By Amanda Murthy
There is no denying that the contribution of the Catholic Church has had a major positive impact in the development of Australia – particularly in the areas of education, healthcare, and social and welfare services.
The first presence of Catholics in Australia was seen in 1788. They were mostly Irish convicts, together with a few Royal Marines.
In figures provided by the Australian Catholic Bishops’ Conference via Catholic Australia, one-tenth of all convicts transported to Australia were Catholic, and half of these were born in Ireland, while a good proportion of the others were English-born but of Irish extraction. Most of the rest were English or Scottish.
It was not until 1800, that the first Priests arrived in the colony – as convicts, one of these being Father James Dixon. But it wasn’t until the arrival of Frs John Joseph Therry and Philip Connolly, Chaplains appointed by the Government in London in 1820 that marked the formal establishment of the Catholic Church in Australia.
Between 1872 and 1893 were significant for Australian Catholic history in education.
During these years, every state passed an Education Act, removing state aid to Church schools.
The Bishops decided to persevere with the Catholic system and with no money to pay teachers, appealed to religious orders in Ireland and other European countries, and soon religious sisters and brothers responded to the crisis.
The Sisters of Charity, the Good Samaritan Sisters (founded by the first Australian Bishop John Bede Polding in 1857) and the Sisters of St Joseph were among the first religious orders in Australia, (also known as the Josephites) who started and operated city and parish schools that grew from the first two schools that opened at the end of the 19th century. As the number of religious orders grew, the number of schools also expanded.
Today, there are some 1750 Catholic schools nationally, providing quality education for 765, 000 students. In figures available via the Catholic Education Western Australia (CEWA) website, there are 162 schools and colleges across Western Australia.
The Church remains the largest non-government provider of welfare services in Australia. Catholic Social Services Australia aids some 450 000 people annually, while the St Vincent de Paul Society’s 40,000 members form the largest volunteer welfare network in the country.
And in the healthcare industry, Catholic Health Australia (CHA) reports that the Catholic Church operates 80 hospitals (23 public hospitals and 17 hospitals located in rural or regional locations) providing more than 25,000 residential aged care beds.B
Besides providing a “person-centred” healthcare to those who walk through their doors, Catholic healthcare organisations house some 36,500 home care and support consumers and welcome about 44,500 babies per year.
CHA Board Chair, Paul Robertson, described the services of the Catholic healthcare system as a “significant and meaningful contribution towards improving health and care outcomes in this country… continuing the healing ministry of Jesus in the twenty first century.”
A report in The Age published in 2018 suggested that the Catholic Church in Australia owns at least $30 billion of the country’s wealth.
An article published by the Catholic Herald UK in 2011 titled “What the Church has given the world”, by Father Andrew Pinsent – a former particle physicist at CERN (a European Organisation for Nuclear Research), Priest of the diocese of Arundel and Brighton and Research Director of the Ian Ramsey Centre for Science and Religion at Oxford University – presents a detailed argument backed up by facts that the Catholic Church played a major role in the development of the world since its beginning.
Suggesting that the Church played a role in the discovery of the ‘light and the cosmos’, Fr Pinsent explains that it was through the request of Pope Clement IV, that the tradition of optics in the Latin world was established, leading to the invention of spectacles around 1300, then telescopes and microscopes.
“The Gregorian Calendar (1582), now used worldwide, is a fruit of work by Catholic astronomers, as is the development of astrophysics by the spectroscopy of Fr Angelo Secchi (d 1878),” he stated. “Most remarkably, the most important theory of modern cosmology, the Big Bang, was invented by a Catholic priest, Fr Georges Lemaître (d 1966, pictured), a historical fact that is almost never mentioned by the BBC or in popular science books.”
“ … continuing the healing ministry of Jesus in the twenty first century.”
Fr Pinsent also expressed that the Catholic civilisation played a fundamental role in every other areas including the development of earth and nature (mapping of the earth, produced great explorers, developed the first theory of evolution and discovered the science of genetics), philosophy and theology (developed principles based on the theory that God is a God of reason and love – having incalculable influence on intellectual life and culture), Art and architecture, law and jurisprudence, language, music.
He also reiterated in this article that despite popular prejudice, many contributions of ‘extraordinary and influential’ women of the Catholic Church have been one of the hallmarks of Catholic civilisation.
“The faith has honoured many women saints, including recent Doctors of the Church, nurtured great nuns… and produced many of the first women scientists and professors, including the first woman to become professor of mathematics, who was appointed by Pope Benedict XIV as early as 1750,” Fr Pinsent concluded.
From pages 12 to 13 of Issue 20: ‘Wellbeing: Building stronger communities that flourish as a whole’ of The Record Magazine