Norman Thomas Gilroy: An Obedient Life

by John Luttrell

  • Publisher: St Pauls Publications, 2017
  • ISBN: 9781925494082
  • RRP: $27.95 

 Reviewed by Gerard Henderson

Norman Thomas Gilroy was one of the most significant figures in 20th Century Australia.  John Luttrell’s Norman Thomas Gilroy: An Obedient Life is the first substantial biography written about him – but the Sydney Morning Herald, in the city where Gilroy lived for most of his life, declined to review the book or even report its launch.

Norman Gilroy was born in January 1896 in the (then) working class Sydney suburb of Glebe to William Gilroy and Catherine Slattery.  The family were poor and moved frequently. Devoted to his mother, in later life Gilroy criticised his father’s liking for gambling and alcohol which led to the failure of what had been a flourishing small business.  Catherine lived until 1955 and was constantly attended to by a devoted son.   William had a stroke in 1932 and died nine years later. At the time of his father’s stroke, Norman was living in Lismore but does not seem to have returned to Sydney to visit him at the time.  William died in January 1941. In an article published in 1955, Norman wrote that his father’s influence on his life was significant – in that it led him to develop “a positive abhorrence of social life”.

John Luttrell’s book – which commenced as a Ph.D. thesis – is not hagiography.  He is sympathetic to, but not uncritical of, his subject – a mix which makes for a good biography. However, a theme of the biography is that Gilroy’s parsimony and remoteness can be traced back to his youth living in poverty with a financially irresponsible father who blew the family’s (small) fortune on the social life. Maybe.  But maybe Gilroy was just tight with money and aloof in so far as personal relationships are concerned. This led to some resentment when Gilroy became a religious leader in control of priests and able to influence the work of brothers and nuns in religious orders.

For example, when working at the Apostolic Delegation in North Sydney as a young priest, Gilroy complained to his bishop that his annual wage was lower than that paid to “the most junior local curate” i.e. junior priest.  When he arrived in Sydney as a coadjutor archbishop, he was met by twelve of his clerical contemporaries from the time he worked for the Apostolic Delegate.  The Sydney priests greeted Gilroy as “Norm”.  Gilroy responded by greeting each one by the formal title of “Father”.  It as a way of telling his one-time mates to know their place.

Dr Luttrell never met Gilroy. He grew up in the atmosphere of the Catholic parish and school system in the Archdiocese of Sydney – over which Gilroy presided from March 1940 until his retirement in July 1971.  Writing about the 1950s, in his chapter titled “The Cardinal’s Decade”, Luttrell claims that by the end of the decade “the Cardinal” was “widely accepted as the leader of the Catholic Church in Australia”.  This is very much a Sydney perspective.  As someone who was educated in Catholic schools in Melbourne throughout the 1950s, the Irish-born Archbishop Mannix (1864-1963) was very much the leader of the Catholic Church in Australia.  We were aware of the Cardinal in Sydney – but he was a remote figure.  Dr Mannix was our tribal leader, Dr Gilroy was a Sydney churchman who wore the red hat of a cardinal.

Gilroy left school at age 13. His first job was with the Postmaster General’s Department (PMG) as a messenger boy sending telegraphs. In time, he became a telegraphist and had postings in rural New South Wales.  According to Luttrell, Norman’s parents refused him permission to enlist in the First Australian Imperial Force – he turned 18 in January 1914.  Norman joined the Naval Wireless Service and was on the transport ship Hessen which disembarked troops, horses/mules and ammunition on 25 April 1915 for the landings at Gallipoli.   Towards the end of his book, Luttrell comments that Gilroy “had been at the Gallipoli landings” – something of an overstatement.

As the book’s title attests, Gilroy’s life was one of obedience to authorities – in church and state.  In the early 20th Century, the Catholic Church was an authoritarian institution and its leaders – from the Pope down – liked obedient types who knew their place.  At the time the Vatican was anxious to localise the Catholic Church in Australia by replacing Irish-born archbishops and bishops, when they died on retired, with Australian-born men. Gilroy’s personality fitted in with the Holy See’s wishes as implemented by the Apostolic Delegate in Australia.

