Catholic Church in Australia

People who identify as Catholic as a percentage of the total population in Australia divided geographically by statistical local area, as of the 2011 census
Mary MacKillop, co-founder of the Josephite Sisters became Australia's first canonised saint in October 2010.

The Catholic Church in Australia is part of the worldwide Catholic Church under the spiritual and administrative leadership of the Holy See.

Australia is a majority Christian but pluralistic society with no established religion. In 2011 there were approximately 5.4 million Australian Catholics (25.3% of the population). Catholicism arrived in Australia with the British First Fleet in 1788. The first Australian Catholics were mainly Irish, but Australian Catholics now originate from a great variety of national backgrounds. The church is a major provider of health, education and charitable services: Catholic Social Services Australia's 63 member organisations help more than a million Australians every year; and the Catholic education system has more than 650,000 students (18% of student population).[1] Australia has 32 dioceses and 1,363 parishes. Catholic Religious Australia, the peak body for leaders of religious institutes and societies of apostolic life resident in Australia, comprises members from more than 180 congregations of sisters, brothers and religious priests living in Australia.

Mary MacKillop, who founded an educational religious institute of sisters, the Josephites, in the 19th century, became the first Australian to be canonised as a saint in 2010. The Australian Catholic Bishops Conference is headed by Archbishop Denis Hart and there are two Australian cardinals: the current Prefect of the Secretariat for the Economy, George Pell, and the former President of the Vatican Council for Promoting Christian Unity, Edward Cassidy. Australia played host to World Youth Day 2008.

Demographics and structure

Major religious affiliations in Australia by census year[2]

According to the 2011 Australian National Census, there were 5,439,257 Catholics in Australia. This represented 25.3% of the overall Australian population and the largest single Christian church (being slightly larger than the Anglican and Uniting churches combined).[3]

Until the 1986 census, Australia's most populous Christian church was the Anglican Church of Australia. Since then Catholics have outnumbered Anglicans by an increasing margin. One rationale to explain this relates to changes in Australia's immigration patterns.[4] Before the Second World War, the majority of immigrants to Australia came from the United Kingdom and most Catholic immigrants came from Ireland. After the war, Australia's immigration diversified and more than 6.5 million migrants arrived in the following 60 years, including more than a million Catholics from Italy, Malta, Lebanon, the Netherlands, Germany, Poland, Croatia and Hungary.[4]

Catholicism is now the largest church tradition in Australia and the Catholic population continues to grow, although weekly Mass attendance has declined from an estimated 74% in the mid-50's to around 14% in 2006.[5][6]

There are seven archdioceses and 32 dioceses, with an estimated 3,000 priests and 9,000 men and women in institutes of consecrated life and societies of apostolic life, including six dioceses which cover the whole country: one each for those who belong to the Chaldean, Maronite, Melkite, Syro-Malabar and Ukrainian rites and one for those serving in the Australian Defence Forces. There is also a personal ordinariate for former Anglicans which has a similar status to a diocese.[7] [8]

State/Territory [9] % 2011 % 2006 % 2001
Australian Capital Territory 26.1 28.0 29.1
New South Wales 27.5 28.2 28.9
Northern Territory 21.6 21.1 22.2
Queensland 23.8 24.0 24.8
South Australia 19.9 20.2 20.8
Tasmania 17.9 18.4 19.3
Total 25.3 25.8 26.6
Victoria 26.7 27.5 28.4
Western Australia 23.6 23.7 24.7


Arrival and suppression

Since time immemorial, indigenous people in Australia had performed the rites and rituals of the animist religion of the Dreamtime. Europeans had assumed the existence of a great southern land mass since ancient times. Among the first Catholics known to have sighted Australia were the crew of a Spanish expedition of 1605–6. In 1606, the expedition's leader, Pedro Fernandez de Quiros landed in the New Hebrides and after a brief encounter with Mary Casotti, believed it to be the fabled southern continent, he named the land: Austrialis del Espiritu Santo Southern Land of the Holy Spirit.[10][11] Later that year, his deputy Luís Vaz de Torres sailed through Australia's Torres Strait.[12]

The permanent presence of Catholicism in Australia however, came with the arrival of the First Fleet of British convict ships at Sydney in 1788. One-tenth of all the convicts who came to Australia on the First Fleet were Catholic, and at least half of them were born in Ireland.[4] A small proportion of British marines were also Catholic. Some of the Irish convicts had been transported to Australia for political crimes or social rebellion in Ireland, so the authorities were suspicious of the minority religion for the first three decades of settlement.[13]

It was the crew of the French explorer La Pérouse who conducted the first Catholic ceremony on Australian soil in 1788 – the burial of Father Louis Receveur, a Franciscan monk, who died while the ships were at anchor at Botany Bay, while on a mission to explore the Pacific.[14]

