24  JANUARY 2007



The starting point of this News Release is an extract from a 10 page printout of  speech given by John Ralston Saul on September 22, 2006 as the opening address to the Cornerstones Conference on Public Education. This Conference was held in Sydney Australia and was organised by The Public Education Alliance.

" Remember, that in the 19th century the Catholic population in Australia tended to be poor and generally speaking at that time the Pope and his friends tended to be quiet. Well they were looking to prove that they were perfect and couldn't make mistakes but on the ground the Catholic church was at the heart of a great deal of the origins of the early labor unions which aimed at protecting poor people and the Catholics were very often in western countries the poorer people. In some ways the settlement had within that idea that one of the jobs of the church was to protect the poor Catholics against the elite. It wasn't simply a religious issue. If you take that reality and apply it to the expansion of religious schools of today, paid for by public money, you are going in exactly the opposite direction of Sir Henry Parkes and the settlement of the 19th century. That is about as far into Australia historical politics that I think I can get. I don't think I've made a mistake yet, -I'm not sure.

It struck me that it seems very odd that nobody seems to be talking about that contradiction - it is not a continuation of the original intent to have two types of education. The church's intent was not elitism whereas the intent today is clearly elitism."(P.6)

Ralston Saul the Romantic Commits Error of Omission

It is unfortunate that Ralston Saul, who is a strong and valuable supporter of public education, has unwittingly fallen into an simplistic, unrealistic  "romantic" interpretation of the part played by the Roman Catholic Church in Australian history. By failing to be aware of the clash between the mediaeval, authoritarian, hierarchical and anti-enlightenment ideological Roman Catholic Church and nineteenth century liberals who fervently believed in a progressive, liberal, secular society,  he falls into dangerous error.

 Ralston Saul  should perhaps read further into the history of the battle for public education  and Church/State Separation in Australia.

If, for example, he had read

1.    A.G. Austin's Australian Education 1788-1900 ; Church, State and Public Education in Colonial Australia (1961)  , alongside his Select Documents on this subject together with 

2.    J.S.Gregory's  Church and State  (1973)  and 

3     L.J. Blake's (editor) Vision and Realization (1973)- or even

4     Brother Ronald Fogarty's Catholic Education in Australia 1806-1950 (1959)

he would discover that his simple "class analysis" or "elitist" interpretation of the part played by the Roman Catholic Church in Australian history is sadly mistaken.

Ralston Saul's error is not surprising.  The struggle for public education in a liberal state against the forces of Roman Catholic Church reaction is in the process of being written out of the official version of Australian history. Educational studies are themselves presentist. Teacher training institutions  consider it politically incorrect to have an historical perspective. For example,  Melbourne University Education library, the academic home of Austin and Gregory - the place where they worked and produced these books, -no longer has their work on the shelves. In fact there are almost no history books which tell of the nineteenth century story of the struggle for public education  available for readers in that library!

However, if Ralston Saul had obtained and read A.G. Austin's History of Australian Education, he would have read, at page 196-197 the following:

"In the closing stages of this struggle between Church and State it assumed a dimension which ( Gregory, Fogarty and Clark) have not fully appreciated . It produced a form in which the Secular Acts finally passed into law - designed, not to drive religion out of the State Schools, but to prevent the Roman Catholic Church from continuing its assault upon the liberal secular state with the aid of the State's own resources."

and further, at page 204,

"Academically, the colonial liberals, like their brethren in Europe, had long been aware of the seriousness of the Catholic campaign against liberalism, but suddenly the issue ceased to be academic, became immediate and tangible enough to provoke them into action in defence of their liberalism."

The Pope and his Friends Tended to be Quiet? Rubbish!

Unfortunately Ralston Saul does not appear to have heard of:

  • The Syllabus of Errors, 1864, Encyclical of Pope Pius IX

  • The Doctrine of Papal Infallibility ( 1870)

  • Gladstone's " The Vatican Decrees in their Bearing on Civil Allegiance"

  • Bishop Goold's Pastoral Admonition on the Education Issue, June 1872, Victoria

  • Joint Pastoral Letters on Education, June 1879, Archbishop Vaughan and his three Suffragan Bishops

  • Five Pastoral Letters of  Archbishop Vaughan

If members of the Roman Catholic hierarchy were interested in a quiet life, they would not have issued any of the above inflammatory publications. For example, when Archbishop Vaughan claimed that the Public School of New South Wales were

"seed plots of immorality, infidelity and lawlessness being calculated to debase the standard of human excellence , and to corrupt the political, social and individual life of future citizens...I would call these schools scavenger's daughters because they are the most effective instruments invented by man for squeezing very gradually almost imperceptibly, the Catholic faith out of Catholic people"

Vaughan, his fellow Australian bishops, and his Pope were not after a quiet life. He launched himself into a ding dong even if it was Irish style, and he got it. Henry Parkes, whom Ralston Saul correctly understood as a champion of public education with a vision for the future, responded to the attack on public education and the liberal state by the Roman Catholic hierarchy as follows:

" A wanton and libelous attack has been made on our schools!"

