Letter on the split in the IYCW

Letter to Australian YCW leaders on the split in the IYCW (1987?)

Dear YCWs

The news has recently hit the papers of a split in the International YCW. The English, French and Italian YCWs have split from the international YCW and have set up a new international body. This is sad news and is being used as a weapon to attack the YCW in Australia. It is important that we all understand as well as possible what has happened and why. I am afraid that this will make this a long letter, but I hope that you read it all and try to see the situation deeply.



The first point I want to make is that the world and the church world have changed dramatically in recent years. If you lock at a map of the world that is say 30 years old you will see that the countries are coloured in different colours – and that many of them are the same colour as England. The reason is this: So many of the countries of the world at that time were colonial countries. That means that the country was “owned by” and to a large extent governed by another country. Countries like Australia, New Zealand India, South Africa etc were English colonies. What has happened is that most of those countries have now split away from the parent country and become independent.

When this happened a lot of people said that these countries would not be able to exist – that they would not have the ability to control their people, that they would go bankrupt and the people would starve. Mostly this has not happened and it means that the world is now full of new countries all with their own ideas.


The Catholic Church in colonial countries was a mission church. The priests came from the parent country or from some European Church and they mainly brought the ideas and practices of their home country to the new country. Now when all these colonial countries became independent they mainly sent the missionaries home or at least made sure that the Bishop came from their own country. What has this meant? It has meant that in a few short years we have gone from a church where there were few black bishops to a church where there are more black bishops than white.

Again a lot of people said that the church would not survive in these countries. But just the opposite has happened. I remember reading a few years ago about how there were more adult converts in one year in Africa that there were Catholics in Australia. And the seminaries of the third world are full of young people wanting to be priests.


This has meant that the centre of the church as regards people is no longer in Europe or the Northern Hemisphere where all the developed countries are. The centre of the church as far as people go is in the Third World. There are now more coloured poor people who are Catholics than their are white Europeans.

And this means that these people new know more clearly what they think, they say it more loudly, and what they say is heard. Its a bit like the situation of the blacks in America. Once they were looked on just as slaves and people thought they were more animal than human. But now they are free and many of them have become great in sport, music and in other fields and people listen to them a lot more.

But of course all these people from poorer, oppressed third world countries see things in different ways. They believe the same faith and teach church teachings in the same way, but when it comes to applying them in the world they often say things that the rich white world does not like to hear. This makes for conflict in the church.

Now all of this is not a bad thing. It is a good thing. It is good that India is a free and independent country. It is a good thing that Africa has its independence and is not just a port of call for slave ships. It is a good thing that the church is going so well in these countries. It is a good thing that the church is a church of the poor and oppressed. But is does have its hassles.


Just this is what is happening to the YCW. A few years ago the YCW was dominated by the Europeans. Now the International Team comes entirely from the poor world. They speak about the world from their view point. This does not mean that they are always right but it does mean that if we are people of Christ’s Gospel we ought to listen to them.


One thing they continually ask of us is that we analyse what is taking place in the world – that we open our eyes to the fact that some people in the world are growing fatter and fatter while others starve. I guess they push that line because they are starving and their families are starving. But some people get sick of hearing that all the time. They say “This is communist talk. We want to hear more talk about Jesus. We want the YCW to do more about starting the YCW in other countries – but they just keep playing the same old record.”


In some ways we in the Australian National YCW team agree with these people. We agree with most of what the International YCW is saying but we see it as not being immediately relevant to local YCWs in their groups around Australia. They have their own lives to lead and they cannot always be thinking about international problems no matter how big and important they be. And so I think you will have to agree we spend most of our time starting new groups and supporting groups in their actions in everyday life. We see all that as being of great importance.

Some YCWs however, sadly, will see the other side. They say that the international YCW is going the wrong way and some see that as so important that they want to pull out and start another movement. We in the Australian National YCW team do not think that this is what Christ would want us to do. And so we have written to the International YCW and to the English and French YCWs telling them what we think. We have sided with the Japanese YCW in calling for a meeting to discuss our different points of view and try to work out a solution. I hope that you agree with what we have done and we would love to hear your views.


All that would be troubles enough – out there is more. The National Civic Council (NCC) have written an article about us in their paper “News Weekly”. In this paper they have drawn a picture of the YCW not only internationally but also in Australia as being a “far left” revolutionary body with little Christianity or ties with the church. I think you know that this is all poppycock as far as it applies to the YCW you know. We meet in parish property, we have our chaplains, our meetings begin and end with prayer, we make Christian gospel reflection and the main motivation of our work is our belief in the fact that we all have a Christian dignity and a Christian vocation.

I guess the questions you would want to know the answers to are:

1. Who is this NCC mob? Will anyone listen to them? Are they worth worrying about?

2. What are their reasons for saying that the Australian YCW is a far left non Christian revolutionary group?


Firstly, who is the NCC and what is their influence?


