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Vol 41 No 1

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James Quillinan

Neil Darragh

Helen McCabe
THE FAMILY IN AUSTRALIAN SOCIETY: Christianity's contribution to understanding the family and its role

Francine and Byron Pirola
MARRIAGE IN THE LIFE OF THE PARISH: He sent them out two by two ... Luke 10:1

Brian Lewis

Marie Farrell RSM

Desmond O'Donnell OMI




The family in Australian society:
Christianity's contribution to understanding the family and its role


I AM NEITHER an historian, nor a theologian. So, I shall be speaking today from the experience of a life lived under the influence of an Irish Catholic family, a Roman Catholic Church, the nursing profession with its ethical foundations in the Christian notion of vocation, and the transition from a pre- to a post-Vatican II Catholic worldview (or, that is, a Catholic version of the Reformation). It is also a life currently immersed in the study of health care ethics which includes the study of developments in medical science and public health policy the implications of which often go to the heart of Catholicism, particularly in relation to Catholic conceptions of both human life and the family.

As a Catholic Christian, born in the mid-1950s and nurtured within one of those large, Irish Catholic families that have attracted the attention of comedians and the incredulity of our more reproductively-temperate Protestant neighbours, my actual experience of growing up in a family is very different from what is usually the case today. I recall, for instance, our kindly neighbours exclaiming: ‘Oh! You are having another baby, Mrs McCabe! However do you manage?’ and other such well-meaning comments uttered at the sight of my mother in her well-worn maternity wardrobe. My mother was seen wearing maternity dresses during twelve pregnancies in all, a matter which was a great source of pride to her older children, especially myself who had accepted the idea, imparted by both my mother and the nuns who taught me, that the Holy Spirit must have been suitably impressed with the kind of family we were to have given us so many babies! As the second eldest, I recall being fascinated by the new babies, each of which was also a source of joy to us all; indeed, we children would have been baffled, had we entertained the thought at all, by the desire of some to limit the size of their families. But we were only children after all.

For the most part, we were schooled and socialised with other Catholic children from big families: my best friend was the seventh of fourteen children, and other close friends boasted six, eight and nine siblings. I expect that, at the time, many Catholic parents sometimes wished that the Holy Spirit had not been quite so generous. Nonetheless, prior to the late 1960s, Catholics were famous for raising large families. (Writing about her Catholic upbringing, the Irish journalist and author, Nuala O’Faillon, once wrote that the Irish reproduced as if they were an endangered species!). Those were, of course, materially, and in other ways, simpler times.

Following Vatican II, the newfound availability of the contraceptive pill and, importantly, rising affluence along with greater material expectations, the large Catholic family started to shrink, notwithstanding the promulgation of the papal encyclical, Humane Vitae, with its continued prohibition on the use of artificial contraception. In time, Catholics came to find themselves in a society which makes the having of large families exceptionally difficult; social changes begun in the 1960s act (albeit unintentionally) to discourage the large pre-Vatican II family. As a relatively trivial or non-serious example of these changes, I will just mention one at this point: the introduction of compulsory seat belt legislation.
Prior to the legal requirement to wear a seat belt, my family could squeeze up to nine children and two adults into one Holden car, a feat at which our Protestant neighbours marvelled. This was before the family was numerically complete. As children, we were content to nurse the younger ones, sit on the floor of the car or lie on the back ‘shelf’ of the old FJ Holden while our parents encouraged peaceful relations between their offspring by conducting singing contests. Our neighbours could hear us returning home to the tune of ‘Ten Green Bottles’ sung in rounds or Christmas carols in three part harmony, depending upon the season. Of course, this was in Adelaide in the 1950s and ’60s where traffic was considerably less dense than it is today. However, once seat belts were imposed upon car travellers, our family outings were seriously curtailed. And that was just the beginning of a range of changes to a society which had, up until that point, been arranged such that it could accommodate even an Irish Catholic expression of family.

The problem of the seat belt legislation is a non-serious example of factors affecting the Catholic family of the time; the decline in the size of the family was due, perhaps, to more socially significant developments within western society.