And so it came to pass that Gilroy enjoyed a brilliant clerical career.  After a brief period at St Columba’s Seminary in Springwood, which he entered at age 21 in March 1917 and where he was appointed head prefect, Gilroy was sent to Propaganda College in Rome to complete his studies.  He filled the requirements as to health, character and attitude to authority.  Ordained a priest on Christmas Eve 1923, Gilroy returned to Australia the following year with the title of Doctor of Divinity.  At the time, this was a soft degree but gave Gilroy the opportunity to be titled “Rev N.T. Gilroy DD”.

Soon after, Gilroy was appointed secretary at the Apostolic Delegation in North Sydney – a position he held until December 1930.  The Apostolic Delegate was the link between the Vatican and the Australian archbishops and bishops – all of whom reported directly to the Holy See.  In December 1930, Gilroy was appointed a priest of the Lismore diocese since he had entered the seminary when working in this diocese.  In March 1935 he was ordained the Bishop of Port Augusta at age 39. He became the Coadjutor Archbishop of Sydney (with a right to succession) in July 1937 – replacing the Irish-born Michael Sheehan (who was effectively sacked). Following the death of the Irish-born Archbishop Michael Kelly in March 1940, Gilroy became Archbishop of Sydney at age 44.  He was consecrated a cardinal by Pope Pius XII at St Peter’s Basilica in February 1946 at 50 years of age becoming the youngest cardinal in the world – and the first Australian-born to receive a red hat.

A brilliant ecclesiastical career, for sure.  But to what effect?  Not much, really.  Gilroy was a pedantic authoritarian archbishop who crushed originality out of clergy and laity alike.  When archbishop, he required busy parish priests to fill out a 30 page form with 300 questions including – “what firm supplies the altar wines?”; “are the statues and holy pictures clean and becoming?” and “is there a picture of the Holy Father near the entrance of the church?”

In the Catholic Church at the time – as now – members of the hierarchy reported directly to the Pope in Rome and were responsible for the diocesan priests who ran parishes.  The various religious orders were led by men and women who reported to their leader who in turn reported to the Pope.  Gilroy would not accept such independence.  As Luttrell writes: “Gilroy believed that as a bishop he had the authority to intervene in the affairs of religious orders, within the bounds of Canon Law”. Needless to say, Gilroy pushed at the boundaries of Canon Law to get his way.

It was much the same with the laity – men and women alike.  For example,

Gilroy prohibited the establishment of the St Joan’s Alliance (which was established in Australia by Enid Lyons, the prime minister’s wife, in 1936) in the Sydney archdiocese.  He claimed that its parent group in England did not have episcopal authority.  The word went out that membership of the St Joan’s Alliance was “contrary to the wishes of the Cardinal Archbishop of Sydney” and the organisation soon foundered.

Gilroy wrote to a supporter of the St Joan Alliance that “there is an anomaly in a band of Catholics professing to obey the Pope while disregarding the wishes of their Bishop”.  When a branch of the Alliance was formed in Perth, Gilroy advised Redmond Prendiville, the Archbishop of Perth, that the organisation did not enjoy his support.  Prendiville thanked Gilroy advising him since “one cannot be too careful of fanatical women”.

As Archbishop of Sydney, Gilroy presided over a compliant laity.  As Archbishop of Melbourne, Mannix clashed with political leaders (on education and conscription), and with the Vatican (on conscription and Ireland). He encouraged a vibrant laity to emerge in the Archdiocese of Melbourne – some of whom were Mannix supporters and some Mannix critics. After the Second World War, the views of the former could be found in such magazine as Twentieth Century and Social Survey – and the views of the latter in the Catholic Worker and Prospect. In Sydney, there were only Gilroy loyalists – those who disagreed with “the wishes” of the Cardinal remained silent.

The differences between Gilroy and Mannix were substantial. When a student at Propaganda College in 1921, Gilroy attended a lecture by Mannix who was visiting Rome. In his diary, Gilroy criticised what he said was Mannix’s comment that he loved Ireland above all other nations – with Australia second. Gilroy also disagreed with Mannix’s advocacy of an “Australia first” position with respect to Britain.