Catholic convicts were compelled to attend Church of England services and their children and orphans were raised by the authorities as Anglicans.[15] The first Catholic priests arrived in Australia as convicts in 1800 – James Harold, James Dixon and Peter O'Neill, who had been convicted for "complicity" in the Irish 1798 Rebellion. Fr Dixon was conditionally emancipated and permitted to celebrate Mass. On 15 May 1803, in vestments made from curtains and with a chalice made of tin, he conducted the first Catholic Mass in New South Wales.[15] The Irish led Castle Hill Rebellion of 1804 alarmed the British authorities and Dixon's permission to celebrate Mass was revoked. Fr Jeremiah Flynn, an Irish Cistercian monk, was appointed as Prefect Apostolic of New Holland and set out from Britain for the colony uninvited. Watched by authorities, Flynn secretly performed priestly duties before being arrested and deported to London. Reaction to the affair in Britain led to two further priests being allowed to travel to the colony in 1820 – John Joseph Therry and Philip Connolly.[13] The foundation stone for the first St Mary's Cathedral, Sydney was laid on 29 October 1821 by Governor Lachlan Macquarie.

The absence of a Catholic mission in Australia before 1818 reflected the legal disabilities of Catholics in Britain and the difficult position of Ireland within the British Empire. The government therefore endorsed the English Benedictine monks to lead the early church in the colony.[16] William Bernard Ullathorne (1806–1889) was instrumental in influencing Pope Gregory XVI to establish the hierarchy in Australia. Ullathorne was in Australia from 1833–1836 as vicar-general to Bishop William Morris (1794–1872), whose jurisdiction extended over the Australian missions.

Emancipation and growth

Catholic humanitarian Caroline Chisolm.

The Church of England was disestablished in the Colony of New South Wales by the Church Act of 1836. Drafted by the Catholic attorney-general John Plunkett, the act established legal equality for Anglicans, Catholics and Presbyterians and was later extended to Methodists. Nevertheless, social attitudes were slow to change. A laywoman, Caroline Chisholm (1808–1877), faced discouragements and anti-Catholic feeling when she sought to establish a migrant women's shelter and worked for women's welfare in the colonies in the 1840s, though her humanitarian efforts later won her fame in England and great influence in achieving support for families in the colony.[17]

St Aloysius Church, Sevenhill, South Australia. The Jesuits were the first order of priests to enter and establish houses in South Australia, Victoria, Queensland and the Northern Territory – Austrian Jesuits established themselves in the south and north and Irish in the east.

The church's most prominent early leader was John Bede Polding, a Benedictine monk who was Sydney's first bishop (and then archbishop) from 1835 to 1877. Polding requested a community of nuns be sent to the colony and five Irish Sisters of Charity arrived in 1838. While tensions arose between the English Benedictine hierarchy and the Irish Ignatian-tradition religious institute from the start, the sisters set about pastoral care in a women's prison and began visiting hospitals and schools and establishing employment for convict women. In 1847, two sisters transferred to Hobart and established a school.[18] The sisters went on to establish hospitals in four of the eastern states, beginning with St Vincent's Hospital, Sydney in 1857 as a free hospital for all people, but especially for the poor.[19]

At Polding's request, the Christian Brothers arrived in Sydney in 1843 to assist in schools. Again jurisdictional tensions arose and the brothers returned to Ireland. In 1857, Polding founded an Australian religious institute in the Benedictine tradition – the Sisters of the Good Samaritan – to work in education and social work.[20] While Polding was in office, construction began on the ambitious Gothic Revival designs for St Patrick's Cathedral, Melbourne and the final St Mary's Cathedral in Sydney.

Establishing themselves first at Sevenhill, in the newly established colony of South Australia in 1848, the Jesuits were the first religious order of priests to enter and establish houses in South Australia, Victoria, Queensland and the Northern Territory – Austrian Jesuits established themselves in the south and north and Irish in the east. The goldrush saw an increase in the population and prosperity of the colonies and called for an increase in the number of episcopal sees. When gold was discovered in late 1851, there were an estimated 9,000 Catholics in the Colony of Victoria, increasing to 100,000 by the time the Jesuits arrived 14 years later. While the Austrian priests traversed the Outback on horseback to found missions and schools, the Irish priests arrived in the east in 1860 and had by 1880 established the major schools of Xavier College in Melbourne, St Aloysius' College and Saint Ignatius' College, Riverview in Sydney – which each survive to the present.[21]

In 1885, Patrick Francis Moran became Australia's first cardinal. St Patrick's College, Manly, intended to provide priests for all the colonies, was opened in 1889. Moran believed that Catholics' political and civil rights were threatened in Australia and, in 1896, saw deliberate discrimination in a situation where "no office of first, or even second, rate importance is held by a Catholic".[22]