Back in 1941 a guy called Bob Santamaria who was working for the church in Victoria was approached by some people from the Australian Labor Party (ALP). They were worried about Communists taking over in the unions. They knew that the church was also against Communism and they asked him to do something about it. The Bishops of Australia agreed and gave Bob Santamaria 10000 pounds ($20000) per year to do something. They called their organisation “The Movement” and it grew quickly and had a lot of success. Some people will argue that the Communist problem in the unions was much exaggerated. Others will argue that the problem was controlled without aid from “The Movement”. The Movement people will argue that they through their work saved Australia from Communist take over. Certainly it is true that a lot of good people really sacrificed themselves, their money and their time in this work.

The main arguments against The Movement centre on two things: Its methodology and its further aims after the “communist crises” was over. Many people say that The Movement stacked meetings, used questionable propaganda and manipulated people. Many will also say that The Movement went beyond its aims of stopping a communist take over and tried and nearly succeeded in taking over itself as a political power capable of manipulating Government in Australia – and this is certainly not the role of the church.

It is up to each person to make up their mind about what the real situation was and what values they put on it. But what followed was this: The Labor Party was split in two. The Movement people set up a new party – The Democratic Labor Party (DLP). Then Rome intervened. A letter was sent to Australia saying that it was not the church’s role in intervene in the trade unions or politics and to set up Catholic political parties or trade unions. The result of this was that The Movement as such ceased to exist.


In Victoria, Bob Santamaria and his followers set up the National Civic Council (NCC) as a lay body and not part of the Catholic Church. And that body has continued to exist and to fight communism. They have a weekly news paper called “News Weekly”.


There is a lot of emotion surrounding judgements on the NCC. A lot of your parents would have been members of The Movement and may still be members of the NCC. Some feel that the need to fight communism in Australia is still a crisis issue. Some feel that the church encouraged them to get involved and then dropped them. Others feel that the leaders of The Movement duped them and got them into a position they did not know about. Many feel that the NCC is too much a secret society and that it does not fight fair and uses questionable methods.


But some of the Bishops in Australia, a number especially of the older priests and a number of Catholic laity still feel some bonds of loyalty to them. This means that they read articles like the article on the YCW in “News Weekly” and they believe it must be true because “News Weekly” says it. We have already got reports of priests refusing to have YCW in their parish because of what the article says. We have reports also of some YCWs questioning what the YCW is on about and questioning whether they will pay subs because of this article.

We are all too likely to believe anything printed in a news paper – we forget that the writer of the article may be pretty ignorant of the facts, or may want to destroy something and be willing to play with the truth to attain their purpose.

So this article in “News Weekly” is not just something to laugh about and ignore. The things they accuse us of directly and by implication are very serious. Certainly I, as myself and as a priest, do not wish to be giving my life to a group that is a far left politically revolutionary group that has little Christianity and little ties with the church. This is what I believe “News Weekly” is saying and implying in their article.

Secondly: What are the NCCs reasons for saying these things about the YCW?


1. The opening sentence says that the “YCW was founded… to carry on trade union and political work based on Christian principles.” This is a pretty inadequate and misleading sort of definition. The truth is that Cardijn wanted all people and YCWs in particular to know and believe that God created each of us for a purpose. There are things to be done in our every day world that are our responsibility. How do I find out what God wants me personally to do? I go into my world each day knowing that it is really God’s world and God’s world that is happening there. I know He sent me here this day and so I look around at what’s happening, try to work out what God would want to be happening, and then set out to do that. What is special about the YCW is its emphasis on the fact that God is interested in the ORDINARY things of daily life and not only on moral questions. God does not just come into our lives on Sundays or when we pray or when there is a question of doing something wrong – God is part of every thing we do even the smallest most worldly things. Of course one of the things we are interested in (and a pretty important one) is the world of trade unions – but it is not our principal focus. To make this the definition of the YCW in many people’s minds is to draw a picture of the YCW as a political body involved in mainly left wing politics.


2. The article goes on to quote a letter which it claims was sent to all from the Bishops Conference in November, 1985. Not having heard of this letter I checked with a number of Bishops and with the Secretary of the Australian Episcopal Conference. They have not heard of this letter either. So I do not know where the NCC got their information.

To be fair we must acknowledge that there has been some conflict between the International YCW and the Vatican, and it is based on the situation I explained earlier. The Australian YCW together with most YCWs throughout the world does not want this conflict and is working to overcome it.

The opinions given by the English YCW (called the England and Wales YCW) are their opinions – and the opinions of people disgruntled with the International YCW. As said earlier we agree with something of what they say but do not agree with their conclusions or their actions in trying to divide the movement. The article claims that there are 10,000 members in the English YCW. Bernie McEvoy who has been there tells me that the number is nearer 500.


