Anne Henderson’s biography of Edith Lyons, the spouse of Joe Lyons, Prime Minister of Australia (1932 – 1939), highlights a remarkable Australian – and is relevant to the Year of the Family proclaimed by Pope Francis. Edith and Joe Lyons’ marriage is not the norm, but is an interesting (perhaps unusual) illustration of the tradition to which Pope Francis gives expression.
Born in north-west Tasmania, Edith married Joe Lyons when she was a teacher aged 17. Joe Lyons, the Minister for Education in the Tasmanian Labor Government, was aged 35. Shortly before their marriage, Edith converted, and her conversion was one of conviction.
Edith’s first two pregnancies eventuated in miscarriages, and she was advised by her doctor that she would have no children. Edith had 12 children, one of whom died as an infant, and one of whom had a major disability. Eventually, Edith and Joe Lyons had over 50 grandchildren.
Joe Lyons died unexpectedly in 1939 at the age of 59. Edith and Joe Lyons’ marriage had been close, despite Joe’s constant travelling in the course of his parliamentary duties. Joe Lyons was a Federal Member of Parliament from 1929 until 1939. At Joe Lyons’ death, Edith Lyons’ prospects of financially supporting her 12 children were precarious. Throughout their married life, Edith and Joe struggled financially. Throughout her adult life, Edith was dogged by ill-health, and did not cope well with Joe’s death. Some may say that Joe Lyons’ political instincts were right – a great regard for the ordinary person, and for the public good – albeit that his response as Prime Minister to the Depression, and the advent of the prospect of aggressive war, both in Europe and the Pacific – was flawed.
Contribution to Politics
Prior to Joe’s death, Edith Lyons was an accomplished speaker. Edith Lyons was one of two women first elected to the Commonwealth Parliament. She was a member from 1943 until 1951. With the election of the Menzies Government in 1949, Edith Lyons became the first female member of the Executive Council. Edith Lyons’ maiden speech is an example of the best of Australian political oratory. Together with other, then contemporary, Australian leaders, all from modest backgrounds – Arthur Calwell, Ben Chifley, John Curtin, Robert Menzies – Edith Lyons established the framework for modern Australia. Edith Lyons was a key player in the substantially two party political system which has provided stability in Australian politics to the present day.
Joe Gullett in his autobiography discussed Edith Lyons’ contribution to the Commonwealth Parliament:
“She had all the qualities of a successful member, for she was not only a clear, lucid and logical speaker but she also had an instinctive sympathy, and a wonderful sense of fun. She hadbeautiful manners and gave everyone the impression that she was happy to see them when she greeted them. Perhaps she really was glad to see them too, and that is the reason why when she rose to speak she usually made her point to a smiling and appreciative House… I remember her saying: ‘I don’t think we should automatically and formally differ with the government on everything they do. This attitude of confrontations is all wrong, whether in government or in opposition. There are so many things in which we already do agree, and lots more on which we could afford to modify our extreme views or attitudes. We shall never deal with the real problems if we continue to waste so much time arguing over the minor points of difference.’”
Edith Lyons summed up her political philosophy in her maiden speech as follows:
“I bear the name of one whom it was said in this Chamber that to him the problems of government were not one of blue books, nor problems of statistics, but problems of human values and human hearts and human feelings. That, it seems to me, is a concept of government that we might well cherish.”
Year of the Family
Pope Francis has proclaimed a Year of the Family, commencing on the Feast of St Joseph, Guardian of the Holy Family, 19 March 2021, and continuing until the Feast of St Joseph, on 19 March 2022. This is a time for us to reflect on marriage and family in our lives.
Mine is a perfect marriage, mine is a perfect family – anyone who makes such claims deserves to be regarded as unhinged. Marriage is between spouses who have defects, families who are made up of human beings. Although there is no such thing as the perfect marriage, no such thing as the perfect family, both are important, providing companionship and mutual assistance, care for the vulnerable – the young, the sick, the disabled, the aged.