The Catholic Church also became involved in mission work among the Aboriginal people of Australia during the 19th century as Europeans came to control much of the continent. According to Aboriginal anthropologist Kathleen Butler-McIlwraith, there were many occasions when the Catholic Church attempted to advocate for Aboriginal rights, but the missionaries were also "functionaries of the Protection and Assimilation policies" of the government and so "directly contributed to the current disadvantage experienced by Indigenous Australians".[23][24] The missionaries themselves argued that they protected children from dysfunctional aspects of indigenous culture.[25]

With the withdrawal of state aid for church schools around 1880, the Catholic Church, unlike other Australian churches, put great energy and resources into creating a comprehensive alternative system of education. It was largely staffed by sisters, brothers and priests of religious institutes, such as the Christian Brothers (who had returned to Australia in 1868); the Sisters of Mercy (who had arrived in Perth in 1846); Marist Brothers, who came from France in 1872 and the Sisters of St Joseph, founded in Australia by Mary MacKillop and Fr Julian Tenison Woods in 1867.[26][27][28] MacKillop travelled throughout Australasia and established schools, convents and charitable institutions but came into conflict with those bishops who preferred diocesan control of the institute rather than central control from Adelaide by the Josephite religious institute. MacKillop administered the Josephites as a national religious institute at a time when Australia was divided among individually governed colonies. She is today the most revered of Australian Catholics, beatified by Pope John Paul II in 1995 and canonised by Benedict XVI in 2010.[29] Catholic schools flourished in Australia and by 1900 there were 115 Christian Brothers teaching in Australia. By 1910 there were 5000 religious sisters teaching in schools.[13]

Post Australian Federation

Cardinal Patrick Francis Moran was an advocate for Federation
James Scullin of the Australian Labor Party was the first Catholic to become a Prime Minister of Australia
United Australia Party prime minister Joseph Lyons pictured with wife Enid Lyons, both were important figures in the foundation of modern Australian conservatism

The Australian Constitution of 1901 guaranteed Freedom of Religion and the separation of church and state throughout Australia. Australia's first Catholic cardinal, Patrick Francis Moran (1830–1911), had been a proponent of Australian Federation but in 1901 he refused to attend the inauguration ceremony of the Commonwealth of Australia because precedence was given to the Church of England. He was criticised in The Bulletin for speaking against racist immigration laws and he alarmed Catholic conservatives by supporting Trade Unionism and the newly formed Australian Labor Party.[30]

The Catholic Church was rooted in the working class Irish communities. Moran, the Archbishop of Sydney from 1884 to 1911, believed that Catholicism would flourish with the emergence of the new nation through Federation in 1901, provided that his people rejected "contamination" from foreign influences such as anarchism, socialism, modernism and secularism. Moran distinguished between European socialism as an atheistic movement and those Australians calling themselves "socialists"; he approved the objectives of the latter while feeling that the European model was not a real danger in Australia. Moran's outlook reflected his wholehearted acceptance of Australian democracy and his belief in the country as different and freer than the old societies from which its people had come.[31] Moran thus welcomed the Labor Party and the Catholic Church stood with it in opposing conscription in the referenda of 1916 and 1917.[32] The hierarchy had close ties to Rome, which encouraged the bishops to support the British Empire and emphasize Marian piety.[33]

Another Irish cleric, Archbishop Daniel Mannix (1864–1963) of Melbourne, who was a controversial voice against conscription during World War I and against British Empire policy in Ireland. He was also a fervent critic of contraception. In 1920, the Royal Navy prevented him landing in his Irish homeland.[34] Yet despite early 20th century sectarian feeling, Australia elected its first Catholic prime minister, James Scullin, of the Australian Labor Party in 1929 – decades before the Protestant majority of the United States would elect John F. Kennedy as its first Catholic president.[35] His successor, Joseph Lyons, a devout Irish Catholic, split from Labor to form the fiscally conservative United Australia Party – predecessor to the modern Liberal Party of Australia. His wife, Dame Enid Lyons, a Catholic convert, became the first female member of the Australian House of Representatives and later first female member of cabinet in the Menzies Government.[36] With the place of Catholics in the British Empire still complicated by the recent Irish War of Independence and centuries of imperial rivalry with Catholic European nations, as prime minister, Lyons travelled to London in 1935 for the Silver Jubilee celebrations of King George V and faced anti-Catholic demonstrations in Edinburgh, then visited his ancestral homeland of Ireland and had an audience with the Pope in Rome.[37]


