There are plenty of famous Catholics who have made a lasting impact on Australian history. We know of Caroline Chisholm and Mary Glowrey, St Mary of the Cross Mackillop and Archbishop Goold. We know of B.A. Santamaria and his political activism, and we know of Mannix and Moran and Knox. But there are many others whose influence will go unrecognised, part of Australia’s “secret history.”

A person whose influence goes unrecognised is Patrick McMahon Glynn (1855 – 1931). If you have a vague recollection of the man, it’s probably because there is an institute named after him, serving as ACU’s public policy think-tank. Even so, he’s not a well known figure.

Glynn made a name for himself as a delegate to the Australasian Federation Convention debates (1897-98), where a host of people from across the country came together to compose the Constitution. The debates themselves are fascinating. They reveal how far we have fallen in terms of our rhetorical abilities and sharpness of mind. These were incredibly learned men who examined the constitutions of their neighbours and created something that drew on the best whilst being unique to them.

So, what was Glynn’s influence?

Recognition of God

It’s common to characterise Australian Federation as simply a trade or economic agreement; a matter of convenience rather than passion. This is not the case. It was in their best interests to federate, but national sentiment was soaring at the time, and there was a strong religious belief that, in the words of historian John Hirst, ‘God wanted Australia to be a nation’ (The Sentimental Nation, 2000).

This belief was so strong that petitions to include an acknowledgement of God in the Constitution were overwhelming. Include one they did. It remains there to this day, with the nation ‘humbly relying upon the blessing of Almighty God.’

Patrick Glynn was an Irish barrister who arrived in Adelaide in 1880. He was a man of great intelligence who could quote Shakespeare by heart. Although he admitted to not having ‘an adamantine faith’, he wrestled with questions of faith throughout his life and never left Catholicism.

Patrick Mc Mahon Glynn
Patrick McMahon Glynn (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

Being a Roman Catholic, he was picked to advocate for this cause of recognition. Australia’s Christian landscape was quite diverse, even sectarian, and people were sensitive to the fault-lines dividing each group. Catholicism was seen as especially divisive because of its insistence on things like dogma, a sacramental priesthood, and Roman authority. Catholics were always “illiberal” in this regard.

Choosing a Roman Catholic to represent them had a certain undertone: We’re so united on this point we’ll even get a Catholic to represent us.


The cause for recognition did receive pushback. Some people at the debates argued it was inappropriate to include such a statement, that it would make a mockery of religion. Others (like Edmund Barton, the man voted to be Australia’s first Prime Minister) argued that since the affairs of politics were secular, there was no reason to include it.

Interestingly, the pushback wasn’t from an anti-religious standpoint. One of the strongest groups opposing this recognition was the Seventh Day Adventists, and the reason was partly economic. Since they have their holy day on Saturdays, they were concerned this would provide impetus for the government to restrict business on Sundays, when most other Christians celebrated the Sabbath, thus depriving them of work two days a week instead of just one.

The pushback, however, wasn’t enough to prevent it from being included.

Glynn’s argument in Adelaide

Initially the recognition was worded like this: ‘Invoking Divine Providence.’ The primary thrust of the argument was that there was an overwhelming number of people who supported its inclusion, so they shouldn’t ignore it. The argument ran deeper, though. At the Adelaide session of the debates, on 22 April 1897, Glynn also argued, following the British conservative philosopher Edmund Burke, that ‘religion is the basis of civil society.’

He said:

This spirit of reverence for the Unseen pervades all the relations of our civil life. It is felt in the forms in our courts of justice, in the language of our Statutes, in the oath that binds the sovereign to the observance of oar liberties, in the recognition of the Sabbath . . .’

Even the pagans throughout history have had a sense for the divine, he said. Beyond the ‘moral anarchy of the world’s unguided course,’ even they sensed the existence of eternal principles.

Its inclusion would also be important for the nation’s politicians, he argued, lifting their eyes beyond the present moment and viewing their office with a sacred respect:

They should not look to the paltry pelf of the moment, nor to the temporary and transient praise of the vulgar, but to a solid permanent existence in the permanent part of their nature, and to a permanent fame and glory in the example they leave as a rich inheritance to the world.’

Glynn’s argument in Melbourne

Despite an eloquent speech, the motion was voted against. During the Melbourne session of the debates, Glynn raised it again, this time reformulated. Now it read, ‘humbly relying upon the blessing of Almighty God.’ And this time it was accepted.

Glynn pushed back against the idea that, being a secular document, it would be inappropriate to have those words in the Constitution. This argument ‘proves too much,’ since it ‘would deprive half the offices and courtesies of life of their highest significance.’ Religious thought and feeling was deeply woven into the life of society, from its lowest elements to its highest.

Finally, he repeated an argument made in the first session, that religion was the basis of civil society:

It is this, not the iron hand of the law, that is the bond of society; it is this that gives unity and tone to the texture of the whole; it is this, that by subduing the domineering impulses and the reckless passions of the heart, turns discord to harmony, and evolves the law of moral progress out of the clashing purposes of life . . .

The enduring relevance of Glynn

This, really, was one of the central points he put forward. Even though Australia did not have a State Church, he wanted to reinforce the idea that the spirit of religion still animated their country.

It is a point that remains at the heart of so many questions we wrestle with today. Who are we? What does it mean to be a nation? What does it mean to have values? What should we value? Where do these values come from? If religious belief is the source of these values, what does that mean for the enduring truth of that religion? What is it that should unite us?

In an era where people assume faith and politics to be enemies, the secular and the religious to be inimical, Glynn reminds us of a time when they were not so, when people believed those things actually needed each other.

Glynn can have the last words:

In these days of too-often dying ideals, when thoughts that once would burn are chilled by the besetting touch of commonplace; when utility seems the measure of virtue, and the greater passions pale under the searching rays of reason . . . when the ardour that fires our noblest aims is damped by a calculating cynicism, and the glow of poetry goes out before the glare of materialism; it is well that we should set in our Constitution something that may at times remind us of ideals beyond the counter, and of hopes that lift us higher than the vulgar realities of the day.’