Families are a means whereby knowledge (language, history, culture, skill) is passed down generations. As the Scottish American philosopher, Alasdair MacIntyre, author of After Virtue, has commented, we are mutually dependent beings, at all times in some way, but at one time or another (e.g. in infancy and old age), very dependent on others.
A novelist, writing about marriage, whose work is very consistent with the thought of Pope Francis is Jane Austen, a single woman living in an English country village at the beginning of the 19th century. Perhaps, Jane Austen’s novels are even more popular today than when they were first written. Jane Austen’s novels reflect the significance for most of us of marriage and family, and of the human virtues which are so important to marriage and the family. Virtue is a word which, because of its negative connotations in English, arguably, should be abandoned. The concept is the Greek arete or human excellence.
According to the Alasdair MacIntyre, Jane Austen is a writer whose novels are about human excellence. One human excellence with which Jane Austen is concerned is constancy. Constancy involves patience, indeed, courage, when confronting difficulty. Constancy, like prudence in the Aristotelian formulation, is a human excellence upon which the other human excellences depend. A second human excellence with which Jane Austen is concerned is amiability, which is being socially agreeable, as well as a real affection for others. These are both human excellences which Edith Lyons had in spades – and in which she encouraged her children.
According to Alasdair MacIntyre, virtue or human excellence is an acquired quality, the possession and exercise of which enables us to achieve human goods, and a lack of which effectively prevents us from achieving such goods. Jane Austen’s novels contain moral criticisms of parents and guardians – the silly Mrs Bennet and the irresponsible Mr Bennet – and the young romantics who may become like their elders if they do not learn what they ought to be doing on the way to becoming married.
In contemporary Australia, the challenges confronting families are great, with the very high cost of housing; the abandonment of the family wage; a taxation regime which discriminates against single income families, and families with children; the economic compulsion on both spouses to engage in paid employment. Spouses and parents are time poor. Young lawyers (as well as executives working for large corporations) have an excessive working day that often renders impossible normal family life. The absence of a father in many families deprives children of what they are entitled to – a mother and a father, unconditionally committed to each other, and to each of their children. Declining fertility as highlighted in the recent Intergenerational Report is a major problem for Australia in the twenty-first century – having an impact on economic growth, the ability to sustain social security, aged and disability care, health and education, as well as defence.
Children do not always come. Spouses have defects. The hope that was at the beginning may be confounded. Suffering is part of the life of the family. Some suffering is inevitable – we are all flawed. We live in a society which does not sufficiently value marriage and family. But other suffering, by the choices we make, we may avoid. Pope Francis reminds us in Amoris Laetitia that perhaps we do not need the best car, we do not need to live in the flashest house, in the flashest suburb, our children do not need to go to the “best” schools, we do not need that expensive holiday. There is more to marriage and family than material possessions. Edith and Joe Lyons exemplify that understanding of marriage and family which places little store by material possessions.
Shortly before the marriage of our eldest son and his spouse to be, Kaye and I flew to Cambodia. Our then prospective daughter in law is of Cambodian, or, more precisely, Khmer, ethnic origin. She was born in a refugee camp in Thailand. Her mother at the time of the Pol Pot regime (1975-78) walked from Phnom Penh to the Thai border. By the time she reached the Thai border, each of the five children accompanying her were dead.
Kaye and I decided we wished to know as much as possible about the history and culture of Cambodia. Cambodia’s history is very challenging. The great temples of Angkor Wat were probably built with slave labour. The French gave little to Cambodia. During the Vietnam War the United States bombed the Ho Chi Minh trail, killing some 500,000 civilians. Pol Pot and his Parisian left-bank Marxist intellectuals murdered some two million Cambodians in an effort to create a utopian Cambodia. There are still land mines in Cambodia which indiscriminately maim and kill the unsuspecting. The present regime in Cambodia is corrupt, and under the influence of China. It fails to adequately provide the people of Cambodia with even the most basic services – water, sewerage, drainage, waste collection. The life of ordinary Cambodians is very hard.