Until about 1950, when large numbers of Italians, Germans and other European Catholics arrived, the Catholic Church in Australia was overwhelmingly Irish in its ethos. Most Catholics were descendants of Irish immigrants and the church was mostly led by Irish-born priests and bishops. From 1950 the ethnic composition of the church changed, with the assimilation of Irish Australians and the arrival of Eastern European Displaced Persons from 1948[38] and more than one million Catholics from countries such as Italy, Malta, the Netherlands, Germany, Croatia and Hungary, and later Filipinos, Vietnamese, Lebanese and Poles around the 1980s. There are now also strong Chinese, Korean and Latin American Catholic communities.[4][39]

For a long time, Irish-Australians had a close political association with the Labor Party. The changing ethnic composition of Australian Catholicism and shifting political allegiances of Australian Catholics saw Catholic layman B.A. Santamaria, the son of Italian immigrants, lead a movement of working class Catholics against Communism in Australia and the formation of his Democratic Labor Party (DLP) in 1955. The DLP was formed over concerns of Communist influence over the trade unions and Labor Party. The movement was not approved by the Vatican, but it siphoned a proportion of the Catholic vote away from the Labor Party, contributing to the success of the newly formed Liberal Party of Robert Menzies, which held power from 1949 to 1972, which, in return for DLP preferences, secured state aid for Catholic schools in Australia in 1963.[40] Along with a sharp decline in sectarianism in post 1960s Australia, sectarian loyalty to political parties has diminished and Catholics have been well represented within the conservative Liberal and National parties.

Brendan Nelson became the first Catholic to lead the Liberal Party in 2007. Former Prime Minister Tony Abbott was a seminarian who won the party leadership after defeating two other Catholic candidates for the post.[41] In 2008, Tim Fischer, a Catholic and former deputy prime minister in the Howard Government, was nominated by the Labor prime minister, Kevin Rudd, as the first resident Australian ambassador to the Holy See since 1973, when diplomatic relations with the Vatican and Australia was first established.[42]

Post Second Vatican Council

Since the Second Vatican Council of the 1960s, the Australian church has experienced a decline in vocations to the religious life, leading to a priest shortage. On the other hand, Catholic education under lay leadership has expanded, and about 20% of Australian school students attend a Catholic school.[1] While the numbers of nuns serving in Australian health facilities declined, the church maintained a strong presence in health care. The Sisters of Charity continued their mission among the sick, opening Australia's first HIV AIDS ward at St Vincent's Hospital, Sydney in the 1980s.[43] Declining vocations and increasing complexities in the Health care technologies and management saw religious institutes like the Sisters of Charity and Sisters of Mercy amalgamating their efforts and divesting themselves of daily management of hospitals.[44]

Following Vatican II, new styles of ministry were tried by Australian religious. Some rose to national prominence. Fr Ted Kennedy began one such ministry in Sydney's inner city Redfern presbytery in 1971 – an area with a large Aboriginal population. Working closely with Catholic Aboriginal laywoman "Mum" Shirl Smith, he developed a theology which held that the poor had special insights into the meaning of Christianity, worked as an advocate for Aboriginal rights and often challenged the civil and church establishment on questions of conscience.[45] In 1989, Jesuit lawyer Fr Frank Brennan AO founded Uniya, a centre for social justice and human rights research, advocacy, education and networking. Uniya focused much of its attention on the plight of refugees, asylum seekers, and Indigenous reconciliation. In 1991, Fr Chris Riley formed Youth Off The Streets, a community organisation working for young people who are 'chronically homeless, drug dependent and recovering from abuse'. Originally a food van in Sydney's King's Cross, it has grown to be one of the largest youth services in Australia, offering crisis accommodation, residential rehabilitation, clinical services and counselling, outreach programs, drug and alcohol rehabilitation, specialist Aboriginal services, education and family support.[46] Melbourne priest Father Bob Maguire began parish work in the 1960s, but became a youth media personality in 2004 with the beginning of a series of collaborations with irreverent satirist John Safran on SBS TV and Triple J radio.[47][48]

1970 saw the first visit to Australia by a Pope, Paul VI.[49] Pope John Paul II was the next Pope to visit Australia in 1986. At Alice Springs, the Pope made an historic address to indigenous Australians, in which he praised the enduring qualities of Aboriginal culture, lamented the effects of dispossession of and discrimination; called for acknowledgment of Aboriginal land rights and reconciliation in Australia; and said that the church in Australia would not reach its potential until Aboriginal people had made their "contribution to her life and until that contribution has been joyfully received by others".[50]

In 1988, the Archbishop of Sydney, Edward Bede Clancy was created a cardinal and during the Australian Bicentenary celebrations led the religious ceremonies for the opening of Parliament House, Canberra. Pope John Paul II visited Australia for the second time in 1995, to perform the rite of beatification for Mary MacKillop, founder of Australia's Josephite Sisters, before a crowd of 250,000.