What I would like to say at the beginning, however, is that these reminiscences allow me to draw out three themes which I will address today, the first being that social arrangements in Australia were, prior to the 1970s, ordered around the idea that the family is (what the Catholic Church understands to be) the ‘basic unit’ of society. Secondly, those arrangements reflected the ideal that the family is the basic provider of social services, particularly of education. And, thirdly, prior to the 1970s, those same social arrangements reflected the ideal that children are properly raised by their biological parents within the context of marriage.

At the outset, I must stress that I am not offering a history of the family, not even a history of the Christian family; instead, in discussing these themes, I am going to refer, simply, to two ‘moments’ in Australian history: the era prior to the 1960s and the present time. In focusing on these two ‘moments’, I hope to demonstrate that, firstly, up until the 1960s, Australia’s social structures were influenced, primarily, by the tenets of Christianity (including a Christian conception of the family) in ways that many secular commentators overlook, and that, secondly, those structures have been undergoing, since the 1970s, considerable upheaval in relation to a decline in the influence of Christianity.

Some historians and theologians have claimed that the 1960s marked the start of post-Christian Australia. If that is the case then it must be true to say that prior to the 1960s the influence of Christianity on Australian society was, at least, discernible if not, indeed, of primary significance. Of course, that is not to say that Christianity was Australia’s national religion; that would be too tall a claim. Yet, Australia was never entirely godless either; even today, most people report believing in a god even if they do not join, or live within, any established religious tradition. Perhaps, what was evident prior to the 1960s was that the majority of Australians agreed with the Christian Churches on a range of issues, such as the kind of social arrangements that would be best for us as a society.

It is true that Australian society, as elsewhere in the western world, changed radically following the 1960s. A post-modern world, notwithstanding its claims to tolerance, tends, increasingly, to take a derisory view of the Church. Moreover, whenever those who speak on behalf of the Christian churches enter public debate, there are cries of protest against what some commentators interpret as a lack of respect for the distinction between Church and state that is fundamental to a secular, liberal society. To be sure, it is no simple matter maintaining that distinction given that Australian citizens are also members of other social groups which sometimes include one or other of the Christian churches.

I do not wish to lament the rise of a society which is open, at least in principle, to a greater tolerance of those whose conscientious views differ from those of, for instance, most Christians; indeed, a secular liberal society has much to offer that is helpful in the way of informing relations within a multicultural society, including relations between the various Christian denominations. If I have any objections at all to the modern, secular, liberal society it is to point out the ways in which the philosophical basis of such a society is, in itself, undermined in cases where the tolerance it professes to uphold is breached in relation to the views of Christians (among others).

Christianity’s Stamp on the Character of the Australian Family
The social revolution that was the 1960s gave rise to a number of changes in Australian society, one of which was to move the family from its prior place of significance so that society became a more dichotomous arrangement. Social activity is now thought to occur within one or another of two spheres: either the market or the political realm. Intermediate institutions, including the family, are being overlooked in various, subtle ways. This development has been fostered in a number of respects; along with popular culture, tertiary educational institutions have become (arguably) the most influential proponents of this dichotomous worldview, as a brief glance at some undergraduate curricula will attest.
As well, prior to the 1970s, the word family had an agreed meaning and structure: a married couple consisting of a man and a woman and the children they created together. The idea that a family could be reconstructed in alternative ways had not been seriously entertained or, at least, had not found any formal acceptance prior to this point in time. Indeed, even the notion of single motherhood was not only dismissed as (what we might call today) ‘an option’, it was positively discouraged in socially powerful ways. For instance, there were institutions dotted around Australian cities, providing shelter to single women who had conceived out of wedlock. Prior to the 1970s at least, the babies born to these women were adopted; regrettably, the social stigma attached to single motherhood, along with a lack of material support, served to dissuade single women from keeping their babies at the time.