Despite all, our time in Cambodia was a wonderful learning experience. I went to Cambodia wearing the beard I have had since about 1980. By Cambodian standards I was quite old. Around the Buddhist temples of Cambodia scamper bearded monkeys. The typical Cambodian does not wear a beard, so the locals called me “monkey face”! The marriages of our children introduced us to a wider world, just as the marriage of Edith and Joe Lyons’ surmounted the sectarianism that has blighted Australia until, perhaps, the late 1960s or early 1970s.
Pope Francis’ understanding of marriage and family draws on the age old Judaeo-Christian tradition which has a written history of at least 2,500 years, deriving from an even older oral tradition. Jesus’ response to the scribes and pharisees who wished to stone the woman said to have been caught “in the act of adultery” – Let him who is without sin cast the first stone – is a warning against legalism, a warning against misuse of rules, a warning against being too quick to condemn. We are all sinners. We should be slow to condemn. Jesus’ encounter with the Samaritan woman is a warning against prejudice, and a reminder that everyone can change for the better. Law is for the person – not to be used as a weapon against the person.
Christ rejects no-one. The experience of marriage and family is not always positive, but Christ always accompanies one. There can be many difficulties. Life can be very unfair. The Church, as a loving Mother, abandons no-one, no matter what. Christ is always there for each of us, no matter what. Yet the opposite can seem to be the case.
Bears all things, endures all things
St Paul says love is patient and kind; love is not jealous nor boastful; it is not arrogant nor rude. Love does not insist on its own way. Love is not irritable nor resentful. Lovebears all things, endures all things. The scriptural emphasis on forgiveness, forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us, is a reminder of an essential aspect of marriage and family life.
Human and Divine Love
Love is from God. True human love, which is part of God’s plan for all people, is a reflection of divine love. St Paul makes explicit the analogy between human love and divine love. St Paul explains marriage as mutual self-giving where each spouse gives his or herself for each other, as Christ gives himself for the Church, as Christ gives himself for each one of us. Not without significance, at the central part of the Mass, the priest refers to Christ’s body, which shall be given up for you, and his blood, which shall be poured out for you. Elsewhere in the Gospels, Christ refers to himself as the bridegroom. In Revelation, the last book of the Bible, heaven is presented as the marriage supper of the Lamb. The holy city, the new Jerusalem, coming out of heaven from God, is a bride adorned for her husband.
In Genesis, the first book of the Bible, the relation of man and woman is seen in terms of mutual help, of equality, of unconditional commitment to each other. The birth of children throughout the Bible is seen very positively, as are the activities which make a house a home. So, the Church has always seen marriage in terms of the complementarity of the sexes, unconditional commitment of the spouses to each other, and to their children, and openness to new life. The Bible, and the Church, present human sexuality in a very positive way. Our Lord, commenced his public life with the miracle at the wedding feast in Cana, an event which we recall in the Luminous Mysteries of the Rosary. Pope John Paul II’s Theology of the Body presents this Biblical perspective in contemporary terms.
Song of Songs
The Song of Songs, which some may mistakenly be surprised to find included in the Hebrew Bible, is a collection of love poems. The Song of Songs has always been understood as a description of the love between God and his people, Christ and the Church, Christ and the person. Similarly, Hosea portrays the love of God and his people Israel, as like the love of a husband and wife, not always untroubled, but faithful and forgiving.
Tobit is the book of the Hebrew Bible which is, perhaps, most concerned with family life, with all its ups and downs. Not without significance, Tobit contains an early formulation of the Golden Rule –what you hate, do not do to anyone. Ruth, the heroine of which is a Moabitess, the great grandmother of King David, is a reminder that marriage often is with a person of a quite different cultural background – and that human qualities, what the Greeks called arete or human excellence, are what makes for a successful marriage.
‘We’ of the Family
Pope Francis says that without the ‘we’ of the family that transcends the ‘I’ of individual interest, the bonds of belonging on which we all depend are fatally weakened. We flourish in relation with our spouse, our children, our parents, and other members of our extended family. The family is the place where persons are valued for themselves, not for reasons of utility. The story of Edith and Joe Lyons highlights one way in which family life can be lived, despite hardships, despite suffering, despite the unexpected – a family life which involves mutual self-giving of the spouses, each for the other, and for their children.