Kiwis may be a largely godless lot, but Catholicism is on the rise with “Papists” overtaking “Proddy dogs” as New Zealand’s largest Christian faith. Joanna Wane looks at the growing influence of Brand Catholic.
Dressed in virginal white, eight young initiates are lined up like sacrificial lambs before the altar of one of Auckland’s oldest Catholic churches. And they’re in for a grilling.
Gazing up at Monsignor Paul Farmer is a tiny, wide-eyed angel, her long blonde hair nipped into place by an Alice band studded with roses; the very picture of innocence. But Farmer, his blood-orange robes emblazoned with the sign of the cross, is a veteran when it comes to extracting confessions.
“Do you have any tattoos?” he inquires sternly, a wink in his voice to the crowd. Meekly, the eight-year-old shakes her head. “Thank God... I hate tattoos. They’re a sign of how we humans are so easily seduced.”
A short homily on the temptations of peer pressure follows, neatly wrapping up just before the congregation starts to fidget. Religion is theatre on a grand scale and Farmer, ordained as a priest in 1972, knows how to work the stage.
“Have I talked enough yet?” he asks, peering down his glasses at another of the youngsters, still standing in a patient row. “Maybe,” the boy replies. “Hah!” barks Farmer. “You could be a politician!”
Resurrected in red brick after fire razed the original wooden building in the 1880s, this was once the heart of Auckland’s largest Catholic parish, stretching from the central city out to the Waitakeres. At the peak of its glory, a couple of thousand people went down on bended knee for Mass every Sunday, with five or six services held on the hour. Then the guts were ripped out of the congregation when hundreds of houses were demolished in the 1970s to make way for Spaghetti Junction and the Northwestern Motorway.
Those past generations of mostly European churchgoers in their Sunday best would barely recognise the 21st-century faithful who line the pews now. They come to worship in sneakers and puffer jackets (in winter, it’s freezing inside), and a miked-up young Malaysian boy plays violin, next to his music-group leader on guitar.
Farmer grew up in Papatoetoe. But his altar servers today are three brothers from Ghana, and many of the families here today are first-generation Kiwis. Migrants form such a significant part of the flock that an alternative “Ethnic Mass” is held most Sundays, in Tongan, Indonesian or Spanish.
Along the church’s south wall, a spot-lit shrine is dedicated to Santo Niño, an object of devotion for Filipino Catholics, depicting Jesus as a curly-haired child dressed in the glittering red and gold of Spanish royalty – a stark contrast to the sombre triumvirate of nuns holding silent vigil on the opposite side.
It’s a tidy turnout for a holiday weekend (Pentecost Sunday, celebrated on the 50th day after Easter, fell on Queen’s Birthday this year). When the last hymn has been sung and the final blessing bestowed, families cluster for “First Communion” photos, then everyone piles down for samosas and sausage rolls in the crypt.
Stripped to his shirt sleeves, Farmer sits at the centre of a special party table with the newly confirmed children, who flank him on either side like disciples at the Last Supper. Over cups of tea, a grandmother looking on tells me one of her children married a Catholic – and another is married to a Buddhist from Vietnam. Her own mother, a staunch Anglican, “would have been horrified by both”.
Out in the foyer, a pro-life pamphlet is pinned to the noticeboard, next to a flyer promoting pre-marriage counselling. Priests and same-sex couples might not be welcome to make their wedding vows beneath St Benedict’s soaring rafters, but one man at Mass looked as if he’d come straight from a gay pride parade. Divorce, contraception, homosexuality and even masturbation are still officially frowned on, but these days the “parish police” won’t bail you up about your private life at the door.
“Religion isn’t something you chop and change every time you get out of bed, but we’re still moving on in other areas,” says Farmer, describing a “warmer and more accommodating” Catholic Church than the harsh, judgmental one he remembers as a boy, when transgressions such as a broken marriage were cause for condemnation. “The last thing people need in difficult times is a church that’s knocking them and we’ve been guilty of that.”
Farmer considers it “quite likely” the Church-legislated requirement for Catholic priests to be celibate could change; allowances are already made for married Anglican priests who convert. But any moves to open the priesthood to women – a challenge to “divine law” – would be “way outside our tradition and would be deeply divisive”. (In June, the fourth female Anglican bishop was elected in New Zealand.) The “one true Church” prides itself on sticking to the scriptures – or at least the Catholic interpretation of them – unlike the splintered branches of the more mutable Protestant family tree.
