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Why I am a Catholic

A sense for justice

by Lionel Bowen

When I was young, there was not a lot of Catholicity; there was a lot of poverty, frugality and hardship and all the problems of life. At that time we moved to Kensington. That brought about a change in the whole atmosphere of my upbringing, because it was the first time I went to a school run by Sisters. My mother worked very hard - cleaning schools, which is not an easy job - so I didn't see her much because I'd be at school when she'd be home and when I was home she'd be cleaning Sydney Boys High School.

My mother never ever lost her faith, which was quite a remarkable thing to me because she had so many difficulties in life. Similarly, when I went to Catholic schools, I began to appreciate the dedication and the interest of the teachers. First they were the Sisters of the Sacred Heart and later the Marist Brothers. There again I saw the dedication of the Brothers. They were so interested in getting us through. Then I got a position in a law firm as a messenger boy. My mother, again with intelligence, said it's no good working for a lawyer unless you're going to be a lawyer. So I became a lawyer.

In the process of understanding law and the question of justice, you find the basic principles of what Christianity is about and the contribution it makes. The real issue of justice is how to have laws that are fair and reasonable and, if they're not fair and reasonable, how to alter them. Justice means that everybody is entitled to a fair share of what you'd call the world's goods and a reasonable life, though that doesn't always happen. And something needed to be done about that.

Rerum Novarum spun into my eyesight in those days. That encyclical, from 1891, declared that there was value in the whole of the human race and that people should not exploit others for their own gain. Its publication, in my view, meant the Labor Party gained such an emphasis and the Trade Union Movement was given validity. Workers were entitled to be organised, families were entitled to a basic wage. And for those in society who couldn't get that, there ought to be other means. These were great concepts, and it was great to realise that the Church had such momentum back in the 1890s.

I spent a lot of time with my grandmother because my mother was always at work. She was a great admirer of Cardinal Moran, who was responsible for the labour philosophy of not going directly along what you'd call the communist route but via the issue of social justice. It's interesting that he was a great supporter of the maritime strike in the 1890s. I read that as the striking workers marched past St Mary's Cathedral they gave three cheers for the cardinal. He also went to one of their annual conferences in Victoria as an honorary delegate. It was a great lesson for all of them to realise that such a high person in the Catholic faith was prepared to take an interest in their problems, from the point of view of justice.

Law brings us to the issue of jurisprudence, the science of the law. Here you see the relevance of Thomas Aquinas' presentation of the natural law. It is natural to be a follower of Christianity, in my view, there is no better way, there is no other way. If you talk about law in the sense of justice and fairness and equity, you see there a whole concept of being able to understand how you might run an orderly society. Right from Aquinas, in the thirteenth century, up to Rerum Novarum, you see what was needed. Moving away from those values, the concepts of communism would remove from the individual any rights at all, resulting in a materialistic society where there is no future for anybody. A society can't work if you adopt such principles.

In China, where I've been several times, the top communist leaders regard themselves as being permanent, though they are few in number, probably only eight million in a population of one billion. They run the business on the basis that they think they know what's best. But they want what's best for themselves and not necessarily what's best for their society. You are only allowed one child in China. You are not able to do what you want to do. You've got to work where you are told, you have to marry when you are allowed to marry. You have all these things that don't work for, but against, the human spirit. It's was the same in the (former) Soviet Union. Again, there you saw the grandeur of the Tzars. The issue is, what are they going to leave behind?

Against this is the Christian influence, acknowledging everybody has a life to lead, that life has to be fair, has to be just, has to relate to a purpose, and that you ought to be running your laws and your system of government towards that. In Australia, one advantage we have is the concept of 'mateship'. There is a common understanding of what our purpose in life is, how we are all in the one stream, how we are not above each other. We are all heading for the same benefits, and the Church itself, through education, through looking after the disadvantaged, hospitals, orphanages, has been an inspiration to the great mass of Australians.

Let me tell of an interesting thing that happened to me in parliament. In the Whitlam government, I was Postmaster General and I was getting on all right there. Whitlam introduced an Education bill to give aid to private schools. The Karmel Report had shown a number of schools, including the Catholic schools, were at a disadvantage in the amount of financial resources available to them, and that there ought to be added assistance from the Commonwealth to those schools. Kim Beazley (Snr) was Minister for Education and we had the numbers in the Lower House to pass the bill that was going to give substantial sums of money to schools in need, basically the Catholic schools. But the bill was rejected in the Senate because we didn't have the numbers.

Malcolm Fraser and the boys in charge in the Liberals said we are not going to let this happen unless they give the same amount of money to Melbourne Grammar and all the other big public schools. This was their sense of justice, and it didn't relate to need. So the bill came back to the House of Representatives. Just at that stage Beazley had a heart attack and was put in hospital in Perth.

Gough Whitlam said, "Listen Bowen, you're a Catholic aren't you? This schools report legislation has come back. Beazley is in hospital but I don't know whether I can trust you with this legislation". He said, "I've got Grassby here". I said, "Give it to Grassby, that's the best thing to do".

"No", he said, "I want you to have it. I want to get this bill through".

So I made a speech, similar to what I've been saying here. I talked about the advantages the Catholic Education system has given to Australia, about the dedication of those who work in it, about the parents who support it. Are you going to deny these children a fair chance to compete on the same basis? I thought it was a good speech. Finally, I said the best thing we could do was have a double dissolution on this. We'll take it to the people.

Ralph Hunt and Peter Nixon, two of the Country Party fellows, came round to me afterwards and said, Lionel, you don't really mean that. Of course we do, I said. We'll wipe the floor with you on this issue, you know that. There are a couple of schools in our electorates that need a little topping up, they said. Could you help us? I sent them to see Mr James, in the education sector in the Commonwealth government. So James comes to me to say they want a bit more for their schools in the country areas. It's not too bad, he said, they only want about another million. I said we'd give it to them.

So when the bill comes back on, I've increased their subsidy. There is a vote. The whole of the Country Party came across the floor and voted with us.

Malcolm was furious. Whitlam said to me, you might have a future, Bowen. I said, no, I've done enough now. So it was about giving justice to schools who needed it; it was about principles of social justice. You never forget those principles, and you always try to act in accordance with them, even if you don't always succeed.

I can think of no better system than the one we have in Australia. And I want to say how lucky I am to be a Catholic because I could have been anything in the terms of family background. And that's a tribute to my mother and her mother and all the Catholic influences around me. I've enjoyed my life immensely and I thank the Catholic faith for that.

Lionel Bowen studied law at Sydney University and practised as a solicitor in Sydney prior to becoming a Federal minister in 1972. In 1962 he was elected to the NSW Parliament and served as MLA for Randwick until 1969. He then transfered from State to Federal politics when he was elected as MHR for Kingsford-Smith. For the next 21 years Lionel represented the Kingsford-Smith electorate and held a variety of positions both in government and opposition. In 1977 he was elected Deputy Leader of the Federal Parliamentary Labor Party. In 1984 he became Attorney-General and Minister assisting the Prime Minister in Commonwealth-State relations. He retired from Federal parliament in March 1990.

Lionel, with his wife Claire, have five sons and three daughters, and live in Kensington in the house he was brought up in.

This is an extract from the book, "Why I am still a Catholic", a collection of stories of faith and belief published by David Lovell Publishing, Melbourne.

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