The reaction to Vaughan's attack on liberalism was immediate. But his attack was not only upon liberalism as a system of ideas, but the tangible manifestation of the liberal ideology - the public schools of New South Wales.

The Roman Catholic Position on Education is not Inconsistent.

Ralston Saul is in error when he portrays the policy of the Roman Catholic Church as being inconsistent. Since the time of Constantine the Great when the Christian Bishops developed a strong bureaucracy  ousting the old pagan religions and asserting, after Ambrose, the power of Church over State, their position has been utterly consistent, particularly in the West. The Pope and his hierarchy have always been about power, property, pence and principles - in that order. Over the centuries they have proved again and again that principles can run a distant last if they are in conflict with the first three. The history of the Roman Catholic Church in Australia is utterly consistent with this "tradition".

Ralston Saul's interpretation of the Roman Catholic concern for the "poor Catholics " against their more fortunate Australian citizens, is also fraught with error. He implies that in the nineteenth century  the Church looked after their "poor" whereas in the twentieth and twenty first century they are aligned with the "elites". There were always "elite" members of the Roman Catholic Church in Australia. Since the nineteenth century, the Church has always looked after its political networks and powerbase.

Ralston Saul does not appear to be aware of the following excerpt from the Pastoral Letter from the Seven Bishops of Victoria on Education Matter published on 9 October 1983.

"The Catholic community has every reason to be proud of the achievements of its schools. Over the last fifty years Catholic teachers, both religious and lay, have enabled huge numbers of their students to achieve a degree of social mobility which has not been bettered anywhere in the Western world."

This Statement was made 23 years ago and is an understatement of the current position.

If the Roman Catholic Church is now aligned with the elite schools ( Protestant) it is for political purposes. Time and time again church officials and leading Roman Catholic laymen like Bob Santamaria, acknowledged that the Roman Catholic Church schools should not be separated from the so-called elite non-Roman Catholic schools because they could be isolated and picked off - as was clearly done in the latter half of the nineteenth century. However, the Church is just going with its power base - which is becoming more and more noticeable in the upper echelons of government,  the legal system and private enterprise.

A Religious issue

Before Ralston wrote :

"It wasn't simply a religious issue" he should have read Austin once again. DOGS refer to a few quotes on pages 195-199:

" The Encyclical (1864  Pope's Syllabus of Errors) was unambiguous: condemnation of liberalism in general; the appended 'syllabus of the principal errors of our time' categorically condemned eighty manifestations of liberalism, including the belief that education should be 'subjected to the civil and political power,' and the belief that Catholics could 'approve of the system of educating youth unconnected with the Catholic faith and the power of the Church." ( page 195)

" Back in their own diocese they set about implementing the decisions they had taken at the 1869 provincial Council, and in pastorals, sermons, speeches and pamphlets they undertook the detailed instruction of their people. They began by stressing the sacred and inalienable rights of parents and pastors to impart religious instruction to their children, reminding their hearers that they, the bishops, were responsible to 'God' for the souls of the parents and children confided to their care. It was thus impossible, they argued, for any bishop to accept a system of education which did not recognise his guardianship over the education of Catholic children; the function of the State was not to interfere with or control the bishop in the exercise of his guardianship, but to protect, assist and foster him. ( pages 198-199)

" The only type of school acceptable to the church was one in which there was complete freedom of denominational action - 'in which the authority of the Church will be fully received and that method of instruction observed which shall have for its first object the eternal welfare of souls' These schools, the bishops went on, should be open to government inspection, but we shall assert our right to our just proportion of the public revenues which are yearly set apart for the education of the people' This intention to create an independent system of Catholic schools was a direct challenge to the prevailing concept of a national system of schools" ( page 200)


In the nineteenth , twentieth and twenty first century, State Aid to church schools is about the power of religious men to indoctrinate children with religious belief systems. The nineteenth century Bishops refused any State control of curriculum, appointment of teachers, or even in the final analysis inspection of their schools.

At no point in the history of their Australian school system have they placed the welfare of poor children above their power to control a state funded but church owned and controlled school system. The majority of  poor Catholic children in Australia have always been  and still are enrolled in the State not the Church system. Many State school teachers can tell you about the rejected or expelled children coming to the State system  from the Roman Catholic system. If the Public system is privatised, where will the poor Roman Catholic children go?

The demands made by the Roman Catholic hierarchy, - whatever their current rhetorical ambits, - have always been, and still are, and DOGS suggest will always be, related to the power of the Church to indoctrinate children and have power within and over the State

Ralston Saul was simply in error when he said that " It wasn't simply a religious issue". In fact, it was fundamentally a religious/political issue and that issue has not and never will go away.


Can John Ralston Saul, the Public Education Alliance or any of our readers, explain Ralston Saul's blank spot?




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Last modified:Tuesday, 30 January 2007