However, a shift in what Farmer calls the “traditional rhythms of worship” means Catholicism, too, has had to loosen its apron springs. Only a quarter of Catholics go to Sunday Mass, compared with 60 per cent in the late 1960s. “A lot of people still have faith and belief,” he says. “Perhaps they don’t live as close to God as they once did, but you can’t just judge their Catholicity on whether they attend a church every Sunday.”
It wasn’t enough to save Claudia; a night later, Zac voted her off the island. Still, the entrails of reality TV were ripe for the reading: Brand Catholic is having its moment in the sun.
In the latest Census, in 2013, Catholics overtook Anglicans for the first time to become our largest Christian denomination. And on September 23, Bill English led National into the election as only the fourth Catholic Prime Minister in New Zealand’s history.
Farmer, unsurprisingly, is a fan of the farm boy from Dipton, who’s one of 12 siblings. English’s younger brother, Dermot, is deputy principal at De La Salle College, a Catholic secondary school for boys in Mangere East, and the Prime Minister’s wife Mary, a Wellington GP, shares his religious views. “The Catholic faith is very important [to English] and he understands the society in which we live,” says Farmer. “He’s a man of faith and integrity, and in that sense, we’re very lucky as a country to have him.”
Unlike the cheerfully agnostic John Key, English is a social conservative in step with Church doctrine. Remarkably, a third of the previous National Cabinet shared his religious roots, despite Catholics accounting for only 11 per cent or so of the population. About a quarter of Labour’s 31 MPs had a Catholic connection – still above the national average, but few of them were actively practising and only one ranked in the top 15 on the party list.
In the National government's third term, seven out of 20 cabinet ministers were of the Papist persuasion – in upbringing, at least – including several of English’s key advisers: Gerry Brownlee, Steven Joyce, Chris Finlayson and Maggie Barry. David Carter, the Speaker of the House, is also Catholic, as is former United MP Peter Dunne. Finlayson, the former Treaty Negotiations Minister, once described himself as an “odd fish” for being both Catholic and gay. Celibate by choice, he voted against same-sex marriage, along with English, Brownlee and fellow Catholic cabinet minister Michael Woodhouse (although English says he’d support marriage equality now).
With its belief in the sanctity of life, the Catholic Church has a long history of mobilising its considerable forces against liberalising abortion law or the legalisation of euthanasia. On both counts, they have the caretaker PM’s support. Now, with Act MP David Seymour’s End of Life Choice Bill having been pulled from the members’ bill ballot in June, the question is being asked: is the Catholic tail in danger of wagging the secular dog?
Massey University religious studies specialist Peter Lineham has watched the rise of Bill English with interest. He says the public is always suspicious of groups with a vested interest “doing deals” with politicians that aren’t open and above board. “And there’s a lot more of that going on than we know about. But it’s mostly from the commercial sector – at least with religious pressure groups, you know what their agenda is.”
Lineham, whose latest book Sunday Best: How the Church Shaped New Zealand and New Zealand Shaped the Church is out in October, says religious factions have the potential to wield a significant influence in a society that doesn’t have strong values. He thinks the combination of English’s conservative personal morals and the Catholic tradition of social justice “is actually quite a coherent position”, compared to the Key regime of politics by popularity poll.
“While English has clearly been told not to go out on a limb, you get a stronger sense of purpose there. A secular society may mean positions aren’t decided on religious grounds, but people can’t leave their religion at the door.”
“Wild, ignorant and savage” was how Anglican founding father Rev Samuel Marsden described them with distaste in the 1820s – outliers whose churches were banished to the outskirts of town.
Only a generation or two ago, lurid anti-Catholic sentiment was rife. One historian recalls stories being spread about nuns having it off with priests and disposing of their babies in a lime pit to decompose the bodies. Catholics went to their own schools, socialised at their own clubs and married their own kind, in a sectarian divide that’s hard to imagine today.