The traditional conception of family holds a place of importance in all societies; even Plato failed to convince the world otherwise. The English philosopher, Roger Scruton, writes that the family plays a vital role in handing on the work of one generation to the next. It also protects and nurtures children, serves as a form of social and economic cooperation, and regulates sexual activity. At least this is so in an ideal sense. Stories of post-war migrants to Australia generally have an economically happy-ever-after ending which would not have eventuated nearly so often in the absence of a stable and secure family structure. Harold James, a professor of history at Princeton, reports that more than three-quarters of registered companies in the industrialised world are family businesses and, in Europe, some of these include some very large enterprises. I do not know how many Australian businesses are family-owned, but I do know they exist and that they promote themselves accordingly as a marketing strategy.
The Church has always viewed the family as pre-political or, that is, prior to the state. It also views the purposes of the market as serving the family. In turn, the flourishing of the family contributes to the common good in ways that are increasingly overlooked in debates about the merits of alternative arrangements. Christian voices have never been silent on this matter and Christian influences have stymied attempts to denigrate the family in a range of respects. So, while various arrangements for co-habitation and parenting now proliferate in ways that would have been unthinkable prior to the 1960s, the Christian conception of family still hovers, sometimes acting as a brake on further experimentation and, at other times, serving as a benchmark against which to measure the success, or otherwise, of ‘post-Christian’ configurations of family arrangements.

What I would like to do now is to mention some events in Australian Catholic history which have influenced the broader social arrangements of this nation.

Some Historical Events
I will focus on two matters which are germane, one being the story of gaining state aid to independent schools. I have elected to mention this issue because it represents a very clear and obvious example of the influence of Christianity on Australia’s social arrangements. The second story is that of the Catholic social justice tradition and the various encyclicals and statements contained therein which find a remarkable degree of coherence with the social arrangements instituted in Australia prior to the 1970s. It is most likely that these statements were a necessary condition of those arrangements. I will address this matter now before returning to the story of state aid to independent schools.

While the Church has never canonised any particular philosophical theory, it draws upon the natural law to explain its conception of family. Accordingly, it has argued that arrangements for providing for social need ought to be structured around the family. In his 1891 encyclical, Rerum Novarum, Pope Leo XIII conceived of the family as a ‘true society’ ‘anterior to every kind of state or nation, with rights and duties of its own …’ This view, long-held, is reiterated in the 1944 Social Justice Statement of the Australian Catholic Bishops; in their summary, the Bishops write: ‘Australia will be a great and prosperous nation to the extent that its family life is made strong and secure’.1 The bishops state that it is ‘an undisputed fact of history’ that ‘a nation grows or declines according as its family life grows or declines’. The bishops go on to suggest that society is conceived, first and foremost, as a collection of families rather than a mass of individuals: ‘[God] might have drawn other designs (the Bishops write)—but He has decided that human life should begin and be carried on and be passed within family walls… and has made men and women co-partners with Him in the vital work of creation….’2

The Bishops write that, as the ‘fundamental unit’ of the Christian state (at the time of writing, the Australian bishops did not question the legitimacy of the description of the state as Christian), the family ought to be protected and nurtured under the post-war rebuilding of that state; in particular, the Bishops recommended that measures be taken to address the dwindling birth rate. The post-war baby boom followed the promulgation of the Bishops’ Social Justice Statement; even if it was a mere coincidence, it was certainly a development in keeping with the Church’s aspirations. Other features explored in the Statement were also realised at the time, such as the payment of ‘an adequate family wage’ and the provision of unemployment benefits should the need arise (the taxation requirements of each citizen lending legitimacy to claims on social resources). The Bishops also recommended that, in our housing policies, buildings be erected that will be ‘true homes’—plenty of space to allow for many children, including space for gardens and for play. Hence, they saw a solution in developing housing estates in country towns or, at least, on the outskirts of large cities according to a general plan of regional development (consider the size of the average Australian home and the growth of suburbia). Hence, we find a range of social arrangements that are supportive of the Bishops’ demands, whether they responded directly to them, or not. While other explanations may be forthcoming, it is difficult to see why or how those arrangements would have materialised in the way they did in a complete absence of the Christian influence.