During the Spanish Civil War in the 1930s, Mannix opposed the left-wing Republican government – but did not personally embrace the Nationalist leader General Francisco Franco.  Gilroy, on the other hand, in 1939 described Franco as “a great military leader and pursuer of peace”. In 1949, Gilroy declined to oppose the White Australia Policy. On the other hand, Mannix was an early advocate of ending White Australia.

Gilroy visited Melbourne in May 1946, soon after he became cardinal.  Luttrell quotes at some length Mannix’s witty “tribute” to the Cardinal at the time.  He spoke of Gilroy’s career since “he first put foot on the first rung of the ecclesiastical Jacob’s ladder”, ironically commented that he had been protected by God “on the shell-racked shores of Gallipoli”, spoke of his “resurrection” as Bishop of Port Augusta and compared Cardinal John Henry Newman who spent “all his life as a student” with Cardinal Norman Gilroy “a man of action which left little time for academic leisure”.  Some who attended the function took Mannix’s paean as praise, others got the irreverent jokes. The speech was not quoted in The Catholic Weekly in Sydney – over which Gilroy presided, which suggests that he understood and did not appreciate Mannix’s sarcasm.

Gilroy’s position changed little over his life. He was a priest and later a bishop and archbishop in the Roman tradition with scant interest in Ireland.  He was socially conservative and a strong, if not always considered, anti-communist.  Gilroy was uncomfortable with the reforms that followed the Second Vatican Council which commenced in October 1962. But he was the most senior Australian at the Council and implemented its decisions with respect to the teaching of faith and liturgy with obedience.

Like many a leader in church or state, the Cardinal changed his position according to his audience.  In 1964, B.A. Santamaria – who by now headed the National Civic Council – invited Cardinal Valerian Gracias, the Catholic Archbishop of Bombay, to address a conference in Melbourne. Gracias sought Gilroy’s advice about the invitation – who responded as follows:

The person [Santamaria] who wrote to you not only has not the confidence of the greater part of the Australian Hierarchy but is regarded by them as one of the most harmful influences there has been in the Australian Church.

In fact, in 1964 – shortly after Archbishop Mannix’s death – Bob Santamaria enjoyed the support of close to half of the Australian Hierarchy.  Moreover, the Santamaria Papers in the State Library of Victoria reveal that on 2 April 1955 Gilroy wrote to Santamaria in the following terms: “You have my sincere sympathy for the suffering inflicted on you because of your efforts to save Australia.”

One of Gilroy’s achievements as a cardinal was to facilitate the visit to Sydney of Pope Paul VI in December 1971.  Santamaria was a guest at a reception to meet the Pope.  Santamaria told me in early 1972 that Gilroy introduced him to Paul VI as one of Australia’s greatest Catholic laymen – or words to that effect.  Certainly, by December 1971 the impact of the Labor Split was less than it had been seven years earlier.  Even so, it seems that Gilroy was inclined to what Malcolm Fraser once termed “doing the hypocrisies”.

While Luttrell is obviously a fan of the Cardinal, the strength of his book is that he acknowledges that some of the myths put about by the Gilroy Fan Club do not stand up.

Gilroy’s supporters in Church and state have always praised the Cardinal for keeping the Catholic Church out of politics during the Labor Split in the 1950s – and of playing a decisive role in achieving state aid for Catholic schools. Bishop James Carroll was the Cardinal’s side-kick on both occasions.

At the time of the Labor Split in 1955, Mannix backed Santamaria’s Catholic Social Studies Movement (The Movement) which supported the Democratic Labor Party. The DLP was formed after the Labor Split by those who were expelled/resigned from the Australian Labor Party at the time.

The fashionable line about the Labor Split was that Mannix involved the Catholic Church in politics while Gilroy kept the Catholic Church out of politics.  Luttrell acknowledges that “when the Melbourne-based Movement urged ALP members to leave the party in the mid-1950s, Gilroy urged them to ‘stay and fight’”.   Luttrell agrees with James McAuley, the Sydney convert to Catholicism who was a friend of Santamaria and a critic of the Cardinal, that Gilroy “had not stayed above party politics” and that “clerical pressure was put on the laity to stay with the ALP”.