From the late 1980s, cases of abuse within the Catholic Church and other child care institutions began to be exposed in Australia. In 1996, the church issued a document, Towards Healing, which it described as seeking to "establish a compassionate and just system for dealing with complaints of abuse".[51] In 2001, an apostolic exhortation from Pope John Paul II condemned incidents of sex abuse in Oceania.[52] Impetus for the Towards Healing protocols was in part led by Bishop Geoffrey Robinson, who would later call for large scale systemic reform of the church globally in his 2007 book Confronting Power and Sex in the Catholic Church: Reclaiming the Spirit of Jesus.[53] The Australian Catholic Bishops Conference did not endorse the book. Pat Power. the Auxiliary Bishop of Canberra & Goulburn, wrote in 2002 that "the current crisis around sexual abuse is the greatest since the Reformation. At stake is the Church's moral authority, its credibility, its ability to interpret the 'signs of the times' and its capacity to confront the ensuing questions." Pope Benedict XVI officially apologised to victims during World Youth Day 2008 in Sydney and celebrated a Mass with four victims of clerical sexual abuse in the chapel of St Mary's Cathedral, Sydney and listened to their stories.[54]

Pope Benedict XVI arriving at Barangaroo, Sydney for World Youth Day 2008

In 2001, in Rome, Pope John Paul II apologised to Aborigines and other indigenous people in Oceania for past injustices by the church: Aware of the shameful injustices done to indigenous peoples in Oceania, the Synod Fathers apologised unreservedly for the part played in these by members of the church, especially where children were forcibly separated from their families. Church leaders in Australia called on the Australian government to offer a similar apology.[55]

In 2001 George Pell became the eighth Archbishop of Sydney and, in 2003, became a cardinal. Pell supported Sydney’s bid to host World Youth Day 2008. In July 2008, Sydney hosted the massive youth festival led by Pope Benedict XVI.[56][57] Around 500,000 welcomed the pope to Sydney and 270,000 watched the Stations of the Cross. More than 300,000 pilgrims camped out overnight in preparation for the final Mass.,[58] where final attendance was between 300,000 and 400,000 people.[59][60][61]

In February 2010, Pope Benedict XVI announced that Mary MacKillop would be recognised as the first Australian saint of the Catholic Church.[62] She was canonised on 17 October 2010 during a public ceremony in St Peter's Square. An estimated 8,000 Australians were present in the Vatican City to witness the ceremony.[63] The Vatican Museum held an exhibition of Aboriginal art to honour the occasion titled "Rituals of Life".[64] The exhibition contained 300 artefacts which were on display for the first time since 1925.[65]

Social and political engagement


Catholic people and charitable organisations, hospitals and schools have played a prominent rôle in welfare and education in Australia ever since Colonial times when Catholic laywoman Caroline Chisholm helped single migrant women and rescued homeless girls in Sydney.[66] In his welcoming address to the Catholic World Youth Day 2008 in Sydney, the prime minister, Kevin Rudd, said that Christianity had been a positive influence on Australia: "It was the church that began first schools for the poor, it was the church that began first hospitals for the poor, it was the church that began first refuges for the poor and these great traditions continue for the future".[67]


A number of Catholic organisations are providers of social welfare services (including residential aged care and the Job Network) and education in Australia, Australia wide these include: Centacare, CatholicCare Caritas Australia, Jesuit Refugee Service, St Vincent de Paul Society, Youth Off The Streets. Two religious institutes founded in Australia which engaged in welfare and charity work are the Sisters of St Joseph of the Sacred Heart and the Sisters of the Good Samaritan.[13] Many international Catholic religious institutes also work in welfare, such as the Little Sisters of the Poor who work in aged care. Catholic Social Services Australia is the peak body for Catholic welfare agencies and has 54 member organisations in metropolitan, regional and remote Australia.[68] Members include diocesan based Centacare and CatholicCare agencies and those under the stewardship of religious orders.


Catholic Health Australia is the largest non-government provider grouping of health, community and aged care services in Australia. These do not operate for profit and range across the full spectrum of health services, representing about 10% of the health sector and employing 35,000 people.[69]

Religious institutes founded many of Australia's hospitals. Irish Sisters of Charity arrived in Sydney in 1838 and established St Vincent's Hospital, Sydney in 1857 as a free hospital for the poor. The Sisters went on to found hospitals, hospices, research institutes and aged care facilities in Victoria, Queensland and Tasmania.[70] At St Vincent's they trained leading surgeon Victor Chang and opened Australia's first AIDS clinic.[71] In the 21st century, with more and more lay people involved in management, the sisters began callaborating with Sisters of Mercy Hospitals in Melbourne and Sydney. Jointly the group operates four public hospitals; seven private hospitals and 10 aged care facilities.