“Until an embarrassingly late age, I thought that everyone was Catholic,” says a writer and artist who went to Villa Maria College in Christchurch in the 1970s. “I was very shocked to find I was in a minority.”
Yet Catholics have always tended to stand out in one way or another – and not just in the size of their families. In the 1920s, a study of prison inmates showed “tykes” were heavily over-represented. By the 1980s, the same was said to be true for the judiciary (and the parliamentary press gallery).
“Some of the things my parents’ generation were taught, that basically the body is a repository of sewers and you weren’t to think of it, can set you up for some pretty strange attitudes,” says one lapsed Catholic. “But it does tend to turn out a higher proportion of wildly successful people in life. In some ways, it’s like this lovely club you wish you could belong to. It seems to have a lot of warm and embracing elements to it.”
“An incredible sense of community,” says a former altar boy who felt the sting of being pelted with stones by “Proddy” schoolboys – a suffering he embraced as a martyr for the cause. Even now, years after losing his faith, he describes himself as Catholic in every fibre of his being. “Every principle I have, every action I take, is moderated by my upbringing,” he says. “As a kid, we were a group apart. I felt special. I still do.”
That sense of separation – of superiority, even – was captured by Listener columnist Joanne Black recently when she recalled being “touched and surprised” by the response after her son was badly hurt in an accident a few years ago.
“My friend Ruth said she would pray for my son,” Black wrote. “And when I thanked her and said another friend had promised likewise, Ruth said, ‘Yes, but mine are Catholic prayers so they work better than Protestant prayers.’ The nuns at her school had assured her that was true. Prayer wars. Who knew?”
In truth, Kiwis aren’t particularly religious, with 40 per cent of us not affiliated to any faith at all. At the latest Census, the percentage of practising Christians had fallen to an all-time low. Catholicism, too, had taken a hit, but with a slower rate of decline thanks to migrants – in particular from the Pacific, India, South America and Southeast Asia – who bring their faith with them.
While that’s most evident in Auckland, pocket congregations are sprouting up from one end of the country to the other. In Gore, a Filipino choir sings at the local Catholic church every second Saturday, drawn from dairy farm workers. The assistant priest, Rev Fredy Permentilla, is a missionary from the Philippines and travels around Central Otago and Southland taking Mass in Tagalog, his native language.
While that’s good for bums on pews, the influx is putting strain on the country’s network of Catholic schools – exacerbated by increasingly hot demand for places through the non-Catholic ballot (a quota of five or 10 per cent of the roll).
Paul Ferris, who heads the New Zealand Catholic Education Office (NZCEO), says between 700 and 1000 secondary students travel into Catholic schools in central Auckland every day, largely from suburbs in the west and south. A co-ed Catholic college is planned for Drury to relieve the pressure, and a new primary school opened in Takanini this June.
Integrated into the state system since the 1970s, Catholic schools appeal to parents who might not give a fig about the faith but are attracted by high academic standards and small class sizes, framed by a strong moral code. Last year, the rate of NCEA Level 3 achievement at Catholic schools exceeded the state sector by 25 per cent.
A recent analysis of Auckland secondary schools by Metro magazine placed 11 Catholic schools in the top 25, based on NCEA pass rates. With “attendance dues” of less than $1000 a year, compared to private school fees of $20,000 or more, that’s an attractive package.
Journalist Duncan Garner describes himself as an agnostic, with a journalist’s native scepticism – and admits his father would kill him if he knew his grandchildren were going to Catholic schools.
“It’s a good thing he’s six feet under,” says the former TV3 political editor, whose two daughters went through kohanga reo before being enrolled at Auckland’s Marist College through the non-Catholic ballot. The younger one is now boarding at St Joseph’s in Napier.
Both Garner’s parents were staunch Presbyterians, but they were also rugby-mad – All Black Andy Dalton married his mother’s sister. So when their parish took a stand against the Springbok Tour, seven-year-old Garner and his two sisters were hauled out of Sunday school and the family never darkened the church’s doorstep again.
Garner says he and former partner Mihingarangi Forbes wanted a high- achieving, single-sex school close to their home, and he likes the Catholic emphasis on values, boundaries and respect. He describes both his girls as independent, free thinkers.
