Recently I came across an extraordinary article published in the Bulletin magazine (reproduced at nofibs) written by Tony Abbott in 1987, six months after he left St Patrick’s seminary.
Before I go any further, I realise that is 27 years ago and that people change or “grow” as Tony likes to put it. The disturbing aspect of this story is how much it reflects the Tony we see today. All quotes come from the article Tony wrote, and an article published in response a week later written by Bill Wright, a priest and church historian, who was vice-rector at St Patrick’s whilst Tony was there.
From the start, Tony was a controversial figure at the seminary. Whilst some seemed to admire him, others found him “just too formidable to talk to unless to agree; overbearing and opiniated”. After the heady days of university, “Tony was not, on the whole, impressed by his companions”.
In his article, Abbott blames the church for not living up to his ideals.
“Looking back, it seems that I was seeking a spiritual and human excellence to which the Church is no longer sure she aspires. My feeble attempts to recall her to her duty — as I saw it — betrayed a fathomless disappointment at the collapse of a cherished ideal.
In addition, a “cooperative” style of management ran counter to the Church’s age-old hierarchical structure.
The more they played up lay ministry and ecumenism and played down the unique role of the priest in the one true Church, the more the struggle seemed pointless and the more I wanted to participate in worldly activities which were much more to my taste.
l felt “had” by a seminary that so stressed ”empathy” with sinners and “dialogue” with the Church’s enemies that the priesthood seemed to have lost its point.”
Contemporary Catholicism did not sit well with Tony who said his was “a hard-headed, worldly faith ill-wed to the “softer” kind of Catholicism predominant at St Patrick’s.”
“At university the need to defend Catholicism in a hostile environment had led me to an extremely naturalistic defence of traditional beliefs and disciplines. Abortion was wrong, because it violated instinctive respect for life; contraception, because it was usually part of a “me now” mentality. The Mass was a chance quietly to restore one’s energies; confession enabled embarrassing problems to be discussed safely before they became crippling. ”
Whilst at the seminary, Tony was very public about his criticism, speaking on radio and writing an article about St Patrick’s that was published in the Northern Herald , giving the “real reasons why people leave — which include ennui, psychosomatic illness and an unwillingness to conform to whatever model of the priesthood happens to be momentarily fashionable.”
Tony’s lack of empathy was highlighted when he was given the role of infirmarian at the seminary, a job that involved supervising the medicine cabinet and ensuring that the ill were not forgotten in their rooms.
“My view was that I knew nothing about medicine and that those too sick to eat in the dining room ought to be in hospital. Anyway, I thought, most were malingering. So I encouraged “self-service” of medicines and suggested that meals would be better fetched by the friends of the sick. Many deeply resented this disdain for college’s caring and communitarian ethos. And, I confess, I did not have the courage to refuse room service to members of the seminary staff.”
Inevitably, Tony fell out with seminary authority. Fr Brian Wright said
“The study of theology did not capture Tony’s imagination. He did passably well; not as well as his academic background may have indicated. I do not recall that he ever talked about theology while at Manly. His concern was with churchmanship, how the Catholic Church could better commend itself to the hearts of Australians; how the individual priest could enliven and uplift those who were turning away from uninspired ministers.”
In other words, he was interested in the politics and in attracting the swinging voters even then. Fr Wright goes on to say
“Tony is inclined to score points, to skate over or hold back any reservations he might have about his case.”
What an astute observation about our current Prime Minister by a man who knew him well and watched him in action.
With a growing concern about Tony’s motivation and suitability for the priesthood, the head of the seminary suggested that Tony do a “pastoral year” living in a presbytery and working in a parish. Tony, after initial resistance, spent some time out at Emu Plains about which he said “I found it difficult to believe that this was meant to be my life.”
After a few months Tony was sick of it. He wrote to Patrick Murphy, the new Bishop of Broken Bay, spelling out his demands.
“My preference was to live at Emu Plains and to study theology at Sydney University. Alternatively, I wanted to study at St Patrick’s on a part-time or quasi-correspondence basis.”
The bishop had other ideas. “Along with others,” he wrote, “I admire several qualities which you obviously have shown. However, there are some radical attitudes about Church and priesthood … which will have to be worked through before you would be accepted for the diocese or profit from seminary formation.”
Tony was asked to see a psychologist who concluded that “he had developed an inability to be really intimate and that without the warmth and trust of real intimacy he would find life in the celibate priesthood too frustrating and lacking in peace”. Rather than interpreting this to mean fellowship with his brothers and empathy for humanity, as it was intended, Tony’s mind turned to sex.
“Lack of sensual intimacy is something that priests have always had to handle. In my case, this had become a heavy burden because I was not naturally drawn to the life of the priesthood and because the modern Church — by minimising its mystique and spiritual elan — had eroded any other basis for its undertaking.”
But Tony didn’t want an analysis of his difficulties and especially not an analysis couched in the terms of psychology, saying “it was really the seminary staff who needed psychological investigation”. He wanted tangible support for his agenda. The Bishop of Parramatta eventually agreed to accept Tony as his student and offered a return to St Patrick’s on a full-time live-in basis or studies at the Marist seminary at Hunters Hill and residence at another presbytery within the diocese. By the Church’s lights, it was a generous and radical proposal, one that had never been offered to anyone before. They were bending over backwards to accommodate Tony but it wasn’t good enough.
“I think I had subconsciously stipulated that the Church needed to forget the usual considerations of prudent caution and simply agree, just once, to what I wanted.”
Father Wright suggests that
“Once Tony had beaten the system and was no longer able to locate the ‘struggle’ as being between himself and authority, he had no-one much else blocking his path but himself.”
A commenter at nofibs summed up Tony’s article well.
“As a catholic myself what struck me about Abbott’s account here was his overweening self-importance and sense of entitlement. There must have been many quiet prayers of thanks when this restless soul left the seminary. He seems to be a man driven by the need to oppose. Debating, boxing, rugby, student politics marked him in youth as a formidable adversary. He took that fighting spirit to St Patrick’s which let him down because it did not offer enough ‘bravura’ to sustain him. Now of course the admiration for belligerence as Opposition leader has probably provided a new yardstick for assessing the success or failure of future incumbents of that position. I would like Tony Abbott to explain why he wanted to be a priest rather than why the church did not meet his expectations. I would also like to know why he wants to be PM and whether this country will have enough ‘bravura’ for him or whether he will have to reshape us in his own image.”
Father Wright finished his article with some advice for Tony which is chillingly relevant today.
“I only know that we must try to make things come out right, in the full knowledge that it may serve some higher purpose for them to come out wrong”.