The English Sisters of the Little Company of Mary arrived in 1885 and have since established public and private hospitals, retirement living and residential aged care, community care and comprehensive palliative care in New South Wales, the ACT, Victoria, Tasmania, South Australia, Queensland (Cairns) and the Northern Territory.[72]

The Little Sisters of the Poor, who follow the charism of Saint Jeanne Jugan to "offer hospitality to the needy aged" arrived in Melbourne in 1884 and now operate four aged care homes in Australia.[73]


Catholic primary school at Broken Hill, New South Wales. Around one in five Australian children attend Catholic schools.
The historic observatory at Saint Ignatius' College, Riverview was founded by the distinguished Jesuit scientist Edward Francis Pigot in 1908.[74]

By 1833, there were around ten Catholic schools in the Australian colonies.[13] Today one in five Australian students attend Catholic schools.[1] Mary MacKillop was a 19th-century Australian nun who founded an educational religious institute, the Sisters of St Joseph of the Sacred Heart and in 2010 became the first Australian to be recognised as a saint by the Roman Catholic Church.[75] Other Catholic religious institutes involved in education in Australia have included: Sisters of Mercy, Marist Brothers, Christian Brothers, Loreto Sisters, Benedictine Sisters and Jesuits.

As with other classes of non-government schools in Australia, Catholic schools receive funding from the Commonwealth Government.[76] Church schools range from elite, high cost schools (which generally offer extensive bursary programs for low-income students) to low-fee local schools. Notable schools include the Jesuit colleges of St Aloysius and Saint Ignatius' College, Riverview in Sydney, Saint Ignatius' College, Adelaide and Xavier College in Melbourne; the Marist Brothers St Joseph's College, Hunters Hill, the Christian Brothers' High School, Lewisham, the Society of the Sacred Heart's Rosebay Kincoppal School, the Institute of the Blessed Virgin Mary's Loreto Kirribilli, the Sisters of Mercy's Monte Sant' Angelo Mercy College, the Christian Brothers' St Edmund's College, Canberra and Aquinas College, Perth – however, the list and range of Catholic primary and secondary schools in Australia is long and diverse and extends throughout metropolitan, regional and remote Australia: see Catholic Schools in Australia

The Australian Catholic University opened in 1991 following the amalgamation of four Catholic tertiary institutions in eastern Australia. These institutions had their origins in the 1800s, when religious institutes became involved in preparing teachers for Catholic schools and nurses for Catholic hospitals.[77] The University of Notre Dame Australia opened in Western Australia in December 1989 and now has over 9000 students on three campuses in Fremantle, Sydney and Broome.[78]


Archbishop Daniel Mannix of Melbourne was a controversial voice against conscription during World War I and against British policy in Ireland.

Church leaders have often involved themselves in political issues in areas they consider relevant to Christian teachings. In early Colonial times, Catholicism was restricted but Church of England clergy worked closely with the governors.[79] Early Catholic missionary William Ullathorne criticised the convict system, publishing a pamphlet, The Horrors of Transportation Briefly Unfolded to the People, in Britain in 1837.[80] Sydney's first archbishop, John Bede Polding, was influential in the preparation of the Australian bishops' pastoral letter on Aborigines in 1869 which advocated for Aboriginal rights and dignity.[81] Australia's first Catholic cardinal, Patrick Francis Moran (1830–1911), was politically active. He was a proponent of Australian Federation; he denounced anti-Chinese legislation as "unchristian" and opposed anti-semitism. He became an advocate for women's suffrage and he stood for election to the Australasian Federal Convention in 1897, but in 1901 he refused to attend the inauguration of the Commonwealth of Australia because precedence was given to the Church of England. He alarmed conservatives by supporting trade unionism and "Australian socialism".[30] Archbishop Daniel Mannix of Melbourne was a controversial voice against conscription during World War I and against British policy in Ireland.[34]

Mum (Shirl) Smith, a celebrated Redfern community worker who, assisted by the Sisters of Charity, worked in the courts and organised prison visitations, medical and social assistance for Aborigines.[82] Fr Ted Kennedy of Redfern[45] and Fr Frank Brennan, a Jesuit, have been high-profile Catholic priests engaged in the cause of Aboriginal rights.[83][84][85]

The Australian Labor Party had largely been supported by Catholics until layman B. A. Santamaria formed the Democratic Labor Party over concerns of Communist influence over the trade union movement in the 1950s.[86]

