Cathblog - A new book notes the convert soul of Manning Clark

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Time was when Catholics, Australian or otherwise, could look forward with relish to reading the works of a famous convert. These were sometimes introduced by means of a biography, like this one, or, posthumously, by accounts that were more memoir than critique, and which helped unfold and reveal the religious mystery behind the subject, writes Michael Furtado.

Thus we could look forward with pride to claiming as our very own the particular charisms of Chesterton and Belloc, Newman and Dorothy Day, Thomas Merton and Evelyn Waugh. Elizabeth Seton and Edith Stein, both converts, even made it to canonisation.

The conversions of Tennessee Williams and Oscar Wilde have been  much more spiritually murky and complex. Both converts helped introduce the soubriquet of ‘gay’ into religious discourse.  And then, of course, there’s Graham Greene, the very model of a modern Catholic convert whose novels are suffused with angst. Such forays force the issue of a tailing-off of prominent converts since Vatican II and why this might be the case. An answer could be found in helping define what a postmodern Catholic might be, especially one who responds to the convictions of the Word made Flesh in these distinctly differently inculturated times.

Such a person must surely be Manning Clark, whose life is assiduously and critically examined in this official biography. Up until now, Clarkian scholars have relied upon the work of Clark himself, something I was introduced to in the 1970s, when my first Principal, Fr Ian Mackintosh, handed me a copy of Clark’s Short History and invited me to teach it to a group of boys at a college in the middle of the Australian bush that was such a major focus of Clark’s historical vernacular. ‘Mack’ was somewhat in awe of Manning, mainly reading him as a proto-Catholic who might inspire young men on a similar quest to discover an Australian Holy Grail.

Unfortunately History was removed from my realm of teaching responsibilities and so I resorted to introducing Politics as an alternative subject for the Senior Years of schooling; that was not a good idea because it robbed me of the means of teaching about the power of ideology and propaganda that History agreeably cloaks but necessarily provides. Not for nothing, also, is Manning Clark regarded as the darling of the Left and the favourite target for attack by revisionist historians of the Right. Those who support his side in the highly-contested field that is Australia’s ‘history wars’, include prominent historians, like Stuart Macintyre, while behind the equally prestigious Geoffrey Blainey are assembled serried ranks of others who denounce him, such as Keith Windschuttle.

While Mark McKenna covers the gist of this schism in some detail, his biography digs deep to reveal the forces that helped shape these deep commitments, from Clark’s upbringing in a Sydney Evangelical Anglican clerical family, to the mystery of his father’s translation to a parish in more liberal broad-Church Melbourne, where Clark won a scholarship to Geelong Grammar. From here McKenna plots the path taken by Manning to Oxford, where he graduated with a Master’s degree and without the doctorate that Clark later felt had unjustifiably hampered his career, when compared with better qualified but less influential Melbourne historians.

A recurring theme in this book is Clark’s obsession with the struggle between Catholicism and Calvinism. Although Clark did not live long enough to encounter the rise of militant Islam, one senses he would have placed militant Islam in Calvin’s epistemological camp. And one has also to ask what he would have made of the historical significance of Catholic fundamentalism in this day and age.

From Oxford, McKenna relates how Clark returned to Australia prematurely, with Dymphna. She had accompanied him to Europe to embark on a stellar career of her own, a career brought to an abrupt end not so much by the rise of Hitler as at the insistence of her husband. Indeed the biography offers convincing evidence of the power behind the throne, since Dymphna Clark provided the services of not just a wife and mother but also of a research assistant and proof-reader for Manning’s colossal output for almost the entirety of his career.

And yet, in spite of this, and perhaps because of it, Clark was at times both fearful of, as well as unfaithful to, her. In fact, the biography offers a telling commentary on the state of academic marriages, for while Dymphna appears never to have resented the obvious sacrifices she made to assist Manning’s career, her absence of personal intimacy towards him indicates the greater importance she attached to enabling us to better appreciate the gifts of the man she married.

The biography touches upon some sensitive other areas, such as Clark’s worrying tendency to rearrange facts to suit his preferred overarching discourse. Nevertheless, he did not resile from this, appearing to downplay its significance within the more important context of painting with a broad and undoubtedly illuminating brush.

An Eye for Eternity: the Life of Manning Clark by Mark McKenna (The Miegunyah Press, Melbourne, 2012. $54.99)


Michael Furtado was Education Officer (Social Justice), Brisbane Catholic Education. His PhD was in the funding of Catholic schools.

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