Overall, the bishops’ Statement held the family in highest esteem, charging parents with responsibility for educating their children in the virtues and other moral and spiritual bases for ensuring not only the safekeeping of their eternal souls but, also, the necessary moral credentials for good citizenship. In order to fulfil their responsibility, Catholic parents were instructed to enrol their children in Catholic schools. At this point, Catholic families ran into some difficulties, as the state was unwilling to provide public funds to independent schools. A solution to the problem was eventually forthcoming and the telling of the story can serve as a clear and direct example of the influence of Catholic Christianity on Australian society.
The promulgation of particular views in papal encyclicals and Bishops’ statements are not always given practical expression in the absence of political activity, a task generally left to lay citizens. One such (little known) instance of Catholic political action can be traced to Canberra where, by 1962, Catholic parents had, like their predecessors, struggled to pay both the taxes which funded state schools and the costs of educating their own children in Catholic schools. Of course, political activity around this problem can be traced as far back as 1870. However, it reached a decisive moment in 1962 when Our Lady of Mercy preparatory school, in lacking sufficient lavatory facilities for reaching a departmental standard of ‘efficiency’, was in danger of forced closure. In the absence of state funding to fulfil the state’s requirements for providing lavatory facilities (they were one lavatory short), Bishop Cullinane of the Goulburn diocese called a meeting to announce his intention to close the school. Catholic parents in attendance, however, determined to take matters even further by closing all four Catholic schools in the Goulburn diocese for the remainder of the second term. The degree to which the Catholic school system ‘took the pressure off’ the State school system became apparent then when 2,000 Catholic school children presented themselves, concurrently, for enrolment in the local State school! Having made their point, Catholic schools re-opened a week later.3

The school lavatory saga provided the impetus for taking a major step towards securing state aid for Catholic schools. For soon afterwards, prior to the 1963 election, Menzies announced that the Federal government would make capital grants to independent schools to build science blocks. Following that announcement, and contrary to its near-defeat of 1961, the Liberal Party won the election with relative ease, increasing the vote from 42.1% to 46%. The Labor vote declined accordingly.4 Ultimately, the principle of state aid to independent schools was accepted at the federal level in 1963 and at the state level in 1967, solving the problem which had afflicted Catholic parents for a long time in attempting to meet their religious requirements in the absence of economic support.

The issue of state aid to independent schools has not gone away. I will return to it in a minute. For now I will attempt to show that, since the 1970s, forces have arisen to undermine the Christian conception of family, particularly as it is understood theologically and metaphysically within the Catholic Church. For instance, the rise of individualism which followed World War II has been most influential. As well, the material success enjoyed by Australians has been accompanied, for reasons that are unclear, with a very different view of standards of morality. As well, the advent of artificial reproductive technology, no-fault divorce laws, and de-facto relationships represent arrangements and activities that are at odds with the Church’s conception of marriage and family, a conception which has little intelligibility in the public domain where the influence of preference utilitarianism, rights-talk, and a post-modern outlook now dominate. Proponents of ‘whateverism’ are genuinely puzzled by the objections of the Church to a range of developments that undermine the institution of the family and that puzzlement represents the gulf that has opened up between (at least) Catholic Christianity and the secular world, a gulf so large that attempts to erect a bridge of understanding between the two have largely failed.

The Family in a So-called Post-Christian World
I began this talk by drawing attention to three themes: firstly, the idea that the family is the ‘basic unit’ of society; secondly, that the family is, properly, the final arbiter of social services, particularly of those involving children and, thirdly, children are properly raised by their biological parents within the context of marriage. Post the 1960s, however, those arrangements which were reflective of these ideological commitments have been undermined to a considerable degree.