In 1999, Cardinal Edward Bede Clancy wrote to the then prime minister, John Howard, urging him to send an armed peacekeeping force to East Timor to end the violence engulfing that country.[87] In 2006, an Australian Greens senator, Kerry Nettle, called on the health minister, Tony Abbott, to refrain from debating the abortion drug RU486 because he was Catholic.[88] Cardinal George Pell has concerned himself publicly with traditional issues of Christian doctrine, such as supporting marriage and opposing abortion, but also raised questions about government policies such as the Work Choices industrial relations reforms and the mandatory detention of asylum seekers.[89][90]

Australia elected its first Catholic prime minister, James Scullin (Australian Labor Party), in 1929.[35] followed by Joseph Lyons, a former Labour Premier of Tasmania (1923 - 1928) and then prime minister from 1932 to 1939. The war-time prime minister, John Curtin (Labor), was raised Catholic. Ben Chifley (Labor) also served as prime minister from 1945–1951. In recent times, Labor prime ministers Paul Keating (1991–1996) and Kevin Rudd (2007–2010, 2013-2013) were both raised Catholic (though Rudd now identifies as an Anglican). The last three Liberal Party Leaders of the Opposition, Brendon Nelson, Tony Abbott and Malcolm Turnbull (current Prime Minister) are all Catholics. Tim Fischer, Deputy Prime Minister and leader of the National Party between 1996 and 1999, is a practising Catholic and served as the Australian Ambassador to the Holy See between 2008 and 2012.[91] Former Premiers of New South Wales, Kristina Keneally, studied theology,[92] and Barry O'Farrell are Catholics.[93]

Arts and culture

St Mary's Cathedral, Sydney built to a design by William Wardell from a foundation stone laid in 1868


See also

Most towns in Australia have at least one Christian church. St Mary's Cathedral, Sydney follows a conventional English cathedral plan, cruciform in shape, with a tower over the crossing of the nave and transepts and twin towers at the west front with impressive stained glass windows. With a length of 106.7 metres (350 ft) and a general width of 24.4 metres (80 ft), it is Sydney's largest church. Built to a design by William Wardell from a foundation stone laid in 1868, the spires of the cathedral were not finally added until the year 2000. Wardell also worked on the design of St Patrick's Cathedral, Melbourne – among the finest examples of ecclesiastical architecture in Australia.[94][95] Wardell's overall design was in Gothic Revival style, paying tribute to the mediaeval cathedrals of Europe. Largely constructed between 1858 and 1897, the nave was Early English in style, while the remainder of the building is in Decorated Gothic.

Adelaide, the capital of South Australia has long been known as the City of Churches. 130 kilometres (81 mi) north of Adelaide is the Jesuit old stone winery and cellars at Sevenhill, founded by Austrian Jesuits in 1848.[96] A rare Australian example of Spanish missionary style exists at New Norcia, Western Australia, founded by Spanish Benedictine monks in 1846.[97][98] A number of notable Victorian era chapels and edifices were also constructed at church schools across Australia.

Along with community attitudes to religion, church architecture changed significantly during the 20th century. St Monica's Cathedral in Cairns was designed by architect Ian Ferrier and built in 1967–68 following the form of the original basilica model of the early churches of Rome, adapted to a tropical climate and to reflect the changes to Catholic liturgy mandated at Vatican II. The cathedral was dedicated as a memorial to the Battle of the Coral Sea which was fought east of Cairns in May 1942. The "Peace Window" stained glass was installed on the 50th anniversary of the end of World War II.[99][100] In the later 20th century, distinctly Australian approaches were applied at places such as Jamberoo Benedictine Abbey, where natural materials were chosen to "harmonise with the local environment" and the chapel sanctuary is of glass overlooking rainforest.[101] Similar design principles were applied at Thredbo Ecumenical Chapel built in the Snowy Mountains in 1996.[102]

Film and television

Australian films on Catholic themes have included:

Television programs on Catholic themes have included:

Coverage of religion is part of the ABC's Charter obligation to reflect the character and diversity of the Australian community. Its religious programs include coverage of Catholic (and other) worship and devotion, explanation, analysis, debate and reports.[104] Catholic Church Television Australia is an office with the Australian Catholic Office for Film & Broadcasting and develops television programs for Aurora Community Television on Foxtel and Austar in Australia.[105]


Les Murray, contemporary Catholic poet.

The body of literature produced by Australian Catholics is extensive. During colonial times, the Benedictine missionary William Ullathorne (1806–1889) was a notable essayist writing against the Convict Transportation system. Later Cardinal Moran (1830–1911), a noted historian, wrote a History of the Catholic Church in Australasia.[15] More recent Catholic histories of Australian include The Catholic Church and Community in Australia (1977) by Patrick O'Farrell and Australian Catholics (1987), by Edmund Campion.