“We’re sending them for education in the core subjects, not to be anti-abortion or pro-Catholic. They may have those discussions at school, but they get a reality check when they get home. I’m of the view that as they grow into adults, they can take from it what they like.”
At St Peter’s College in Auckland, places are in such demand that no non-Catholic students were accepted under the quota last year, and a “significant number” of Catholic applicants were also turned away. According to Metro’s data, it was one of only four schools in Auckland to top a 90 per cent pass rate in University Entrance in 2016 (along with St Cuthbert’s, Baradene, King’s and Diocesan).
Each school day at St Peter’s starts with a prayer at assembly, followed by a two-minute silence at midday, and a prayer to end the final afternoon class. Service in the community is a key element of school life: a weekly homework club for recent refugees, a working bee at a local rest home. Meals for the homeless cooked by a team of senior students and volunteer staff are delivered on Friday nights to the Auckland City Mission.
Down the road at Auckland Grammar – St Peter’s College’s great rival, on and off the sports field – more support has been promised for gay, bisexual and trans-gender students after an old-boys’ blog, GrammarPride, was set up to address a climate of “latent homophobia” at the school. Asked if any boys at St Peter’s are openly gay, deputy headmaster Hayden Kingdon (who’s in charge of the school’s Catholic character and mission) declined to comment, saying it wasn’t appropriate to discuss any student’s sexuality in a public forum.
“But the present Pope has led by his example of a non-judgmental attitude towards gay people,” he says. “Many of our students and families would feel the same way.”
In total, around 8.5 per cent of primary and secondary students in New Zealand attend a Catholic school. Paul Ferris, of the NZCEO, says ethical issues such as assisted dying are the subject of robust discussion.
“The right to end or terminate a life is something we’d strenuously resist and our schools have that as part of the mantra with their kids. But it’s not indoctrination; you have to have the right to choose. You don’t have a faith belief if it’s not freely chosen.”
He also confirmed his opposition to abortion, while acknowledging his views are out of kilter with most New Zealanders’, and ruled out a review of the existing legislation, which dates back to the late 1970s. Under the Crimes Act, it’s illegal for a woman to have an abortion in New Zealand without the approval of two certified consultants – a process that costs the Government $20 million a year.
How influential English’s personal convictions will be when Seymour’s End of Life Choice Bill goes up for a conscience vote in Parliament remains to be seen. During Key’s time as leader, Seymour thought having the PM’s support would give National backbenchers tacit permission to vote in favour. “Arguably, Bill will have the opposite effect,” he says.
“We agree strongly on the desirability of kids who get left behind having more choice [through charter schools] – for me, it’s about free markets; for him, it’s probably compassionate conservatism. But when it comes to assisted dying and abortion law reform, which I believe needs to occur, don’t even mention it. And I think that’s a shame.”
A Horizon poll, published in late June, showed 75 per cent support for medical assistance to die for those suffering from end-stage terminal illness and unbearable suffering, with only 11 per cent opposed. And a study published in the New Zealand Medical Journal found a third of doctors and two-thirds of nurses support the legalisation of assisted dying.
However, Seymour says a number of politicians are “unwilling to govern in the greater interest on some issues, because their personal view basically puts it out of bounds”. He won’t name and shame, but one MP told Seymour they intended to vote against the bill, despite a poll in their own electorate showing two-thirds are in favour of assisted dying. “I said, ‘You should be doing what the electorate believes; that’s democracy.’ They texted back and said, ‘I can’t, I’m too Catholic.’”
A Health Select Committee inquiry into legalising voluntary euthanasia, initiated in 2015 after the death of Lecretia Seales from brain cancer, reported to Parliament on August 2 but did not recommend a law change, instead merely providing a summary of arguments for and against.
Of some 22,000 submissions received, three-quarters opposed legalisation. Seymour puts that down to the power of the Catholic lobby, with people being “frankly scared” by their priests into making a submission. He’s also been heavily critical of committee chairman Simon O’Connor, a devout Catholic who once trained for the priesthood.
“I’m on the record saying his behaviour in actively soliciting submissions of a certain bent was reprehensible.”
Seymour won’t be drawn on the influence of the Catholic vote within National (although he says there are half a dozen or so Catholic old boys from Christchurch college St Bede’s in Parliament, “and that annoys the hell out of me because there are only five of us from Grammar”).
