Abbott’s Catholicism

The Opposition Leader’s politics have been deeply influenced by his identification with political propagandists of the Catholic Church and his adherence to its dogma.

Father Edmund Campion, the distinguished literary priest, peers at his students at St Patrick’s seminary in Manly, Sydney’s famed beachside suburb. 

“I think we ought to have a class on Santamaria,” Campion says. “Who’s he?” asks a student. The year was 2000, just two years after the death of Bartholomew Augustine (B.A.) Santamaria, Australian Catholicism’s greatest political warrior. Campion, who also taught Tony Abbott as a trainee priest in the 1980s was gobsmacked that the memory of such an extraordinary figure had faded among a new generation of priests.

But Abbott’s Catholicism does set him apart from other politicians. Two of the three mentors in his life – Howard, Santamaria and Father Emmet Costello – are embedded in the Catholic Church. In the modern Liberal Party, there’s nothing odd about such religious affiliations. The two Liberal Party leaders before Abbott, Turnbull and Brendan Nelson, are both Catholics.

Four leading members of the Abbott frontbench – shadow treasurer Joe Hockey, finance spokesman Andrew Robb, media and broadband spokesman Turnbull, and education spokesman and manager of opposition business, Christopher Pyne – are Catholics. “New Tories” – people who represent “the Catholic conservatives” – is how Peter Norden, who is an adjunct professor in the school of global studies at RMIT University in Melbourne, and a former director of Jesuit social services, describes them.

That’s a far cry from the Liberal Party of the 1950s when it had only two prominent Catholics, Sir John Cramer from NSW and senator Neal O’Sullivan from Queensland. Cramer, a former army minister who held the Sydney seat of Bennelong, where he was succeeded by John Howard in 1974, recalled that when he entered a room, Menzies would jest: “Watch out, fellas, the papists are coming.” He was the recipient of a card from another prominent Liberal who wrote: “I always knew you had the smell of an RC about you.”

A highly motivated Abbott was often dux of his year at Riverview and vice-captain in year 12 – an impressive record that rests strangely with his not being a “goody two shoes”. It was at Riverview that Abbott met Father Emmet Costello, who was pastoral adviser to the great and the good, and to those, like Abbott, who seemed destined for leadership. Costello was a Bentley-driving conservative from a wealthy family with large landholdings in the Pacific. He was drawn to politics and had a rare facility with language. He encouraged Abbott to think about a political future for himself.


Tony Abbott’s higher calling (Financial Review Magazine)

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