3. The article then goes on to talk about some things they disagree with in the French YCW. I do not know the facts or where they got them from. But doesn’t it strike you as funny that this should be given as ar argument against the International YCW? The French YCW is one of the groups pulling out of the International YCW. They do have a large number of members. They do owe a very large amount of money to the International YCW. If the French YCW is having troubles in being too political then they should clean up their own problems. But why split from the International YCW?


4. You will note that the article has two headlines: “Critical of the Church” and “Revolutionaries”. These are meant to sum up the picture the article wants to paint of the YCW. Under the headline “Revolutionaries” the article quotes a YCW Leader (another French YCW president by the way) saying “We are not working for the revolution, we are the Revolution.” The quote is a direct quotation of Cardinal Cardijn. Are they trying to say that Cardijn, a man universally acclaimed throughout the church, is a revolutionary of a type to be condemned?


5. Then the article tries to tell its readers that the Australian YCW is just as bad as it has claimed the International YCW is. What arguments does it use to prove this? Firstly it publishes a 1978 photo of the Brisbane YCW marching in the May Day Procession the photo appeared in the “Catholic Leader” 8 years ago and the article claims that the “Catholic Leader” ‘blotted out’ the banner of the Communist Party who they say were behind us in the procession.

The May Day procession authorities in Brisbane organise their march and traditionally each body marching is given a position. Personally I find it hard to believe that the 1 978 committee gave us a position in front of the Communist Party. But suppose for a moment that it be true. Does physical proximity to the CPA in a march to celebrate the struggle for workers rights prove that we agree with their politics? Does the fact that the YCW walked in front of, the Animal Liberation group in the Brisbane May Day march that I attended in 1984 prove that the YCW is passionately opposed to animal vivisection?

The article claims further that “The Australian YCWs office in Melbourne has been used frequently by far left groups like the Committee in Solidarity with Central America and the Caribbean.” That is just not true. The Australian YCW does not have an office in Melbourne. Perhaps they mean the Melbourne YCW. But the Melbourne YCW does not lend its offices to anyone. The Melboune YCW shares a building in Lonsdale Street with 5 other bodies. The building has an auditorium that is open to the public for rental. The Melbourne YCW neither owns nor controls the building in Lens–dale Street. It is owned and controlled by a trust body called YCW Holdings. Holdings in allowing rental of their building do not necessarily claim political affinity with any group using it. Anyone could use it if they are trust worthy and pay the rental.


6. Finally the article quotes me of all people to try to prove that the YCW no longer has ties with the church or Christianity. Without giving any context to what I said it tells us that the YCW is working with and among non Christians (Hindus and Buddhists) in some non Christian countries. Wouldn’t you expect that a missionary body would be doing just this? Isn’t this just what the church asks us to do?


You might well ask why I do not write a letter to the editor of “News Weekly”. My answer is that I believe that such letters do not get a fair go in the “News Weekly”. They have to be short and the editor puts footnotes to the letter attacking the believability of the author. If you have a copy of the “News Weekly” with the article on the YCW take a look at the centre spread of the magazine – the article about the Uniting Church – and you will see what I mean.


You might ask why we do not take the NCC to court and sue them for defamation. We are at present getting legal advice about that. The thing is that it costs money, takes time, and if you win you get a small apology. Australian Catholic Relief, the Catholic Commission for Justice and Peace and at least two Bishops have tried or contemplated trying this in recent years and mostly the advice we have been able to get is that it is just not worth it.

It would be worthwhile to get a copy of the May edition of “National Outlook” to see how Fr Bruce Duncan reports how the NCC and “News Weekly” have repeatedly misrepresented people and have got away without apologising for it.


Just one final point: I would like to explain again why we in the YCW do encourage diocesan YCWs to participate in the May Day processions. It is a historical fact that workers have been much oppressed over the years and especially at the time of the industrial revolution. A lot of people then as now united to fight for justice. Not always then as now were things done the right way but it is historical fact that a lot of struggles were successful in gaining worker justice.

Every year all over the world workers congregate on May 1st to celebrate these struggles and these victories. Now it is a fact that if you go to a May Day march you will find that it is dominated by left wing politics. The Pope on a number of occasions has deplored this fact. To the workers in St Denis he put the question: “By what right has the struggle for justice in the world been tied to the programme of the radical denial of God?” The Pope, you see, believes that the Catholic Church has been in there fighting with the workers and more he believes that the church should be there fighting for justice. A recent document from the Vatican taught us again that the struggle for justice is a constitutive part of the work of Christian evangelisation.

And so we in the YCW are proud to be each year a part of the celebrations of workers struggles for justice. We are proud to be I believe the only declared Christian and the only Catholic group to join with them on this day. We would want to proclaim to other workers groups and to the world that our work as YCWs is a work also and a struggle to attain workers justice. We would feel even that it is our responsibility to do so.

Pope Pius XII claimed that May Day is in a sense a “Christian feast” – that it is “the proper feast day of labour.”

Hugh O’Sullivan