Opposition to euthanasia does also come from other quarters, including disability activists. However, the Church has considerable muscle to throw behind its campaign. When New Zealand First MP Peter Brown’s Death with Dignity Bill went before Parliament in 2003, the Nathaniel Centre (“the New Zealand Catholic Bioethics Centre”) distributed literature opposing it to every Catholic parish and school in the country, and encouraged the faithful to lobby their MPs.
The bill was defeated at its first reading by a single vote.
Just how influential the “Catholic mafia” really is behind the scenes in Parliament is difficult to gauge. In his seven years as Prime Minister, Jim Bolger voted in accordance with his Roman Catholic faith on conscience issues – but the “liberal” Labour Party hasn’t boldly championed euthanasia or abortion law reform, either.
Despite English’s top-heavy National Cabinet, historian and former Labour cabinet minister Michael Bassett thinks the Catholic bloc’s ability to influence national politics is diminishing.
“There’s a lot of stuff in the archives relating to links with the Labour Party on political issues in earlier times, but that’s less relevant now,” he says. “Even devout Catholics are more devoted to leading a good and honourable life, rather than a strictly religious one.
“More cherry-picking of the religion is the order of the day and thank God for that, really. That’s what makes Catholics more accepted by the wider community, because they’re not pushing religion but a message about leading a decent life.”
In the 1970s, Bassett was a backbencher when Labour’s pro-choice stand on abortion caused a rupture with the party’s traditional Catholic base (many members of the active anti-abortion group SPUC were fervent Catholics). A liberal on the issue himself, he says he was told priests in his Te Atatu electorate put pressure on people not to vote for him. “I know the Catholic Church really went for me.”
Only two Catholics other than Jim Bolger feature in Bassett’s latest political history, New Zealand’s Prime Ministers: From Dick Seddon to John Key.
The first, at the turn of the 20th century, was Joseph Ward, a “devout Catholic who was forever in touch with the Bishop” and would pop into the cathedral for morning prayers on his way down to Parliament from Premier House.
The second, Labour’s Michael Joseph Savage, was Prime Minister in the 1930s and “could turn on the Irish-Catholic charm if he needed to”, says Bassett, but wasn’t really a practising Catholic.
Since the great rift with the liberal left, Catholicism has drifted to the more conservative end of the political spectrum. Bassett says many Labour supporters switched allegiance to Muldoon – joining the “ordinary working folk of Rob’s mob” – and later affiliated quite happily with Bolger. “Scratch a number of National Party Catholics and I think you’ll find a generation ago their families were Labour voters.”
As a Catholic MP on the left, Labour’s Damien O’Connor is something of an endangered species. That’s occasionally left the West Coaster on the outer with his caucus colleagues; in 2013, he was one of only four who didn’t vote for same-sex marriage. An “irregular Mass goer”, he’s cautious on abortion law reform and against euthanasia but can’t accept the Church’s position on contraception.
Unlike Bassett, O’Connor does think the rise of the Catholic right is having an influence on the political agenda. “And I’m not sure it’s a positive one,” he says. “I struggle to reconcile the priorities of a Government with a high level of Catholics in Cabinet at a time of such great social need. Jim Bolger had a more old-fashioned approach to Catholicism and conservative politics; the new breed is more ruthless and less compassionate.”
Political activist John Minto grew up in a Catholic working-class family in south Dunedin in the 60s, at a time when the Church was at the fore of social justice and seen as a powerful force for change. Today, he says, it’s lost that common touch and is run by “deeply conservative forces” aligned with capitalism and the corporate sector.
On the frontline with anti-apartheid group HART during the Springbok Tour, these days Minto teaches physics and science at Hornby High in Christchurch and last year made an unsuccessful bid for the Christchurch mayoralty (campaigning for free public transport, affordable homes and decent working wages). An atheist now, he’s scathing of the sex-abuse scandals and systemic corruption that conspired to protect the Catholic Church’s reputation at all costs – but not its most vulnerable children.
In 2004, former Police Commissioner John Jamieson (a Baptist) was appointed by the Church in New Zealand to investigate complaints of abuse. The National Office for Professional Standards is now run in Auckland by Bill Kilgallon, a former Catholic priest from Yorkshire who retired here and has a long history working with the homeless and underprivileged in the UK.