For this reason, the underpinnings and, therefore, intelligibility of the Catholic Christian message often escapes secular society; certain wrongful assumptions are made by commentators who fail to see the deeper understandings of what is being done in the name of Christianity. If you will bear with me while I consider the example of state aid to independent schools again, it is possible to see how this works.
Recently, in her Quarterly Essay on Christianity and Politics in Australia, Amanda Lohrey takes what she admits to be a more cynical view of state aid to Christian schools. She does this by suggesting that, in seeking state aid for their schools, Christian parents are more concerned about their ‘hip pocket’ than with the social justice issues they promote in public debate. Religious groups, she suggests, are merely self-serving, special interest groups. To understand her point, it is best, I think, to read Lohrey’s own words. She writes:

[I]t’s here, in the area of public subsidy to church operations that the contribution of the religious lobbies to manifest social inequity is most evident, especially in regard to the privileging of wealthy church schools. All the rhetorical fire-and-brimstone may be about abortion and homosexuality and to a lesser degree euthanasia and stem-cell research, but the real deal is who gets what from the public purse. If this seems an unduly cynical position, look at the outcomes to date. Despite the fact that the ALP espoused policies that were closer to the publicly stated positions of the churches on almost every position—Iraq, refugees, industrial relations, social welfare—this was not enough of a moral incentive to override the perceived threat to church finances, and in the 2004 election the bishops spoke out against Labor on the basis of Latham’s policy of reducing state subsidy to the wealthiest of church schools.5

What Lohrey here identifies are the inconsistencies in Christian action in the public domain; to be sure, those who do, in principle, concur with the Church line on social justice issues may fail to be true to their convictions when they cast their votes. This creates a credibility problem for the Church, no doubt. Yet, the problem raised by Lohrey is, perhaps, not straightforwardly one of selfish self-interestedness (even if it is not altogether devoid of it). What is evident is the serious misunderstanding of the religious motivations which prompt some parents to send their children to Catholic schools.

Of course, the greater affluence generally enjoyed by Christian families in recent decades has acted to obscure those reasons so that private schooling appears to be a choice of the more economically and socially privileged, chosen for the sake of preserving those privileges. At the same time, funding of public social services, such as education, has declined under the Howard government so that the disparities between the wealthiest independent schools and the poorest state schools are so wide that it is no wonder that Latham wanted to rescind on the provision of state aid to the wealthiest private schools: to do so would have given, at least, the appearance of addressing inequities in our society.

Lohrey objects to what she sees as the outcomes of religious lobbying: (on her view) ‘manifest social inequity’. To be sure, some Christian parents may be blinkered, screening out the fate of those children who are not their own. However, is the ‘manifest social inequity’ really an outcome of religious lobbying? Surely this is too swift a conclusion. Could it not be more to the point to say that manifest social inequity exists in society as a function of such arrangements as the present taxation and industrial relations systems and other arrangements that act to reserve, for the market, the most privileged of places in society? While it might be understandable that Latham wanted to withdraw funding from the wealthiest of schools (and even some members of the Liberal Party concurred with his view), doing that would not have made a great deal of difference to the lot of the poorest children. Rectifying that problem would require much greater social change, surely.

The pre-1960s Bishops would be puzzled if they read Lohrey’s essay in which she describes all Christians who object to extending marriage and the family to arrangements involving homosexual partners as fundamentalists or Christian Right extremists. This seems as unhelpful an understanding of the world as are attempts to divide society, simply, into Left and Right, liberal or conservative, when it is evident that such divisions are too simplistic to be able to explain what is really going on. Yet, it is difficult, in a highly individualist and proprietarian world, to explain the Christian meaning of marriage and the family in ways that are intelligible. So, when we object to a dismantling of these institutions, secular commentators simply assume bigotry and hatred or, at best, a lack of compassion for those who do not toe the Church line. They are unable to understand the values, principles and understandings that some Christians seek to protect and uphold. Perhaps, the telling of stories might help. I will contribute just two short tales here.

