Tag Archives: history

Is the Pope Catholic?


Christopher Lascelles, Pontifex Maximus: A short history of the popes, Crux Publishing 2017.

404 pages

ISBN 9781909979468

E-book $AU 8.99


Years ago, while teaching French, I showed my Year 9 students some slides of the Popes’ Palace at Avignon. ‘This,’ I declared, ‘was where the Popes lived when there was more than one Pope.’

Two girls, my best students, were aghast. ‘But the Pope must live in Rome,’ they said. I


Le Palais des papes, Avignon. Image courtesy tourisme-avignon

knew that these students were Roman Catholics, so I suggested they should check the story out with the nuns that visited the school. Next lesson, they returned with an ‘official’ list of Popes, and were intrigued that this list did show that Clement V, Innocent VI, John XXII and Urban V, all ‘proper’ Popes established their Curia in Avignon.

Rome has good reason to police papal history. The papacy has been a fallible institution, and Rome would prefer an official list that presents the story that God was working through sinful men.


Christopher Lascelles

Christopher Lascelles’ new book, Pontifex Maximus, is not the story that Rome prefers. Lascelles is the author of A Short History of the World, and in both books, he gives evidence-based history. The style is journalistic and accessible, but it is not flattering to the papacy.

Popes are shown to be quarrelsome, ambitious and self-serving. Some rode at the head of papal armies. Some sponsored their children and nephews into rich positions as Cardinals or Archbishops. Some, like Pius XI (1922-1939), supported Mussolini. Lascelles shows how Pius was even implicated in the rounding up of Jews, naively believing Mussolini was a good Catholic because he had promised favourable treatment for the Church. Once trapped into the deal, he continued to believe that the advantages to the Church outweighed the evils of Italian Fascism.

Lascelles rightly makes the Gospel of Jesus the standard by which he judges Popes. He identifies three only that lived the Gospel and had the opportunity to reform the Church – Gregory I the Great being the prime example. Gregory refused to accept the title of Universal Bishop, and exemplified Christian values as he saved Rome from a series of disasters.

He believes that the new Pope Francis may also serve the Gospel well.

There were times when I felt that Lascelles was unduly critical. For example, he criticises the political power that Innocent III (1198-1216) amassed for himself, without showing the good for the Gospel that he also achieved.

Overall, this is an entertaining and informative run-through of the history of the papacy. I considered myself reasonably well-informed and learned many new things in the reading. Above all, Lascelles makes the story of the papacy interesting.

It is clearly written for a general audience, for readers who would rather not be fobbed off by pious propaganda. I doubt there would be teachers brave enough to set it as a text in Catholic schools or tertiary institutions, but it would be a rich resource for senior students.

In all, to cram so much history into such an accessible book is a praiseworthy achievement.



Choosing an Indigenous Subject for a Statue

First published in the Busselton-Dunsborough Mail, June 21, 2017

We ‘wedulah’ (whitefellas) can do better than complain about the choice of Gaywal for the representative statue of a Noongar in Busselton. We might instead take a solemn moment to remember that after Gaywal speared George Layman, a posse of settlers, including humanitarian John Bussell, hunted down Noongars indiscriminately and according to the Perth Gazette of the time killed ‘at least seven Wardandi’.

The settlers were unwilling to share land. Under John Bussell’s leadership, they were generous to the local Aboriginal people in every other respect, except the land needed for their mission of settlement. John Bussell seems to have been genuinely baffled that the first people did not immediately see the benefits of colonialization and jump at them. The Wardandi, on the other hand, were equally baffled at newcomers who would take all the land and refuse to share the necessities it provided.

The tensions were inevitable. Vernon and Alfred Bussell grew vexed because the Noongars continued to trespass to hunt kangaroos. The hungry Noongars took cattle and speared horses. The Bussells started taking hostages, including women and ‘a little girl’. The dispute escalated until a Bussell servant was killed by the Noongars. According to E.O.G. Shann’s 1926 Cattle Chosen, nine Wardandi men and women were shot dead in retaliation.

Isn’t it time we ‘wedulah’ accepted both that the Bussells and the Laymans deserve honour for their noble achievements in settling the Vasse and also that lethal misunderstandings arose between our forebears and the Noongar people? It’s a sobering history, but to ignore it is an ongoing disrespecting of the first people. Acknowledging this past seems to me essential if we are to arrive at reconciliation and healing.


Cattle Chosen

Rugged and painful past

Cavan Brown, The Blackfellow’s Friend, Perth: Access Press, 1999.

Paperback 296 pages. (Approx $34 from online suppliers, or borrow through the public library system.

Reviewed by Ted Witham (re-posted for National Sorry Day).