He says abuse was most prevalent in the 60s to mid-80s, and victims are still coming forward at a rate of some 22 complaints a year. Often, he’s the first person they’ve confided in (Australian figures show the average time between institutional abuse occurring and being reported is 33 years).
“Some people refer to it as historical abuse and that grates with me, because it’s only historic for the offender,” says Kilgallon, who runs a course for student priests on safeguarding against sexual abuse. “The person who’s been abused is still living with it.”
A number of cases have been successfully prosecuted here; in others, the alleged offender has died or there’s not enough evidence to take before the courts. But Kilgallon, who has three adult children, says research shows the vast majority of people who come forward are telling the truth. “They might be just one of many [victims] and we know about the others. It’s always an important step – telling somebody and being believed.”
While remaining firm in his own faith, Kilgallon acknowledges the extent of the sex-abuse scandals and the complicity of the leadership has caused a crisis of faith for many Catholics. “The greater the trust, the worse the betrayal.”
And still, there seems no end to it. In June, Cardinal George Pell – Australia’s most senior Catholic and the Vatican’s third-ranking official – was charged with multiple sexual offences.
For many disillusioned Catholics, the Church has lost its moral authority and no absolution will be given. Wellington political scientist Jon Johansson says the priests who populated his childhood were drunks, rather than sex abusers. But he describes the Catholic Church as a “dreadful pernicious force through centuries of paedophilia” and as far as he’s concerned, there’s no atonement for that. Nor for its “regressive attitude” on birth control, particularly in Third World countries where AIDS has been epidemic.
Johansson had his name put down at birth for St Bede’s, fulfilling the “Faustian bargain” made by his father – a Lutheran bricklayer – when he married into a Catholic family. That pact expired when Johansson was confirmed at the age of 11. Despite storming ahead in his academic classes, he’d been held back in catechism for asking too many of the wrong kind of questions.
“The nuns would talk about something like Moses parting the water and I’d want to know how that actually happened,” he says. “Every religion, when faced with logic, is forced to fall back on faith and that was never persuasive for me.”
As Prime Minister, Jim Bolger had a “practical wisdom”, says Johansson, and took care not to inflict his religious views. In contrast, he’s critical of the way Bill English shut down debate on issues that conflict with his Catholicism, and refused to address inequities in abortion law, particularly around access for rural women.
“English will have to be careful, because that particular pulpit – the prime ministership – is the biggest one in the land and he must always be thinking about not abusing it.”
At the Holy Cross Seminary in Auckland – only a few doors down from the mosque where Sonny Bill Williams worships – rector Father Brendan Ward has 22 students training to be Catholic priests. Half are recruits from Vietnam, Korea, Malaysia, Hong Kong, the Philippines, Fiji and Tonga. Locals are in shorter supply.
A tall, rangy Southlander, Ward played cricket at provincial level and senior grade rugby (Steve Hansen’s dad, Des, coached him at Christchurch Marist), and worked in the forestry industry for 13 years before succumbing to the nagging pull of the priesthood in his early 30s. Of the seven in his intake, two had left by Easter. Another left in his fifth year to get married; two are now bishops.
Many people interviewed for this story see Pope Francis as a man of our times: an inspiration for disconnected Catholics and a new social conscience after the conservative and scandal-ridden legacy of John Paul II.
Ward thinks a lot of New Zealanders he describes as “culturally Catholic” are looking on from the sidelines, waiting to see where the cards will fall.
“It’s a philosophical struggle as much as a faith struggle, working out what’s of true and lasting value,” he says. “The Western culture of independence and self-sufficiency goes against the basic Christian tenet of solidarity: all for one. None of us like being preached to, but you can tread so gently not wanting to give offence that you don’t end up standing for anything.”
At St Benedict’s, Paul Farmer talks of the “simple, uncomplicated faith” of the mostly conservative new migrants who fill his pews, with their deep love of the church, its customs and traditions.
He reckons they have something to teach a Western world that has cerebralised religion. “These days, people want to be able to explain everything. But a large part of faith is mystery and heart.”
This was published in the September 2017 issue of North & South.