Bishop who rode the tiger of social change

Leading the Catholic community during the Second World War, extricating the Catholic Church from involvement in politics in the 1950s, and attending the Second Vatican Council from 1962 to 1965 were hallmarks of Matthew Beovich’s three-decade career as archbishop of Adelaide.

The life and achievements of the Melbourne-born archbishop have been documented in a new biography, Matthew Beovich, written by Flinders University lecturer Dr Josephine Laffin [pictured] from the School of Theology.

Dr Laffin based the biography on research she had conducted to complete her recent PhD thesis.  She had access to the Adelaide Catholic Archdiocesan Archives, and was able to read Beovich’s private diary and conduct interviews with people who had worked with him.

The result is an absorbing insight into life at the helm of the Catholic Church in Adelaide during some of Australia’s most testing social movements.

“One of the things that drew me to Matthew Beovich’s story was the range of historical events he guided the Church through,” Dr Laffin said.

“He was archbishop of Adelaide from 1939 to 1971, so his tenure began at the start of World War II and traversed several political upheavals, including the ALP Split of the 1950s and the Vietnam War.

Although initially one of the strongest supporters of B.A. Santamaria’s secretive anti-communist organisation, the “Movement”, he never supported the Movement’s attempt to infiltrate the ALP.  Unlike some bishops interstate, he never supported the Democratic Labor Pary, which emerged in the wake of the Split, and he did not back Australian involvement in the Vietnam War.  Privately he regarded the controversial war as ‘atrocious’ but he confined himself in public to praying for peace.”

Then there were the dramatic changes which took place within the Catholic Church after the Second Vatican Council, including the change in the language of the liturgy from Latin to the vernacular.

Matthew Beovich was still the archbishop when the controversy over birth control intensified after Pope Paul VI’s encyclical Humanae Vitae was issued in 1968.

“Traditionally in the Catholic Church great emphasis was placed on obedience and humility, but by the late 1960s the cultural trend placed greater emphasis on self fulfilment and autonomy and living according to one’s own consciousness,” Dr Laffin said.

“So it was quite difficult for Matthew Beovich as an elderly bishop, who had an engrained sense of the value of obedience, to adjust to the fact that people were wanting a greater opportunity for self-expression and freedom.

“But he encouraged the development of consultative structures in the Church, such as the Diocesan Pastoral Council and the Council of Priests, and on issues like birth control he was much more sensitive to the feelings of lay people than some of his colleagues interstate.”

Matthew Beovich: A Biography is published by Wakefield Press and available for $39.99.

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