So yesterday the Prime Minister went to church at the Mary MacKillop Memorial Chapel in North Sydney.

Rudd is an Anglican, although he was raised a Catholic.  So questions were asked.

“He attended a service, the Prime Minister attends church regularly on Sundays and he was in Sydney this morning,” his office told AAP.  As happens, of course.  Maybe they had a time he found convenient. Like when my mum visits me in Canberra, sorting out the church times can be a hassle.

But on the basis that Rudd never does anything without reason, it was only natural of the media to connect his trip to North Sydney, where the desiccated remains of a 19th century nun are kept, with his trip to the Vatican earlier this year where he met the Pope and discussed MacKillop’s progress toward canonisation.

Back then, Tony Abbott criticised Rudd for attempting to “lobby” the Vatican about MacKillop.  The meme being peddled by Abbott — and not entirely inaccurately, it has to be said — is that Rudd is so obsessed with spin that he thinks it extends to even the holiest rituals of the Mother Church.

At the time I was inclined to agree with Abbott, albeit primarily from the perspective of the indignity of Australia’s elected leader paying any sort of homage to the head of one of the world’s most corrupt and damaging corporations, especially over its own absurd superstitions.

What I was foolishly thinking, however, was that the men who run the Catholic Church might actually believe in that nonsense about miracles performed by long-dead people.  Pope John Paul II, being a canny politician, had realised the true worth of canonisation as a marketing device for the Church, so in 1983 he stripped out any rigour from the process, including the famous “Devil’s Advocate” role, and reduced the number of “miracles” needed for canonisation from three to two.  The result was a saintly sausage factory, with John Paul II churning them out in their hundreds, particularly as promotions for papal visits overseas, or to reinforce conservative forces within the Church, such as the 2002 canonisation of Spanish fascist Josemaría Escrivá, founder of Opus Dei, and the beatification of ultra-reactionary and fraud Agnesë “Mother Teresa” Bojaxhiu.

Given the entire notion of sainthood was an ancient necessity to co-opt and regulate the local rituals and traditions of the cults and creeds Christianity had wiped out, John Paul II’s efforts were simply of a piece with the great traditions of the Church.

The promotion of Mary MacKillop’s “sainthood” is therefore a very smart piece of marketing by the local Catholic Church and its international masters.  It appeals to that lurking cultural cringe in the Australian mindset that the surging nationalism and swagger of recent decades has not quite killed off the pleasure to be gained from international recognition, no matter how dubious.  Australians still love it when the rest of the world acknowledges us.  MacKillop’s role as Australia’s first promotee into the ranks of Catholic saints is the sort of Little Aussie Battler journey that we all love to celebrate.  Hell, our brewers might even bring back those “They Said You’d Never Make It” ads to promote a celebratory MacKillop Bitter* when her sainthood is declared.  And no, don’t laugh — there’s already been a flower, a dollar coin and a musical.  The merchandising possibilities are huge.

Rudd wants to be part of it.  For one thing, the ALP is the traditional home of Catholicism in Australian politics, and despite the rise and rise of Catholic reactionaries such as  Abbott, Kevin Andrews and Barnaby Joyce in the coalition, there are still factionally strong Catholic interests in the right wing of the ALP.  Just ask former South Australian senator Linda Kirk, who was removed and replaced by Catholic right-wing powerbroker Don Farrell for voting in favour of stem cell research (the same faction from which Michael Atkinson, Australia’s most savagely censorious Attorney-General, hails from).

Rudd, as many including Abbott have pointed out, is also not above using religion for political purposes, with his happy Sunday morning ritual of taking question outside St John’s Anglican Church in the Canberra suburb of Reid.  That doubtless reinforces Rudd’s deliberate image as a boring but safe leader, especially as St John’s is an old, leafy and traditional church made of sandstone, not one of those modern Entertainment Centre-style places that might denote happy-clappy enthusiasm and an obsession with money.

Rudd isn’t unusual in exploiting religion for political purposes.  Like other politicians, including John Howard and Peter Costello, he is happy to address gatherings of major religious groups.  Indeed, it has really only been Mark Latham of recent major politicians who had the conviction to avoid mixing with many of the religious fundamentalists that try to influence public policy in Australia.

But MacKillop is different.  Rudd wants to be close to the MacKillop action for the same reason that he supports an Australian bid for the soccer World Cup, and the same reason John Howard and Morris Iemma so enthusiastically supported a bid the 2008 World Youth Day (another prime piece of Catholic marketing), the same reason generations of politicians have excitedly signed us up for major events.  It’s all about the feel-good buzz, the delight of victory when some old European male (the Olympics, FIFA and the Catholic Church are all run by similar corrupt cliques of European men) stands up to declare us the winner.

And even better, MacKillop doesn’t come with the huge economic cost of major events, which require new stadia, better infrastructure and compensation for the rival sports/faiths that have to be suppressed while the event is conducted, for fear of anything upsetting the control-obsessed organisers.

Many years ago, when I taught early modern history to bored first-year university students, I’d always make the point that if 17th-century Europe looked like a society heavily influenced by religion, it was also the case that 17th-century religion was heavily influenced by the highly secular concerns of the world in which it operated.  Of course, not much has changed since then when it comes to Catholicism.  That’s why Kevin Rudd is positioning himself close to Mark McKillop.  And if it upsets former seminarian Tony Abbott, then that’s just fine, too.

* Please — enjoy alcohol in moderation

Peter Fray

Fetch your first 12 weeks for $12

What a year. Here at Crikey, we saw a mighty surge in subscribers throughout 2020. Your support has been nothing short of amazing — we couldn’t have got through this year like no other without you, our readers.

If you haven’t joined us yet, fetch your first 12 weeks for $12 and start 2021 with the journalism you need to navigate whatever lies ahead.

Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey

JOIN NOW