Jesuit influence overplayed

It has been a big year for the Jesuit Order around the world with the election of one of their own, Jorge Bergoglio from Argentina, as Pope Francis. It has also been a big year for the Jesuits in Australian politics, culminating in the election of Jesuit-educated Bill Shorten as leader of the opposition Labor Party. Shorten was a student at the Jesuit GPS institution in Melbourne, Xavier College.

Never before have there been so many Jesuit-educated men at the heart of Australian politics. The Liberal leader and Prime Minister, Tony Abbott, and the Nationals’ deputy leader and Minister for Agriculture, Barnaby Joyce, were students at St Ignatius College, Riverview, in Sydney.

In addition, Treasurer Joe Hockey was educated at the Jesuits’ other Sydney school, St Aloysius, Milson’s Point, and the Minister for Education, Christopher Pyne, was a student at the Jesuits’ Adelaide school, St Ignatius College, Athelstone.

Particularly in the case of Abbott, this predominance of Jesuit education is much commented on. Sometimes it seems to be just a throwaway line, a curiosity, while at other times it is used as code for Catholic.

But on some occasions it is used against him by those who think that he is failing to stand up for Jesuit ideals and/or the example set by Pope Francis’ on matters such as asylum-seeker policy. They call on him to return to his education roots. In all these cases the Jesuit references are greatly overdone.

The rise of Jesuit-educated politicians in Australia is a remarkable conjunction in political leadership: a situation so rare that it may even be a first in the Western world. The Jesuits educate a lot of students in Australia but there has been only one other precedent that I know of at the state level. Former NSW Liberal premier Nick Greiner is also an old boy of St Ignatius, Riverview.

The rise of students from these schools is not a fluke but a consequence of the history and sociology of Australian political parties, especially the Liberal and National parties.

In their case, since many Catholics left Labor in the split of the 1950s, it is a logical consequence of the growth of certain strands of Australian Catholicism in the conservative parties. The current crop won’t be the last conservative leaders from the Catholic GPS system. Continue reading


John Warhurst is an emeritus professor of political science at the Australian National University. He was educated by the Jesuits in Adelaide.

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