Story: Catholic Church

Page 4. Catholics and the First World War

All images & media in this story

Enlisting for war

New Zealand Catholics went to war with enthusiasm in 1914. Archbishop Redwood regarded the First World War as a battle for justice and civilisation. Catholics were proud of their high rate of volunteering for military service. When conscription was introduced in 1916, the Catholic hierarchy approved it. The Bishop of Auckland, Henry Cleary, served as a military chaplain in the trenches of Flanders, and won a mention in dispatches.

In Flanders fields the sparrows fly

Henry Cleary, the Catholic Bishop of Auckland, was an intensely energetic man who performed magic tricks in public, was a friend of world-famous authors and artists, and took one of the first commercial aeroplane flights. He served as an army chaplain in the trenches in 1916–17 and was fascinated by the behaviour of birds under shellfire. ‘The sparrows swarm along the fighting lines, picking up scraps and bits of the soldiers’ food. They are very tame, almost let you walk on them, and pay no attention to the rifle or trench mortar fire or to the tremendous crash of high explosives.’1

The Catholic population felt that its sacrifice, shown by the faces of its dead sons in each issue of the Tablet, deserved the gratitude of the rest of the country. Instead, it found itself gradually being made a scapegoat by a war-weary nation. Catholic leaders were accused of using the war to push their religious interests. The Pope’s neutrality and his suspected pro-German sentiments were criticised. Worst of all, the 1916 Easter Rising in Ireland meant that New Zealand Catholics were accused of disloyalty. From 1917 the Protestant Political Association (PPA) carried out a virulent anti-Catholic campaign. It found many willing followers and after the war convinced Parliament to pass a number of laws penalising Catholic interests.

Archbishop Mannix

Events in Australia contributed to the hostility between Protestants and Catholics. Irish Catholics there challenged the Protestant establishment and defeated efforts to introduce wartime conscription. Daniel Mannix, the outspoken Catholic archbishop of Melbourne, became the most controversial figure in antipodean politics and his speeches were fully reported in New Zealand.

James Kelly

During the war Catholics made up one-seventh of the New Zealand population. The dilemma of their minority status in an overwhelmingly British Protestant country increased once Ireland moved to separate from Britain. In 1917 Dr James Kelly, a former priest from Ireland, was appointed editor of the Tablet. He was a committed Irish Republican who cheered every victory for the separatist Sinn Fein party and insulted its opponents (famously referring to Queen Victoria in highly disrespectful terms). The solicitor-general urged that Kelly should be arrested and prosecuted for sedition, but the wartime coalition government was not willing to take that step.

Liston’s trial for sedition

In 1922 James Liston, the coadjutor (assistant) bishop of Auckland, was charged with sedition and given a two-day criminal trial. It was claimed that in a speech on St Patrick’s Day he had referred to British troops as ‘foreign murderers’. Liston was acquitted, and that verdict marked the end of the divisive Irish issue, but its effects lingered. Over the next two decades the Catholic Church seemed to isolate itself from the rest of the country, bruised by what it regarded as institutional bigotry.

Footnotes:
  1. Quoted in H. Laracy, ‘New Zealand Catholics and war 1914–1918.’ The Australasian Catholic Record 70, no. 1 (January 1993), p. 22. Back
How to cite this page:

Rory Sweetman, 'Catholic Church - Catholics and the First World War', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, http://www.TeAra.govt.nz/en/catholic-church/page-4 (accessed 23 October 2019)

Story by Rory Sweetman, published 5 May 2011, reviewed & revised 17 Jul 2018