How Attitudes Have Changed!


It is “the duty of every elector in Australia to shut out, if possible, from the first Federal Parliament every candidate upon whose forehead is ‘mark of the beast.’”

“Under the Constitution of the Commonwealth of Australia, perfect religious equality is assured.”

The first of the above quotes uses an expression seldom heard in 21st– century Australia. Both sentences are from the pages of the Methodist, the main Wesleyan newspaper published in Sydney at the beginning of the 20th century. As the most important voice of Wesleyans in the South Pacific region, the language of the Methodist well illustrates the colourful way most Christians frequently demeaned each other during the effervescent debates of the 1890s, while six competitive colonies were struggling to become a nation.

In the “great and glorious Australian Dominion,” even “Romanists” could hold office “under suitable conditions,” the Methodist admitted. But just days before the birth of the Commonwealth of Australia on January 1, 1901, the paper had declared “exhibitions of hatred and unscrupulousness” and “unmistakable proofs of innate disloyalty”

made it imperative that Catholics be excluded from the soon-to-be instituted Australian parliament.

back to the beginnings

Between 1984 and 1991, I spent thousands of hours studying the interface between religion and society in Australia. Catholic, Anglican, Uniting and other church archivists and librarians gave me courteous, patient and skillful help as I explored past religious struggles. One focus of my interest was to understand how the religious body that is now Australia’s largest denomination tried to emphasise Christian values. (In 1901, the population of New South Wales was 46.58 per cent Anglican and only 25.96 per cent Roman Catholic; in 2008, the proportions are reversed.) According to Donald Horne, Australia was settled in “an age when any part of the world whose inhabitants could not fight the Europeans was considered European property.” The judges of London and Dublin “chose”

Jews and Christians of various denominations to inhabit Botany Bay. Thus religion was transported to the colonies in the misshapen lives of convicted criminals in the doubtful piety of gaolminders and officials who generally had interests quite other than the nurture of the Christian faith. As time went by, the vast gaol opened its gates to lowerclass assisted immigrants and more financial free settlers—generally lured here by the promise of wealth.

Therefore, Christianity was brought to New South Wales and other colonies like Tasmania as a fragile plant, with the soil of British and other European cultures clinging to its roots. But having been uprooted and moved into unpromising ground, it did more than survive the journey: it thrived. In the census at the end of the colonial period (1901), only two per cent of the first colony’s population did not list themselves as Christians.

insiders and outsiders

But there were still chasms to cross.

The Indigenous peoples were black, relatively defenceless and seemingly without interest in the presumed benefits of white civilisation. Even their existence was still discounted, to the extent that the vast new land was thought of as empty when Europeans arrived. Issues of class were divisive; the Labor Party was born to advocate social justice.

Women, long marginalised, were at last being better heard and even allowed to vote. Yet Catholics, according to such authors as Edmund Campion, would be second best in Australia for more long decades—put down as “micks,” “paddies” and “rockchoppers.”

Why? Well, like me and perhaps a third of all Australians, Catholics usually had Irish heritage. They were used to reading job advertisements saying “no Catholic should apply” and to harsh cartoons about their ethnic origins. But an obvious focus of invective was their church’s leader in Rome. For instance, Pope Leo XIII was described by the secular Bulletin as “a rheumatic patriarch with the biggest income on earth, who is no use to anybody but himself.” For the deeply-religious Methodist, “popery” was “the world’s direct curse.”

the meaning of “pope”

My Macquarie Dictionary says the first meaning of “pope” is “the bishop of Rome as head of the Roman Catholic Church.” The word “papacy” dates far back in the English language to Latin and even further to Greek. One of my favourite reference books states that it is “an affectionate name for ‘father.’” The leader of a movement or a church is often thought of as a parent, “the father of ” or “the mother of.” But in using such a term we must always remember Jesus’ teaching about God as our ultimate spiritual parent, remembering He said “do not call anyone on earth ‘father’” (Matthew 23:9).

“The papacy” is well defined as “the central governing institution of the Roman Catholic church under the leadership of the pope.” Where did this idea come from? Was Peter the first pope? I cannot say it better than the 16-volume Encyclopdedia of Religion, edited by Mircea Eliade: “Modern Roman Catholic biblical scholars affirm the genuine authority of Peter among the Twelve but make the following observations: there is no New Testament evidence that Peter was ever a bishop or local administrator of any church (including Rome and Antioch); there is no direct biblical proof that Jesus established the papacy as a permanent office in the church; but there is other cogent evidence that Peter arrived in Rome late in life and was martyred and buried there” (Volume 11, page 171).

We can thank God for the clarity of Scripture that is increasingly better understood by Catholic and other scholars as they search its sacred pages.

the origin of the Papacy

Last October, I presented a paper at a conference in North America, where an outstanding New Testament scholar was a featured speaker. In recent years, Dr Jon Paulien has focused his study and writing more and more upon “the revelation of Jesus Christ” given in the last book of the Bible (see Revelation 1:1). To understand any particular part of scripture, it helps if we know the way God’s people have interpreted it ever since it was first written. So, Dr Paulien, with his Bible open, has studied church history diligently.

Jon Paulien’s lecture observed the ways various people fought to preserve the pure faith of the early Christian church. Some emphasised the necessity of having the right ideas (the truth).

Others rejoiced in the work of the Holy Spirit (we often call such folk “Pentecostals” today). Others wanted nothing but the gospel, expressed so well by the apostle Paul (one such person lived in Rome during the second century of the Christian era; some people rather jokingly say that Marcion edited the Bible with a penknife, to make it conform to his ideas).

Among the other reactions was the idea that it was all too hard for ordinary people to understand the Bible—“leave it to the bishops,” they said. Hence, the papacy developed great authority. And there are long and wonderfully insightful articles in many books (including the multi-volume Catholic Encyclopedia) that detail the slow rise of the papacy, reaching its zenith in the 12th and 13th centuries.

But the Bible is given to all of us. We cannot delegate the task of understanding it to a select body of leaders or an elite group of scholars. Yes, we must value the input of those who superintend churches and those who spend their entire lives in diligent research. For example, I much value the expression of a woman born in 1827 and raised in a devout Methodist home. After young Ellen Harmon was confronted forcefully by what the Bible said about Christ’s second coming, she came to a clear conviction that it was the responsibility of every individual to grapple with the meaning of the Bible. Note the way she later expressed this idea: “It is the first and highest duty of every rational being to learn from the Scriptures what is truth, and then to walk in the light and encourage others to follow his example. We should day by day study the Bible diligently, weighing every thought and comparing scripture with scripture. With divine help we are to form our opinions for ourselves as we are to answer for ourselves before God.”

Pope Benedict in Australia

Newpapers and TV broadcasts are giving us increasing awareness that the current pope will be visiting Australia this month. The internet took just 20 seconds to offer me 3,380,000 items of information about “Pope Benedict XVI.” One of the most impressive of them focused on what he says about the love of God. So I entered a search for the ways Pope Benedict has explored this particular theme. Immediately, I was offered a huge array of articles.

Catholics, according to the massive history compiled by the first Irish cardinal in Australia, suffered much from discrimination in the early history of Australia. Even Cardinal Moran, who held the office of Archbishop of Sydney from 1884 to 1911, was apt to respond hastily, as when he spoke of “modern Babylon, the city of confusion and discord which the conflicting sects of Protestantism present.” But the Cardinal, like the Methodist, idealised a society in which there would be religious freedom.

Thanks in part to a constitution that protects this value, all Christians can talk freely with each other as Pope Benedict’s visit recalls for us the history of Christianity, and the challenge to examine everything we believe and all we do in the light of God’s Word.

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