A few years ago, the ethicist Dr. Julian Savulescu, was interviewed on Radio National. The topic of the programme was artificial reproductive technology and ‘designer babies’ and Dr. Savulescu argued for greater access to this technology so that parents could have the children they wanted, when they wanted them, and under conditions that suited them (he indicated his preference for a boy with specific physical features who shared his own interests—surfing for example but not music—and a range of other features. After listening to the broadcast, I felt somewhat disturbed by the unbridgeable chasm between Savulescu’s worldview and my own, even though we were engaged in the same field of study. In the same week, my hairdresser informed me that his parents, in search of a better life for their children, had migrated to Australia from Malta after their seventeenth child was born. Only sixteen of their children made the trip to Australia, however, as one had died at birth. He commented: ‘My poor mother—she was grief-stricken for a long time over the little one who died’. The contrast between the two stories could not be plainer.

Social Arrangements in a Post-Christian World
Today, Catholics have fewer defining characteristics than what was once the case. And the influence of the Church in the public domain is less extensive; Cardinal Pell’s AFL predictions aside, the Catholic Church is more often engaged in raising objections to various developments on both sides of politics than in setting, in any obvious sense, the terms for social arrangements. What is evident, however, is that the post-modern world has certainly arrived.

Of course, people still get married and have children. However, what we see is, perhaps, more a hollow semblance of the social institutions that Christianity gave rise to. For instance, in a recent article in the Sydney Morning Herald, Adele Horin remarked that contemporary weddings are often held to celebrate the success of a de facto relationship rather than to sanctify or mark the beginning of marital union: the couple, whose relationship has survived the test of time, the raising of children and other challenges is now celebrated, sometimes fifteen years or so down the track of co-habitation, in a wedding ceremony. So, the outward ritual of the wedding ceremony is what has remained, although its substance is largely changed.

And so has the place of the family. For instance, mothers of unborn babies suffering from abnormalities of one sort or another are often encouraged to have abortions on economic grounds. Similarly, changes to industrial relations legislation suggest that we are now ready to abandon the idea of ensuring a ‘living wage’ sufficient for supporting a family; the rise of the market, along with its individualistic logic, places that market not only prior to the state but, also, prior to the family.

And to the extent that it is accepted that homosexual couples have a ‘right’ to parent children, or that children born through artificial reproductive technology will be loved better by their parents (in having designed them themselves), then we give up the natural law idea that marriage is a unitive and procreative institution, in which a couple share in the divinely-ordained work of pro-creation. If you ask the Irish how many children they have, they will sometimes preface their response with the phrase: ‘we have been blessed with’ four or six or however many children they have. The idea that children are a blessing is reflected in the language that is used. It would make no sense to the speakers of such a language to talk of having a right to have children in the way that is increasingly the case in Australia.

Of course, our social structures are coming to reflect the post-1960s worldview, just as they once reflected the priorities of Christians. While there is much to appreciate in the secular, liberal state, it is, nonetheless, a mistake to leave little room for the fostering and protection of the family. History does teach us (if we allow it to teach us anything at all) that the well-being of society is largely determined by the well-being of the institution of the family. If a specifically Christian conception of family is to be given up, then we need to think how else we will support this most vital of institutions. And we need, also, to bear in mind the plight of those who cannot create a family in a traditional sense so that we do not, as we may well have done in the past, violate their dignity in the process.

Dr Helen McCabe, a former nurse, specialises in ethics and health care, and works as research associate at the Plunkett Centre for Ethics in Health Care, Sydney.

1. Australian Episcopal Conference, M. Hogan (ed.) (2006), Justice Now! Social Justice Statements of the Australian Catholic Bishops 1940-1966, Sydney: University of Sydney: 49.
2. Australian Episcopal Conference, ibid.
3. A more detailed account of this event is provided by Campion, E., (1987), Australian Catholics: the contribution of Catholics to the development of Australian Society, Ringwood: Penguin: 170-5.
4. Santamaria, B.A., (1997) 2nd ed., Santamaria: A Memoir, Oxford: Oxford University Press: 221.
5. Lohrey, A., (2006), ‘Voting for Jesus: Christianity and Politics in Australia’, Quarterly Essay, 22: 64.
This paper was presented at Parliament House, Canberra on 6th-7th August, 2006 at a Conference entitled: ‘Australia’s Christian Heritage: Its Importance in our Past and its Relevance to our Future’.