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Fox, Arthur Francis (1904–1997)

by James Griffin

from Australian

Arthur Francis Fox. Bishop of Sale. Born Brunswick, Victoria, August 27, 1904. Died Melbourne, February 16, aged 92

In what was above all an unblemished career, it is unfortunate that Arthur Fox will figure in the political history books as the bishop who in 1960 declared that at that time no Catholic could in conscience vote for the Labor Party. In other words, to do so was a mortal sin, meriting eternal damnation.

At that time Fox was an auxiliary bishop commanding no diocese of his own, so his pontification was not binding, even on Melbourne's Catholics — although he was careful to say he was not putting forward just his personal viewpoint. However, an unprecedented ecclesiastical altercation followed in which Sydney's formidable theologian-spokesman Dr Leslie Rumble rendered the Fox position ridiculous. How could it be a sin to vote Labor in Melbourne but not in Cardinal Gilroy's diocese of Sydney nor Archbishop Boevich's in Adelaide, to take two hierarchs who were quite explicit that no sin was involved?

But Fox was too much the obedient, preVatican II priest to pontificate without authority. Behind him was the legendary, nonagenarian Archbishop Daniel Mannix (1864-1963), his model and nemesis, whom he revered to the point of adulation.

In April 1955, under Mannix's direction, Fox had banned the widely circulated Catholic Worker from the cathedral, and therefore most Victorian parishes, for saying Catholics could vote for any but the Communist Party. Why could the "so-called intellectuals" not obey their bishops, he wanted to know. Even his oratory ineptly imitated Mannix's ruminative style and made Fox sound much older but not more sage than he was. He was, however, essential as a faithful mouthpiece for Mannix in his enfeebled final decade, when the Labor Party split and he endeavoured to inflict damage upon it.

Catholics, Fox intoned, were "Labor people" but their true party after 1955 must be the Democratic Labor Party, whose guru was Mannix's favourite son, B. A. Santamaria. Labor had to be kept from office — and so it was until 1972.

Australia had to be saved from communists even though by 1960 their numbers had dwindled to a few thousand. They had whiteanted the Labor Party and not even the fact that three of the party's four federal parliamentary leaders in 1960 were Catholics would persuade Fox or Mannix otherwise. To win votes for the DLP, Mannix felt a long bow had to be drawn, and Fox endured the derision for doing so.

Fox had been born in Brunswick in 1904 to pious Catholic parents; several siblings went into religious orders. He was educated by nuns at the parish school and then by the Christian Brothers at Parade in East Melbourne and St Kevin's, Heyington. He became part of the first intake into the Jesuit-directed Corpus Christi seminary at Werribee set up by Mannix in 1923.

"Art" Fox was described by one memoirist as "slim and oval-faced, like a picture of St Aloysius". He went "quietly, purposively about his duties", was studious but far from brilliant, and was always dapper even when gardening, attending picnics, attempting to bowl a "vicious" seamer at cricket or playing football methodically in defence in the back pocket. One Jesuit dubbed him Brother Placid, "always reliable, taking part in everything". Ordained in 1930, Fox served in several suburban parishes before being appointed to Melbourne's St Patrick's Cathedral staff in 1939. In 1944 he became administrator and secretary to Mannix and in 1946 vicar-general. This was an onerous workload but Mannix, already over 80 and uninterested in administration, had always preferred a single bureaucratic conduit who, like his predecessors, would be rewarded with a bishopric in due course.

In October 1956, Fox was made an auxiliary bishop with the titular see of Rhinocurura (present-day El Arish in the Middle East). His reverence for his new exalted office led him to exact meticulous deference. Even bumping into Bishop Fox one windy day on the high scaffolding of a new seminary, an eminent QC was obliged to kiss the proffered episcopal ring.

When Archbishop Simonds succeeded Mannix in 1963, Fox's spokesmanship was stifled, but it revived when Simonds soon declined in health. While in 1959 Fox had complained that Labor would not support State aid for Catholic schools, he called its offer of 1966 "a mess of pottage" and, after the Liberals won that year's election, upbraided them for not offering the equivalent. He remained loyal to Santamaria as "the saviour of Australia". Not unnaturally, Fox felt that materialist hedonism was producing a decadent society. His obiter dicta, however, on the decline of family values, were not always cogent. He famously said: "If we had more prams and less motor cars, we would have more babies and fewer road accidents."

In 1967, he was appointed to the see of Sale, with some 40 priests to supervise. The appointment was not begrudged but there were consultants who felt it was not appropriate in the post-Vatican II era. Soon after he seemed to confirm this misgiving when he told the denizens of eastern Victoria that the Old Testament was clear that national calamities could be a punishment for sin. Drought-breaking rains would be "bestowed when they were faithful". Still, Fox proved as conscientious and efficient as ever, and many priests and parishioners appreciated his paternal kindness and conservatism. At confirmations, he expounded the traditional school Catechism. He had little relish for doctrinal evolution or ecumenical bonhomie. When Rome spoke, on contraception for example, the issues were closed. However, in time he became more tolerant of liturgical innovation.

In 1981, Fox retired unobtrusively to a Melbourne suburban house where, with failing sight, he was cared for by relatives. Only in his gifts for piety and longevity had he simulated those of the near-centenarian Mannix. Politics had not been the auxiliary's natural milieu.

* James Griffin wrote the entry on Daniel Mannix for the Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 10.

Original publication

Other Obituaries for Arthur Francis Fox

Additional Resources

  • profile, Advocate (Melbourne), 19 July 1944, p. 8

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

James Griffin, 'Fox, Arthur Francis (1904–1997)', Obituaries Australia, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, https://oa.anu.edu.au/obituary/fox-arthur-francis-31465/text39310, accessed 25 July 2021.

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