Published Nelson Mail and Manawatu Standard, May 28
The Dominion Post recently published a story of the sort that used to be described as heart-warming. It told of a couple in their 80s who had been teenage sweethearts in Masterton but had been forced to part because of religious differences.
Joan Dean’s father wouldn’t allow her to marry Phil O’Neill because Phil was Catholic. In disgust and anger, he threw away the ring he had bought her and went off to the Second World War. Now, nearly 70 years later, they have rediscovered each other and plan to marry.
To anyone born in the past 40 years, the existence of such religious prejudice in a supposedly liberal, tolerant country like New Zealand, and in relatively recent times, must seem inconceivable.
New Zealand in the 21st century is one of the world’s most secular societies, where only those of very pronounced religious beliefs – say, Muslim, observant Jew or fundamentalist Christian – would allow religious differences to stand in the way of two people who loved each other.
But we forget very quickly what this country used to be like. I grew up Catholic in a small provincial town during the 1950s and 60s, when to be Catholic defined one’s sense of identity and relationships with others.
The local Catholic community was our world. My siblings and I went to a convent primary school and would exchange taunts, usually from the other side of the street, with Protestant kids from the public school.
Our friends, and those of our parents, were almost exclusively Catholic. Such social life as we enjoyed tended to revolve around the Church. Sunday Mass was the central event of the week, socially as well as spiritually, and the parish priest was a figure of unquestioned authority (except in my redoubtable mother’s eyes, but that’s another story).
Add into the mix our strange rituals – First Holy Communions, incense and Latin, confessions, Stations of the Cross and processions around the church grounds – and we must have seemed, to non-Catholics, as mysterious and forbidding as the Exclusive Brethren look to many people today.
What is mysterious is often also threatening, so it was no surprise that we were viewed with suspicion and antipathy by some of the Protestant majority in the town. While Catholics generally enjoyed congenial business and workplace relations with non-Catholics, there was a distance between the two sections of the community – and looking back, I think it was there by mutual consent.
Of course there were other reasons, besides our peculiar Catholic rituals, why Protestants looked askance at us. Politics had been dogged by bitter and bloodthirsty sectarianism since the Reformation, and the Catholic track record was hardly one to be proud of. Guy Fawkes Night, after all, commemorates an attempt by Catholic plotters to blow up the English Parliament – and that was one of the more benign attempts to impose papal authority.
Even in far more recent times, and closer to home, Catholics have been associated with sabotage, subversion and general mischief. In the late 19th century the heavily Catholic West Coast was a hotbed of Irish republicanism. The editor of the Irish Catholic Party’s newspaper, the Hokitika-based New Zealand Celt, was imprisoned for seditious libel.
The Catholic bishop of Auckland, Thomas Liston, in a fiery St Patrick’s Night speech in 1922, outraged the conservative government of William Massey (an Ulster-born Freemason) by praising the fallen republican heroes of the 1916 Dublin Uprising. Liston too was tried for sedition and was acquitted – ironically, by an all-Protestant jury.
Liston got into trouble again later that same year when he gave thanks for the emerging Labour Party’s success in the general election, stirring up suspicion that the Catholic Church was meddling in politics. This was a cause of lingering distrust among Protestants, and one not entirely without foundation.
In Australia, Archbishop Daniel Patrick Mannix of Melbourne – a campaigner against conscription in World War One – wielded huge political influence and played a key hand in the famous Labour Party split of 1955 that saw Catholic MPs peel off into the staunchly anti-communist Democratic Labour Party.
The combative Irish bishop Patrick Moran of Dunedin, founder of the once-influential Catholic paper The Tablet, was another Catholic cleric who rarely hesitated to express himself forcefully on political issues. The Tablet’s editor from 1967 to 1989 was the equally combative John Kennedy, who told me when I interviewed him in the late 1970s that there was still a feeling in New Zealand that the Catholics “had to be watched”.
Kennedy contributed to this in no small way himself, often taking a controversial stand – such as urging readers to vote Labour in 1972 – that was widely, if mistakenly, interpreted as the Church giving instructions to Catholic voters.
It is remarkable how quickly all this has receded into the past. The Second Vatican Council of the 1960s helped break down antagonism toward the Catholic Church by opening up the windows and letting the fresh air of change blow through, and also by making a determined effort to foster reconciliation with other religions. But more significantly, the baby-boomer generation of the 60s and 70s, many of whom rejected organised religion, surfed a tsunami of social and political change that swept away much of the lingering religious bigotry.
It would be wrong to pretend that suspicion of Catholics (of whom I no longer count myself one) has been eliminated entirely. The massive success of Dan Brown’s novel The Da Vinci Code suggested there are millions of people still ready to believe that Catholicism hides dark, sinister secrets.
But at least Joan Dean and Phil O’Neill are able to tie the knot at last. Congratulations to them.