What­ever hap­pened to the Catholic in­tel­li­gentsia, asks Barry Oak­ley

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Feature -

IOWE a great debt to R. G. Men­zies, the benev­o­lent dic­ta­tor who ruled over my youth­ful life. In 1950, thanks to him, the Vic­to­rian Ed­u­ca­tion Depart­ment was able to of­fer ter­tiary schol­ar­ships, and I was granted one. The Uni­ver­sity of Mel­bourne, that pin­na­cled Carl­ton en­clave where no pre­vi­ous Oak­ley had ever set foot, was opened to me.

Now I could leave sub­ur­bia, where mo­tor mow­ers turned grass into lawn, and en­ter a place of roll-neck sweaters and duf­fle coats, where you went to lec­tures when you liked, wear­ing what you liked, then pro­ceeded to the Caf to talk Kafka and stir the world around in your cof­fee cup.

If you were Catholic, this scruffy and se­duc­tive place opened on to an­other. Here, at New­man Col­lege, an ex­otic Mex­i­can-Byzan­tine build­ing de­signed by Wal­ter Bur­ley Grif­fin, a quiet revo­lu­tion was tak­ing place.

Smoky rooms were crowded with earnest peo­ple who were putting to­gether two words that had rarely been con­joined, at least in Aus­tralia: Catholic in­tel­lec­tual. Who was this newly dis­cov­ered per­son­age and what should they be do­ing? To some­one ed­u­cated at a Chris­tian Broth­ers col­lege that com­bined sanc­tity with the strap, the mix of avant-garde the­ol­ogy, free­dom and girls in tight sweaters was in­tox­i­cat­ing.

The cru­cial link be­tween the sec­u­lar and the su­per­nat­u­ral was Vin­cent Buck­ley. Jour­ney Without Ar­rival , John McLaren’s bi­og­ra­phy of Buck­ley, has just ap­peared from Aus­tralian Schol­arly Pub­lish­ing.

Great teach­ers stay with you for life. Like his older English depart­ment col­leagues A. D. Hope and Ian Maxwell ( who would weep on cue ev­ery year while recit­ing Par­adise Lost ), lit­er­a­ture had touched Buck­ley deeply, and he passed that depth on to his stu­dents. He was very short, very se­ri­ous, and spoke with youth­ful au­thor­ity about what still car­ried the shock of the new: James Joyce’s A Por­trait of the Artist as a Young Man.

McLaren’s ti­tle gets it wrong. De­spite his later de­cline, in the 1950s Buck­ley had ar­rived. As a teacher, poet and driv­ing force be­hind the New­man So­ci­ety, he was al­ready home.

As McLaren de­scribes it in his ex­cel­lent open­ing chap­ters, Buck­ley was a Catholic from a ru­ral Ir­ish fam­ily, which gave the Oxbridgeans of the English depart­ment three rea­sons to look down on him. He was an out­sider, but he wouldn’t have had it any other way. It was a be­lief he main­tained even when he wasn’t.

We un­der­grad­u­ates were in awe of a man of such triple tal­ent. We heard him lec­ture, we read his po­etry in Far­rago , the uni­ver­sity news­pa­per, and watched from the side­lines of the New­man So­ci­ety as he laid out his vi­sion of a Chris­tian hu­man­ism, quot­ing French the­olo­gians we’d never heard of.

Then this par­tic­u­lar stu­dent went to a party in

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