed many lay teachers who were associated with the Catholic Worker magazine, which supported Labor.
The late James (or Jim) Griffin, one of the Catholic Worker group, wrote a privately published account of his times as a Xavier College teacher between 1952 and 1968 titled Il Illo Tempore. It contains some errors and some tendentious assessments but stands testimony to the fact Jesuits of that generation did not run a political line. I am not aware of political indoctrination taking place at such Jesuit schools as Riverview, St Aloysius (Sydney) or St Ignatius College in the Adelaide suburb of Athelstone.
Writing in The Weekend Australian last month, Gerard Windsor (a Riverview old boy, who for a time was a Jesuit seminarian) made the point ”pupils pick up their politics much more from their home than from their school”. Abbott, whose father was a dentist, came from a middle-class Sydney family. As Aaron Patrick points out in this book Downfall: How the Labor Party Ripped Itself Apart: ”Shorten could hardly claim to be working class.” His mother was a teacher who became an academic and his father was a ship’s engineer. However, there was a family background in the trade union movement.
It is true that, over the generations, Jesuit students have been imbued with a sense of social justice. But this is not exclusive. For aeons the Catholic Church has proclaimed social justice teachings which were laid down in papal encyclicals. Most notably, Leo XIII’s Rerum Novarum (1891) and Pius XI’s Quadragesimo Anno (1931).
Sometimes Abbott’s background is used against him. Windsor wrote that what the Jesuits want to know of Abbott ”is whether his policies make for a more humane, just and sustainable world”. Fair question. Provided the same query is made of Shorten, which it wasn’t.
During the election campaign, The Age’s political editor Michael Gordon quoted a Riverview student critical of Abbott’s position on asylum seekers. The student said: ”We think it’s important to remind Tony Abbott, as a very outspoken Catholic, that he should take Jesuit ideals into account in his decisions.” No such specific reprimand was directed at Shorten, whose policies on asylum seekers are not dramatically different from those of Abbott.
Some decades ago, the Jesuits more fully embraced social justice at the expense of anti-communism and social conservatism. This is evident in the Jesuit journal Eureka Street, which started as a print publication in 1991 and went online.
Today Eureka Street is very much a product of the inner-city left intelligentsia. As its contributing editor Ray Cassin acknowledged recently, Eureka Street’s readership contains a huge proportion of Greens supporters and a very low proportion of Coalition voters. Cassin also said: ”Eureka Street readers tend to be well educated and comparatively affluent: anxieties about job security and mortgage might have less sway with them.” More like the Green Left Weekly than the Catholic Weekly, it seems.
Like many individuals and institutions, the influence of the Society of Jesus has been overestimated by its supporters and opponents alike. Abbott and Shorten obtained good educations. But both have lived most of their lives away from the Jesuits’ education ethos.
Gerard Henderson is executive director of the Sydney Institute.