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Muldoon, Thomas William (1917–1986)

by John Carmody

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 18, (MUP), 2012

Thomas Muldoon, by John Mulligan, 1965 [detail]

Thomas Muldoon, by John Mulligan, 1965 [detail]

National Library of Australia, nla.pic-vn3099129

Thomas William Earle Muldoon (1917-1986), Catholic bishop, was born on 27 September 1917 at Lismore, New South Wales, sixth of ten children of Bernard Muldoon, an Irish-born sawmiller, and his wife Jane, née Bollard, born in New South Wales. His education was at St Carthage’s primary and Marist Brothers’ St Joseph’s High schools, Lismore, and (in 1934-35 on an ecclesiastical bursary) at Marist Fathers’ St John’s College, Woodlawn, where he was head prefect and an active sportsman and horseman. According to the school rector, Thomas ‘showed great loyalty to authority and gave fine example of leadership’.

Having begun studies for the priesthood at St Columba’s College, Springwood, in March 1936, Muldoon entered the Pontifical Urban College of Propaganda Fide, Rome, in October 1937. This experience acculturated him to Romanità, which is an enduring aspect of the Australian Catholic hierarchy. He was ordained on 22 December 1941 and, having achieved consistently high marks, he remained in Rome to complete a doctorate in theology (1943).

On his return to Australia Muldoon was appointed assistant-priest at Grafton, New South Wales, but in March 1945 was seconded to St Patrick’s College, Manly. In 1954, when the Holy See raised the status of that college to a pontifical faculty of theology, Muldoon was appointed dean, holding the post until his appointment as a bishop in 1960. His teaching was orthodox and variously described, like his personality, as colourful or intimidating. He published his lectures on dogmatic theology (given in Latin) as Theologiae Dogmaticae Praelectiones (five volumes, 1958-65). They were respectfully reviewed in the Australian Catholic press, though one former student noted that they were concerned with none of the issues that preoccupied European theology prior to the Second Vatican Council. Dr Kevin Walsh wrote in his history of St Patrick’s, ‘it is hardly extreme to describe them as anti-historical in character’; another former theologian referred to the ‘gum-nut twang’ of the Latin.

Muldoon was consecrated on 8 May 1960 by Pope John XXIII in St Peter’s Basilica, Rome, and returned as auxiliary bishop to Cardinal (Sir) Norman Gilroy in Sydney and parish priest of Mosman. He held a number of significant roles in Gilroy’s administration, with particular responsibility for Catholic radio and television (consolidating his earlier close involvement with the management of radio-station 2SM) and, less comfortably, for relations with other churches.

A broad-shouldered man with wavy black hair, Muldoon was a chameleon character, charming when it suited his purposes. Gilroy did not find his bluff personality congenial and Muldoon’s correspondence with his superior (almost always written floridly by hand) reads like a courtier flattering his prince. With his fellow priests on social occasions he could affect a hearty bonhomie (though his private comments on some of them were often corrosive and graceless) and could also charm those with power when he wanted particular favours. By contrast, he could be abrasive and belligerent in public and in the media (as suggested by his nickname, ‘The Bull’). In 1981, concerned about the attitude of the Wran Labor government to hospitals conducted by Christian organisations, Muldoon unremittingly attacked the government’s plan to convert the Mater Misericordiae Hospital at Crows Nest to a geriatric facility. He disparaged the minister for health (Kevin Stewart, an exemplary Catholic) as a ‘weak-kneed Catholic’ and threatened to use the parishes in selected electorates ‘to see that the Government is thrown out on its neck’. Unlike most Sydney priests, he was considered ‘A Lib’.

At the Second Vatican Council (1962-65), where Muldoon was a frequent contributor to the debates, some of his remarks about other denominations caused annoyance among the council participants, earning him rebukes when he referred, for example, to ‘tearful and tedious laments’ of some bishops who acknowledged deplorable Catholic behaviour during the Reformation. A further instance of what Walsh characterised as his ‘combative attitudes . . . towards “opponents”’ became a scandalous issue in late 1966. In a private letter that, with his encouragement, became public he attacked Mother Margaret Gorman, a visiting American Sacré Coeur nun and psychologist, for views she had expressed on modern theology (an anathema to him) in an interview on Australian Broadcasting Commission television. The issue led to correspondence and articles in the Sydney press culminating in a packed public meeting in the Anzac House auditorium on 18 December. The bishop surprised the meeting by arriving, ashen-faced and trembling, to deliver what the Sydney Morning Herald called ‘a qualified apology’—‘if you think I have gravely offended against charity’—for calling Gorman ‘a female deceiver who is so puffed up with her own arrogance and pride’.

Muldoon was especially affronted that such a challenge to his patriarchal orthodoxy should come from a woman (writing to her before that meeting, ‘Stick to your last and leave other matters to people better qualified and, above all, to those to whom the authentic teaching mission has been given in the Church’). Even so, for some years, at irregular intervals, letters would arrive from him to the national headquarters of the Sacré Coeur Order in Sydney containing a cheque ‘for your needs’.

In 1982 Muldoon retired as bishop and the next year as parish priest of Mosman. He was significant in the Sydney of his time because he so robustly typified the characteristics of a church that, though he did not realise it, was passing; the Australian society that could tolerate such churchmanship was passing, too. It was an era of double standards: few referred in public to his debilitating alcoholism or alleged homosexual proclivities. A connoisseur of the mediaeval church, Muldoon shared its prelates’ sense that they were aristocrats, telling a fellow priest that he was born a few centuries too late: ‘I should have been a mediaeval Prince’. Thomas Keneally (Muldoon’s former seminary student) used him as the model for the character of Dr Costello in the novel, Three Cheers for the Paraclete (1968), in which one of his priestly colleagues said of him, ‘His faults all stem from a certain pomposity of temperament’. Though he had suffered a number of heart attacks previously, he died of cancer on 13 January 1986 at North Sydney. After a requiem Mass in St Mary’s Cathedral, Muldoon was buried in the Catholic section of the cemetery at East Lismore, from where he once wrote to Gilroy while convalescing, ‘I would dearly love to go surfing’.

Select Bibliography

  • K. J. Walsh, Yesterday’s Seminary (1998)
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 4 December 1963, p 3
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 19 December 1966, p 4
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 28 July 1981, p 1
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 5 August 1981, p 11
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 14 January 1986, p 4
  • Sun (Sydney), 29 July 1981, p 7
  • ‘Background Briefing’ http://www.abc.net.au/rn/backgroundbriefing/stories/2010/2834210.htm, accessed 21 March 2011, copy held on ADB file
  • J. J. Murphy, The Australian Hierarchy and Vatican II (PhD thesis, Griffith University, 2001)
  • Religious correspondence 1966-67, box 1286 (St Mary’s Cathedral archives, Sydney)
  • private information

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

John Carmody, 'Muldoon, Thomas William (1917–1986)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/muldoon-thomas-william-15785/text26977, published first in hardcopy 2012, accessed online 23 April 2019.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 18, (MUP), 2012

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