As I write this piece, the Catholic church is in crisis – it is confronted with its own historical culpability in sexual exploitation and criminal violence against multiple generations of its own youth and children, accusations of systematic cover-ups of these and other activities undertaken by a priesthood and leadership that range from economic corruption to longstanding discrimination against women. The church is facing skepticism from right wing, nationalist governments and liberal, social democratic governments and political parties alike; it is held in suspicion by autocratic states who see it as competing for moral authority and social control. It has its own internal fractures between liberal and conservative factions – and faces increasing pressure from growing Pentecostal and evangelical movements. But when we refer to the ‘church’ as in crisis, we refer to an institution, a fully operational corporate entity, supported by government regulation and, in many countries, taxation exemptions and subsidies. The church is a de facto nation state with its own laws and regulatory regimes, historical alliances and enemies, foreign policies and policing, disciplines and punishments.

It is helpful to begin from Max Weber’s sociological description of institutions as bureaucracies, functioning systems that mediate, govern and shape social relations, identities, life pathways and labor. Education, Work and Catholic Life is about Australian Catholic women’s lives, their educational and generational experiences, their beliefs, aspirations and life pathways and how these have been shaped in relation to Catholic education, childhood and – indeed, a church that now finds itself in crisis. Here the focus is on religious belief and spirituality as a complex and dynamic amalgam of cultural practices – tied up closely with everyday educational, child-rearing exchanges and beliefs that are produced and reproduced, shaped and reshaped by successive generations of women raised and educated as Catholics. Particularly in the current context, this fusion of memory and imagination perhaps tells us more about the lived challenges and everyday realities of religion and spirituality, education and childhood, work and profession than any formal ethnographic, sociological or historical case of schooling or the church might. For this genealogy of Catholic women’s lives, Anne Keary and her colleagues remind us, is both vertical and horizontal in its scope. Several of these stories over a century of Australian Catholic lives and, then, proceed to move laterally across intersecting families, friendships and place.

Anne Keary’s work presented here began several decades ago – first as a feminist, phenomenological account of lived, multigenerational relations within and across her family around growing up Catholic in Australia, around Catholic schooling and childhood. Anne’s doctoral thesis, written in North Queensland while she was working in Indigenous community education, was a powerful, prototypical feminist autobiographical case study. It was written in an era where matters of gendered standpoint, of embodied and autobiographical history and life experience, were just emerging in social sciences and research and doctoral studies. It was then and remains a groundbreaking, brave, important account of the intergenerational exchange of gendered identity and mother/daughter relations, spirituality and cultural practices. I strongly recommend it for all readers, especially those working through that (often subliminal) autobiographical relationship between their scholarship and their own lives.

Here, several decades later – Anne has joined with her Melbourne lifelong friends and family, and her research collaborators to extend that dialogue and exchange across time and place, across multiple generations and families. The result is a truly multi-voiced, living dialogue – of women’s stories still in formation and exchange – accounts of how these women’s lives, beliefs and spirituality, relations with mothers, grandmothers, daughters and grandchildren, aunties and nieces continue to weave a rich multigenerational tale and account of spirituality lost and gained, of life continuity and disruption, of abuse and neglect, of educational achievement and frustration, of work and profession and career, and often, of a feminist ethics of care. As it speaks here, this dialogue is a model of healing, love and care through memory work.

I grew up as part of a small Lutheran, postwar-German immigrant community in Western Canada – like most, never fully aware in my own agnostic, adult commonsense about how formative and significant that childhood might come to be. As part of a postwar generation of New Canadians, our focus was on reinvention of the self in every way – through social movements, through feminisms and civil rights moments, through an ecumenical spirituality that readily embraced and melded the godly and the flaky, secular and non-secular, the straight and unstraight, and found value in all kinds of worldly good works. How were any of us to know that this was, indeed, part of a unique generational moment, moving past disastrous world war and mass migrations, and leading to a climactic rise and decline of that generative and volatile relationship between capitalism and Protestantism that Weber himself described during his early twentieth century sojourns to the American Midwest. So, that my first published book was on Luther, the Reformation and literacy should have come as neither a surprise or autobiographical anomaly to me. But it did. Only to be followed by writings on feminism, media and public pedagogies. When I met Anne Keary in the 1990s and began to hear and read her stories of Melbourne childhood, schooling and church – I knew little of the history of Irish Catholics in Australia. Unlike the Irish diaspora in the Eastern United States or Canada – the Australian Irish Catholic diaspora was defined by the British penal colony – with the forced transmigration of a economically, culturally and politically marginalized community to what, for many, became a multigenerational history of division and exclusion. Education, Work and Catholic Life is a further contribution to this history. And it is important to reconnoiter the Catholic church once again as an historically colonizing institution – with Indigenous Australians subjected to forced family separation, residential schooling, indentured labor, religious indoctrination as part of a larger historical program of genocide and linguisticide.

So we can place these women’s stories, these histories, and these accounts against that concomitant history – and the history of a postwar Australia where White feminisms have had a profound effect in reshaping everyday life and labor, governance, institutions and families over the past four decades. We can reconsider these stories as set against a narrative backdrop of a Catholic church in transition and crisis, from Vatican II to the current situation – of an Australian Catholic culture still coming to grips with its own unique and traumatic history, and of the resilience and power of these Australian women’s culture, generational continuities and exchanges, and, indeed, feminisms in dynamic action. What I take away from these stories is an abiding reassurance about the value and power of generational exchange – a sense that no matter what happens to these institutions that we call religions – there is a spiritual, emotional and political momentum that resides in women’s culture, in the relationships between women as friends, colleagues, partners, mothers, aunties, nieces, daughters and granddaughters. It is these that matter and shape everyday lives, memories and futures – more than any priesthood, patriarchy or bureaucracy.

Professor Carmen Luke
Brisbane, Australia
20 April 2019