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Philip Ayres, Prince of the Church: Patrick Francis Moran, 1830-1911.

Philip Ayres, Prince of the Church: Patrick Francis Moran, 1830-1911, Miegunyah Press, Melbourne, 2007, xvi + 367 pages; ISBN 978 0 522 85373 5.

There is no shortage of biographies of famous Australian Roman Catholics. Mary MacKillop has had at least 37 biographies and Caroline Chisholm at least 27. But it is only now that the Cardinal Archbishop of Sydney and Metropolitan of New South Wales from 1884 to 1911, Patrick Francis Cardinal Moran, has scored his first. What is to be made of these contrasting statistics? They are no doubt reflective of popular sentiment amongst Roman Catholic and other Australians. Princes of all kinds are at a discount these days and the esteem in which prelates were once held has dimmed in a period in which clerical misbehaviour and episcopal cover-ups have been publicised. A man who once towered (literally; he was six-foot three) over the church but later faded, has received a princely revival at the hands of former professor of English, Philip Ayres.

Ayres opines that Moran 'had the moral courage to defend the Church's teachings in the face of hostility, whereas most archbishops prefer a quieter life' (p. 231). It cannot be accidental that it was the present Cardinal Archbishop of Sydney who commissioned this study. Nevertheless, this is a warts-and-all biography. The sordid Coningham divorce case involving Dean O'Haran is frankly faced, along with criminal acts used by others to attack as well as to defend the Church. Ayres questions Moran's judgement in terms of his misguided support of a 'special friend'. More generally, his style of churchmanship, quite uncongenial today--authoritarian, secretive, manipulative, bigoted and so on--is laid before us here. As a bishop of his time and place, his heavy emphasis on consolidating the tribal-religious pride and identity of the Irish-Australian Roman Catholics was entirely natural but went further than most.

On the other hand, Moran was efficient and generally fair in person and emerges with more credit for his moral and political stances. He was pro-Federation, pushed the education and integration of Catholics (though without compromising their religious identity), opposed racially-based immigration and criticised the French Catholic anti-Dreyfusards. He was an indefatigable traveller and school-opener. The school system and St Mary's Cathedral were possibly the Cardinal's greatest achievements. His establishment of the impressive St Patrick's Seminary at Manly was also of vital importance in establishing an Australian priesthood, but one still in an Irish mould.

One of the most fascinating episodes is Moran's involvement in the first Vatican Council, which defined Papal Infallibility. As secretary to his uncle, Cardinal Cullen, there appear to be grounds for thinking that the young Moran had an influence on the wording of the Infallibility decree (p. 53). If so, Moran's princely approach to church governance flowed very naturally from his lengthy formation of 24 years spent in Rome. The 1870 example of involvement in Vatican Council politics also recalls for us the importance of John Molony's 'Roman mould' of the supposedly Irish-Australian church.

The late distinguished historian, Tony Cahill, whose many fine articles on Moran feature prominently here, wrote the excellent ADB entry and would have published a full biography except for a legendary mishap at a railway station in Italy. Ayres differs somewhat from Cahill on Moran's politics. He shows that Moran was increasingly engaged with Labor, but he points out that Moran was probably a free-trader and a pragmatist who happily admitted voting for George Reid, at least as the lesser of two evils (p. 170). Moran supported union membership and the (limited) right to strike and at the very end supported the 1911 'socialist' referendum and helped to preserve the Holman government.

The Miegunyah Press produces quality books and this is no exception. Ayres has a proven track record as a biographer of such diverse characters as Malcolm Fraser, Douglas Mawson and Owen Dixon. He writes well. The referencing is thorough, including 'Bibliography and Iconography' and provides an excellent index. The book is very well illustrated, though just that, rather than adding to the narrative. Ayres does not make much of Moran's substantial literary output, largely historical, even though it is correctly characterised as antiquarian and propagandist, rather than history as increasingly professionally understood at the time. Nevertheless, Moran was an outstanding scholar and his massive History of the Catholic Church in Australasia (1895) was a major achievement, at least in bringing together basic documentation. Though Moran's 1883 Prayer Book is mentioned, there is little discussion of his spiritual or devotional life. This is a strange neglect, evident also in other recent episcopal biographies.

Malcolm Prentis

School of Arts and Sciences

Australian Catholic University
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Author:Prentis, Malcolm
Publication:Journal of the Royal Australian Historical Society
Article Type:Book review
Date:Dec 1, 2008
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