- Rome in Australia: The Papacy and Conflict in the Australian Catholic Missions, 1834–1884
As one of the last outposts of white civilization laid down forcefully among an indigenous people, the early development of Australia deserves to be treated with gravity. In the growth of a specifically Australian society, the Catholic Church played a significant role and, although others have studied its development in early colonial Australia, none has done so on such a wide canvass as Christopher Dowd.
His work is eminently scholarly in that the sources, both primary and secondary, are extensive and rich, and a thorough use has been made of them in English, Italian, and Latin. The writing stands up for clarity and precision. The author remains balanced and astute in his judgments, despite the justifiable temptation to scorn some of the actors. There is nothing narrow or pedantic about the theme and the treatment given to it.
One figure—John Bede Polding, the Benedictine first bishop of Sydney— rightly tends to dominate the early story. With his dignity and integrity intact, he stands amidst a goodly company of popes, high-ranking Roman bureaucrats, prelates (both Irish and English), drunkards, liars, opportunists, sycophants, and scoundrels (some wearing mitres), as well as devoted missionaries and saintly nonentities. At times vacillating, slipshod, and sentimental, Polding was not mean and petty, and he never hated. His greatest weakness, which almost brought him down, was his stubborn loyalty to the Benedictine Order.
Polding dreamt a noble dream in which Benedict’s sons would be the founders and custodians of a high civilization in Australia, as they had been in the shadowed centuries after Rome fell and Europe was born. They were the midwives of that renewed civilization, and Polding dreamt that they would be so again in Australia. Thus he petitioned Rome, fruitlessly, to ensure that Benedictine monks would always be chosen as archbishops of Sydney. In the end, but rapidly, a lack of Benedictines caused the dream church to fail. No one could rightly grieve that the Australian church failed to be become a Benedictine church. The fading of a Benedictine presence with all the treasures it could have woven into the fabric of a young nation was the true sorrow.
This work has a universal value because it deals with an important theme, which is played out on an international stage. Rome, London, Dublin, Melbourne, and Sydney mingle, and meddle with, the Church in Australia, even with obscure hamlets out in the bush such as Bungendore. The [End Page 645] Australian hierarchy was the first to be erected in any part of the British Empire since the Reformation, and it suffered abundant birth pangs. Dowd’s is a rich and important study of the development of that hierarchy. By extension, the work is also a study of the workings of the papacy in its period and of that singularly influential arm of the Church, the Congregation de Propaganda Fide. Its influence was felt throughout all those countries in which the hierarchy remained subject to Roman tutelage.
Dowd examines the Congregation in detail by dwelling at length on its methods and its officials. Together with good decisions, others were tainted by procrastination, by sowing confusion, by playing double games, by listening to calumny and detraction, but always protecting their sources no matter how venal, insignificant, and unreliable they were. Thus Pio Nono, and Propaganda, rather than listening to the bishops, often turned to obscure sources such as the mysterious English convert, Monsignor George Talbot, to the detriment of the Church in Australia. Curiously, Dowd has an almost inordinate fascination with assorted Roman layabouts, often of minor aristocratic origin, who wander through his pages. That he treats them with respect is to his credit, especially given that their knowledge of Australia was miniscule.
In this story there are many curiosities. Can it be that the assumption of a mitre sometimes tended to send...