Australia's Feminist Saint

By Michael Mullins
Eureka Street
October 11, 2010

Father Paul Gardiner has described media discussion arising from facts presented in last night's Compass feature on ABC TV as inaccurate, and a 'nasty swipe' at the Catholic Church in the weeks leading up to Sunday's canonisation of Mary MacKillop.

For many years, Gardiner was the driving force behind the presentation of the case for MacKillop's canonisation. Media reports in recent weeks included a simplistic interpretation of friction between MacKillop and male church authorities. They portrayed her excommunication as a direct consequence of her exposure of sexual abuse of children by a priest.

Stressing that there's enough legitimate evidence of human weakness in the Catholic Church aside from this 'misinformation', Father Gardiner told Mount Gambier's Border Watch newspaper: 'Somehow or other, somebody typed it up as if I said Mary MacKillop was the one to report the sex abuse It's the ill-will of people who are anxious to see something negative about the Catholic Church.'

Such negativity can be seen as an attempt to revive the sectarianism that marred Australia's religious landscape until recent decades. Narrowly focused, and often distorted, religious argument between Catholics and Protestants ensured division in Australian society for generations.

These recent attempts to rekindle sectarianism miss the point of MacKillop's elevation. The canonisation signifies her triumph over adversity on behalf of all Australians, and not a victory for Catholics over non-Catholics.

The inclusiveness of her struggle for education for rural and regional Australians in particular ensures her legitimacy as a role model for all. She faced and overcame obstacles such as the patriarchy that dominated both church and society around the turn of the 19th century.

In a commentary published last week at the ABC's Religion & Ethics portal, historian Father Ed Campion wrote of the trials of MacKillop's migrant Scots family as they struggled to make a go of life in Australia, which they found 'strange and at times uncomfortable'.

He went on to quote an American source which suggested that the mature MacKillop's combative response to the patriarchy's assault on the dignity of women at the time has 'made her a heroine to modern Australian feminists'.

Campion says: 'Living in isolated little cottage convents, young and unlearned, subject to chicanery and abuse "ignorant servant girls" one parish priest called them from his pulpit they nevertheless stuck to Mary and her understanding of their vocation.'

It's easy to see that sexual abuse was part of the mix of challenges facing MacKillop and her sisters. But clearly it was one among many elements of disfunction within the church and society of the time.

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