The other myth about the Sydney Hierarchy in the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s is that it – and in particular James Carroll – was responsible for the Catholic Church achieving its long sought after aim to get government assistance for non-government schools.  In fact, the essential breakthroughs were achieved when Santamaria and the DLP put pressure on Coalition governments which were anxious to continue to receive DLP preferences at election time.

In 1963, Prime Minister Robert Menzies announced that the Coalition would give financial assistance for science blocks in all schools – government and non-government alike. This was the first occasion in which the Commonwealth government had offered financial assistance to schools, outside the Australian Capital Territory and the Northern Territory, and the first occasion in which the Commonwealth had offered financial assistance to private schools including low-fee Catholic schools.

In 1967, the Victorian Liberal Party wanted to ensure that it received DLP preferences since it was worried about losing seats to the Country Party (with which it was not in coalition) if DLP preferences went to Country Party candidates in rural seats.  This led to a promise by Henry Bolte’s Liberal government to give per capita grants to students in non-government schools. This incident is not covered by Luttrell. In the lead-up to the 1969 election, the John Gorton led Coalition promised that, if re-elected, it would make recurrent grants to all school children, including those in non-government schools. The Coalition was returned on the back of DLP preferences, which made it possible for Gorton to retain all the government held seats in Victoria – at a time of a swing to the Gough Whitlam led opposition in some other states, particularly Queensland.

The policy of Gilroy and Carroll on state aid was to make representations to the Labor government in NSW, which contained many Catholics and, traditionally, had enjoyed widespread support from Catholics. The Gilroy/Carroll approach achieved virtually nothing. As Luttrell writes about the Menzies government science block grants in 1963:

The political lesson was clear.  State Aid was now a strong election issue, particularly as the new Democratic Labor Party, which advocated “educational justice” for independent schools, was perceived by the older parties as an irritating but significant electoral force.  The changed public mood was underlined by the result of the New South Wales state elections of May 1965.  After twenty-four years in office, the ALP government was ousted by the Liberal-Country Party coalition, which for the first time promised direct aid to independent schools by subsidising interest payments for construction loans.

Gilroy did not take sides in the election, but one of his auxiliaries, Bishop Thomas Muldoon, broke episcopal ranks by lavishly praising the Liberal proposals which “must bring a sigh of relief and give hope to hundreds of thousands of parents who have taken too much punishment over the question of the education of their children in the schools of their choice.” Commentators credited the promise of direct aid by both the Coalition and the DLP with being a major reason for the Coalition victory.

In spite of this unequivocal statement, in his final chapter Luttrell asserts that Cardinal Gilroy “with Bishop Carroll…had a strong influence in the recovery [sic] of State Aid which had been vainly sought for Catholic schools since 1880”. No they didn’t. The break through on state aid was not achieved by Gilroy and Carroll lobbying their Catholic mates in the NSW Labor Party.  Rather it was achieved following negotiations by Santamaria and the DLP, using the weapon of preferences, at the Federal level, in Victoria and in NSW to obtain policy commitments by Coalition governments.

Cardinal Normal Gilroy: An Obedient Life is a significant book because it fills a gap.  Apart from a 70 page monograph by journalist Graham Williams published in 1971, there has been no other study of the Cardinal.  Whereas over a dozen books – of varying quality – have been written about Mannix.

Put simply, Gilroy was a dull personality – a clerical plodder who made it all the way to the top of “the ecclesiastical Jacob’s ladder”, in Mannix’s words.

Gilroy has been forgotten because he was forgettable.  Yet he was important – particularly due to his involvement in the Labor Split in support of the forces led by Labor leader, and anti-Catholic sectarian, Bert Evatt and his opposition to Santamaria and the DLP.  Moreover, he presided over a church which grew during his time as archbishop – partly due to his example of personal piety.

John Luttrell has done extensive work to put together the story of the Cardinal.  It is unlikely that anyone will write a better book than this about the man who became the first Australian-born cardinal and who, for a time, was the youngest member of the College of Cardinals.

Gerard Henderson is Executive Director of The Sydney Institute and the author of Santamaria – A Most Unusual Man (MUP 2015).