In good faith,

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, from the class­room all the way to Bill Engli


No one ex­pects the Span­ish In­qui­si­tion, es­pe­cially not on Pen­te­cost Sun­day. 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!”

An­cient rit­u­als like this con­fir­ma­tion cer­e­mony, with its lay­ing on of hands and in­vo­ca­tion of the Holy Spirit, have played out at St Bene­dict’s Church in New­ton for more than 130 years.

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 spotlit 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.”

In the US, The Late Show’s Stephen Col­bert may be the most fa­mous Catholic on tele­vi­sion. But when Clau­dia Hoskins made the fi­nal three on

The Bach­e­lor this year and brought Zac home on ap­pro to meet the fam­ily, her fa­ther Steve was so de­lighted he was a “Ros­mini boy” that he just about mar­ried her off on the spot. “He’s a Catholic,” he an­nounced. “That’s a big bonus!”

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 will lead 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 Na­tional Cab­i­net share his re­li­gious roots, de­spite Catholics ac­count­ing for only 11 per cent or so of the pop­u­la­tion. About a quar­ter of Labour’s 31 MPS have a Catholic con­nec­tion – still above the na­tional av­er­age, but few of them are ac­tively prac­tis­ing and only one ranks in the top 15 on the party list.

In Na­tional, seven out of 20 cab­i­net min­is­ters are 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 United MP Peter Dunne. Fin­layson, the 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 PM’S sup­port. Now, with Act MP David Sey­mour’s End of Life Choice Bill be­ing 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

Re­mark­ably, a third of Na­tional’s Cab­i­net shares Bill English’s Catholic roots, de­spite Catholics ac­count­ing for only 11 per cent or so of the to­tal pop­u­la­tion.

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.”

His­tor­i­cally, Catholics have al­ways been a sub­cul­ture in New Zealand; a mis­trusted and typ­i­cally work­ing- class mi­nor­ity looked down on for their spir­ited drink­ing and rough Ir­ish-catholic roots.

“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 an­tiCatholic 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 rug­by­mad – 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 high­achiev­ing, 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, 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 trans­gen­der 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.”

On the record as op­posed to euthana­sia, Bill English reaf­firmed that po­si­tion speak­ing at Fam­ily First’s an­nual “Fo­rum on the Fam­ily” in July.

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

“Scratch a num­ber of Na­tional Party Catholics and I think you’ll find a gen­er­a­tion ago their fam­i­lies were Labour vot­ers.” HIS­TO­RIAN AND FORMER LABOUR CAB­I­NET MIN­IS­TER MICHAEL BASSETT

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 has shut down de­bate on is­sues that con­flict with his Catholi­cism, and re­fuses 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 scan­dal­rid­den 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 page: Ni­cole-ann No­bre, dressed in white for her con­fir­ma­tion cer­e­mony, waits with her fam­ily in the pews. Op­po­site: Mon­signor Paul Farmer opens Sun­day Mass at St Bene­dict’s in Auck­land, as­sisted by al­tar server Asaah Frim­pong.

Above: Farmer with the eight chil­dren be­ing pre­sented for con­fir­ma­tion at Sun­day Mass (from left): Eisen Belleza,14; Duane Belleza, 12, Alexan­dra Wagg, 8; Ni­cole-ann No­bre, 9; To­mas Botero Ramirez, 12; Adam Thorpe, 10; Bene­dict Thomas, 8; and Caleb Thorpe, 10.

Op­po­site top: Farmer, who was or­dained in 1972, has been at St Bene­dict’s for eight years. “A lot of peo­ple still have faith and be­lief,” he says. Op­po­site be­low: Twins Caleb and Adam pose with Farmer after be­ing con­firmed and tak­ing their first Holy Com­mu­nion.

Breaking bread at a tea party in the crypt. From left: Ni­cole-ann, Alexan­dra, Farmer, Adam, Caleb, To­mas and Bene­dict. “Re­li­gion isn’t some­thing you chop and change ev­ery time you get out of bed,” says Farmer. “But we’re still mov­ing on in other ar­eas.”

Above: Massey Uni­ver­sity re­li­gious stud­ies spe­cial­ist Peter Line­ham has watched the rise of Bill English with in­ter­est.

Above: Prime Min­is­ter Bill English (far left) prays at St Paul’s Cathe­dral, Welling­ton, in 2002, with fel­low Catholic and left-wing politi­cian Jim An­der­ton se­cond from right.

Above: Farmer helps Adam and Alexan­dra cut the cake, with Ni­cole-ann and Bene­dict (at left) and Caleb and To­mas (at right).

Top: St Bene­dict’s shrine to Santo Niño, a de­pic­tion of Je­sus as a child and an ob­ject of de­vo­tion for Filipino Catholics. Above (from left): Floyd Fer­nan­dez catches up after Mass with broth­ers Asaah, Owusu and Kwaku Frim­pong, who as­sisted Farmer as al­tar

Both Catholic and non-catholic fam­i­lies are clam­our­ing to send their chil­dren to faith schools such as Ba­radene College (above), drawn by their rep­u­ta­tion for high aca­demic stan­dards and moral val­ues.

Above: New Zealand’s first two Catholic Prime Min­is­ters. In the early 1900s, the Lib­eral Party’s Joseph Ward (left) would pop into Welling­ton Cathe­dral for morn­ing prayers on his way to Par­lia­ment. Labour’s Michael Joseph Sav­age (right), who came to power in the 1930s, “could turn on the Ir­ish-catholic charm if he needed to”, says his­to­rian Michael Bassett, but wasn’t a prac­tis­ing Catholic.

Above: Pope Fran­cis meets Gov­er­nor-gen­eral Jerry Mateparae and his wife Janine at the Apos­tolic Palace in Rome in 2014. Many Catholics in New Zealand see Pope Fran­cis as “a man of our times” and a new so­cial con­science for the Church.

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