Notable Catholic poets have included Christopher Brennan (1870–1932); James McAuley (1917–1976);[106] Bruce Dawe (born 1930) and Les Murray (born 1938). Murray and Dawe are among Australia's formemost contemporary poets, noted for their use of vernacular and everyday Australian themes. Emblematic of the Christian poets could be McCauley's rejection of Modernism in favour of Classical culture:[107]

Christ, you walked on a sea
But you cannot walk in a poem,
Not in our century.
There’s something deeply wrong
Either with us or with you[108]

Many Australian writers have examined the lives of Christian characters, or have been influenced by Catholic schooling. Australia's best selling novel of all time, The Thorn Birds by Colleen McCullough, writes of the temptations encountered by a priest living in the Outback. Many contemporary Australian writers have attended or taught at Catholic schools, including Robert Hughes, Nick Enright, Brian Castro, Santo Cilauro, Tom Gleisner; Gerard Henderson, Miranda Devine, Kimberley Starr, Melina Marchetta, Melvyn Morrow, Justin Fleming, Gerard Windsor and Anh Do.

Catholic news publications in Australia include: The Catholic Weekly from Sydney; The Catholic Leader, published by the Brisbane Archdiocese; and Eureka Street Magazine which is concerned with public affairs, arts, and theology and is run by the communication division of the Jesuit religious order.


St Mary's Cathedral Choir, Sydney is the oldest musical institution in Australia, from origins in 1817. Major Catholic raised recording artists from Johnny O'Keefe to Paul Kelly have recorded Christian spirituals. Paul Kelly's Meet Me in the Middle of the Air is based on Psalm 23.[109] Catholic nun Sister Janet Mead achieved significant mainstream chart success. New South Wales Supreme Court Judge George Palmer was commissioned to compose the setting of the Mass for Sydney's World Youth Day 2008 Papal Mass. The Mass, Benedictus Qui Venit, for large choir, soloists and orchestra, was performed in the presence of Pope Benedict XVI and an audience of 350,000 with singing led by soprano Amelia Farrugia and tenor Andrew Goodwin. "Receive the Power", a song written by Guy Sebastian and Gary Pinto, was chosen as the official anthem for the XXIII World Youth Day (WYD08) held in Sydney in 2008.[110]

Australian Christmas carols like the Three Drovers or Christmas Day by John Wheeler and William G. James place the Christmas story in an Australian context of warm, dry Christmas winds and red dust and are popular at Catholic services. As the festival of Christmas falls during the Australian summer, Australians gather in large numbers for traditional open-air evening carol services and concerts in December, such as Carols by Candlelight in Melbourne and Carols in the Domain in Sydney.[111]


The chancel window of St Mary's Cathedral, Sydney depicts a vision of Christ and the Blessed Virgin Mary enthroned in Heaven.

The story of Christian art in Australia began with the arrival of the first British settlers at the end of the 18th century. During the 19th century, Gothic Revival cathedrals were built in the colonial capitals, often containing stain glass art works, as can be seen at St Mary's Cathedral, Sydney and St Patrick's Cathedral, Melbourne. Roy de Maistre (1894–1968) was an Australian abstract artist who obtained renown in Britain, converted to Catholicism and painted notable religious works, including a series of Stations of the Cross for Westminster Cathedral in London. Among the most acclaimed of Australian painters of Catholic themes was Arthur Boyd. He painted a Biblical series, and created tapestries of the life of St Francis of Assisi. Influenced by both the European masters and the Heidelberg School of Australian landscape art, he placed the central characters of the Bible within Australian bush scenery, as in his portrait of Adam and Eve, The Expulsion (1948).[112] The artist Leonard French, who designed a stain glass ceiling of the National Gallery of Victoria, has drawn heavily on Christian story and symbolism through his career.[113]

Saints and other venerated Australians

Some of the Australians honoured by the Catholic Church to be saints or whose cause for canonisation is still being investiged include:


Servants of God

Other open causes


Within Australia the church hierarchy is made of metropolitan archdioceses and suffragan sees. Each diocese has a bishop, while each archdiocese is served by an archbishop. Australia has two living members of the College of Cardinals: the previous Archbishop of Sydney, George Pell, now posted to the Vatican in a role of financial oversight, and Edward Idris Cassidy. The late Cardinal Edward Bede Clancy died on 3 August 2014.

Australian Catholic Bishops Conference

The Australian Catholic Bishops Conference is the national body of the bishops of Australia.[114] The president of the conference is Archbishop Denis Hart, who was elected to a two-year term in May 2012 and occasionally makes statements on behalf of the conference. The conference is served by a secretariat, based in Canberra, under the management of the Reverend Brian Lucas. The conference meets at least annually.[115]

Archdioceses and dioceses

See also


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Further reading

External links

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