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Daniel Mannix, 50 years on

By Simon Caterson - posted Tuesday, 12 March 2013


Archbishop Daniel Mannix, who died fifty years ago this year at the age of 99, was Australia's most influential and controversial churchman. He did not arrive in Australia until he was in his forties, landing here in March 1913, yet he accomplished enough to fill more than one lifetime. Mannix is the subject of a conference being held this month at the State Library of Victoria.

Mannix, who was Catholic Archbishop of Melbourne for almost half a century, was a powerful presence in the lives of generations of Australian Catholics, and non-Catholics also, as well as having a major impact overseas due to his interest in Irish affairs.

Mannix may well be the only archbishop ever arrested on the high seas by the British navy. In 1920, he was detained on the orders of Prime Minister David Lloyd George, who dispatched a warship to prevent him from landing in Ireland. In those volatile and markedly sectarian times, Archbishop Mannix, being Irish, Catholic and outspoken, was accused of disloyalty to the Empire.

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Mannix not only made history; he is someone about whom many people, both within and outside the Church, still feel strongly. Even his most critically-minded biographer, James Griffin, acknowledges that "[n]o personality in Australian history is more worthy of the epithet charismatic than Daniel Mannix".

It was not just what Mannix set out to do that matters, but the way he went about doing what he did. To borrow the phrase used by Michael Gilchrist, a biographer more readily appreciative than Griffin of his subject's virtues, what characterised Mannix most particularly was his wit and wisdom.

The sheer number of full-length biographies, the first of which appeared not long after his arrival in Australia, indicates the national importance of Archbishop Mannix, and biographies continue to be written half a century after his death. Griffin's biography has just been published, and one of Australia's leading biographers, Brenda Niall, currently is working on a new life of Archbishop Mannix.

It has been observed by Cardinal George Pell that no other figure in Australian history has inspired as many biographies as Daniel Mannix, with the sole exception of another Irish-Australian, Ned Kelly.

In reflecting on who Archbishop Mannix was and why he matters, it is necessary to consider the public leadership he provided in Australia during the First World War and also the Cold War. The stand he took against conscription and the later resistance to the spread of communism may have attacked vociferously by his adversaries, yet history shows Mannix to have been right.

Mannix was accused of meddling in politics, but apparently saw no conflict with his role as a churchman. As Mannix observed to his protégé and biographer B.A. Santamaria: "Politicians never really object to Bishops intervening in politics. What they object to is when Bishops intervene on the other side".

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Mannix determined and principled opposition to attempts to impede the fair exercise of individual conscience and the encroachment of the secular state upon religious and other freedoms is a touchstone for us today.

It is significant that while Mannix resisted the spread of communism, he rejected a move by the Menzies government to outlaw the Communist Party of Australia. Similarly, Mannix opposed forcing men to fight far from Australia in World War One but did not oppose conscription during World War Two when the homeland was threatened with invasion.

At the same time as he engaged in events of the day, Mannix remained far-sighted. His patient advocacy over many decades for state financial aid to non-government schools eventually was accepted by Prime Minister Robert Menzies as central to the Australian education system, a policy that in our time has attracted bipartisan support.

In higher education, Mannix encouraged the full participation of Catholics within the then expanding public university sector as a natural progression towards Catholics taking their rightful place in public and professional life.

He was very much a public figure; as Brenda Niall observes, the inner man remains elusive. Mannix has a strong presence in Australian culture, inspiring several plays and appearing (in fictional guise) in at least one well-known novel, Frank Hardy's Power Without Glory. He is also the subject of a number of portraits painted by prominent artists, among them John Lavery and Clifton Pugh.

When aged in his nineties, Mannix granted to the ABC one the very first in-depth interviews to be broadcast on Australian television, a landmark event in the history of the media in this country. It is also great television that features Mannix displaying, despite the obvious frailty, his characteristic eloquence, humility, keenness of mind and strength of spirit.

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About the Author

Simon Caterson is a freelance writer and the author of Hoax Nation: Australian Fakes and Frauds from Plato to Norma Khouri (Arcade).

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Creative Commons LicenseThis work is licensed under a Creative Commons License.

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