Some years ago, I was at an ecumenical, outdoor service in a country town. To begin the service, a local Noongar elder welcomed us to his country, “where Noongars have roamed for tens of thousands of years.” The congregation (two-thirds “wadullahs” (white people)) listened with a stillness of respect.

When aboriginal formally welcome wadullahs to their country, the welcome is always an offer to receive a gift. The tone of the welcome is totally hospitable. “This is our land,” they say, “and we positively want to share it with you.”

Reading any story of aboriginal-white relations over the past 200 years makes me reflect how astoundingly generous and forgiving towards Europeans the aboriginal people have been.

Cavan Brown’s new biography of The Reverend John Gribble is a novelised account of the failed attempt by the Anglican Church to set up a mission for aborigines near Carnarvon in the 1880s. The story traces the fascinating, if somewhat depressing, events in which the passionate motivations of Gribble were crushed and terminated.

On his arrival in Carnarvon, Gribble held high hopes for his mission. He gave to the mission near the town the name of Galilee Baba, after the Sea of Galilee and the Ingarra word for water. His vision was to provide a place where aborigines could live in reasonable conditions, not in the dust and dirt of their camps, where the sick could be cared for, and where aborigines could learn to read and write.

Soon after his arrival, he travelled to the site of his remoter mission. As he travelled through station country, he observed the ways in which some station people treated aborigines: rounded up for work on the stations, imprisoned if they ran away, bound by the Masters and Servants Act, for which they could not have given informed consent. He observed sexual exploitation of aboriginal women, and degrees of cruelty towards all the aboriginal people there.

Being a man of high principle and precipitate action, Gribble complained loudly about these practices, both locally, and in the Perth newspapers.

The response came quickly and vigorously. Bishop Parry initially supported Gribble’s comments. However, pressure was brought to bear on Bishop Parry and the mission committee he chaired. Influential families and pastoral lease-holders joined in a condemnation of Gribble. Cavan Brown’s telling of the story reveals how the Diocese caved in to this pressure, believing that it was better to avoid dividing the small community than dealing with admitted injustices.

Because of his comments, Gribble was assaulted, and his complaints were dealt with slowly and inadequately. Gribble’s temper became more aroused. British justice could not even be meted out to him, a European. What hope did aborigines have?

Eventually, Gribble returned to NSW, bitter and defeated. The Bishops in the Eastern States continued to support him and his mission work with aborigines.

Cavan Brown explains in his Preface that he chose deliberately to write the story of Gribble in novel form, rather than as straight history. His purposes were twofold: to make a more readable story through reconstructing dialogue, and to bring to light the motivations of the various characters.

His imagined conversation between Bishop Parry and his Presbyterian friend, George Truscott, explores most sympathetically the dilemma into which the Bishop had fallen. The immediate threat to the Diocese came from pastoralists who would remove financial support for the Cathedral. This explains the immediate conflict into which Winthrop Hackett, Charles Harper and other prominent Anglicans placed him. However, the Bishop’s deeper intention in withdrawing support from Gribble appears to have been a long-term strategy. He hoped to win slowly and surely an understanding from the white establishment about the treatment of aboriginal people.

The title for Cavan Brown’s book, The Blackfellow’s Friend, may produce controversy today because of its lack of political correctness. The title is in fact taken from Gribble’s tombstone in Sydney, and was intended as a tribute for Gribble’s life work. But even in the 19th Century, a phrase like “Blackfellow’s Friend” was used by Gribble’s opponents as a way of insulting and belittling his positive disposition towards aborigines.

Equally controversial may be Brown’s attempts to write down aboriginal Creole. He has transcribed the sounds and untaught grammar of aboriginal speakers in a way that some readers may find offensive. On the whole, I think Brown has succeeded in achieving a balance between arousing cute contempt for the limited English spoken by aborigines and a sense of realism.

Cavan Brown, as a Baptist pastor, has not been so successful in describing the peculiarly Anglican world of Bishops, Deans and Archdeacons. Perhaps only Anglicans will notice that Bishop Parry’s responsibility for Western Australia is described several times as a “parish”, when it was, by definition, a Diocese. I doubt very much that Anglican clergy were addressed as “Rev.” in the 1800s. The English pattern was to call the ordained “Mister”, and use the full form, “Reverend” only in writing about a priest.

For non-Anglicans, these may be quibbles. They certainly do not destroy the vigour of the story telling, but they do betray, along with numerous typographical errors, hasty sub-editing, which does detract from the enjoyment of the book.

In sum, I recommend this book strongly. It is a courageous and enticing piece of historical story-telling that will open perspectives both on the legacy of Church matters and also on the rugged and painful history of the way whites have treated the original owners of Australia.

First published in The Anglican Messenger.