There is a thought that has haunted me for a long time…It is to portray a wholly good man. Nothing is more difficult …especially in our time. (Dostoevsky quoted in Wyschogrod, 1990, p.1)
Edmund Campion has given us a fine book which is valuable on two accounts. Firstly it is a narrative of the life of the radical priest and “wholly good man” Ted Kennedy. Secondly it is a history of the alternative church within the official Roman Catholic Church. It is the alternative church that provided the milieu from which Kennedy emerged. The argument (largely implied) in Campion’s text is that to understand Kennedy one must recognize and give credit to the existence of the church that existed largely in opposition to the official clerical church.
A second source of value is that this book is published at a time of the seemingly total triumph of the Right within the Catholic Church. The recent sacking of the radical priest, Peter Kennedy of Brisbane (no relation), following complaints from a right wing provocateur shows that the bright hopes that flourished during the Second Vatican Council have come to nought. The thinnest of popes , Benedict XVI, reigns in Rome and his rightist follower Cardinal George Pell, is firmly ensconced in Sydney as head of the Roman Catholic Church in Australia.
In this context of heart breaking defeat and the almost universal betrayal of the delirium of the brave, the act of remembering becomes a revolutionary act. Indeed it is the capacity of memory to keep alive hope that makes the historian’s task such an important and of course a contested one. Here Campion’s work in reminding us all of the existence of an alternative church puts one in mind of Walter Benjamin’s Sixth Thesis on the philosophy of history and especially the lines:
Only that historian will have the gift of fanning the spark of hope in the past who is firmly convinced that even the dead will not be safe from the enemy if he wins. And this enemy has not ceased to be victorious.
The Alternative Church
Campion begins his account of the alternative church with an excerpt from a letter sent by Kennedy to the then Head of the Church Cardinal Gilroy. In this excerpt Kennedy describes his father as a holy man, but and this is crucial, the father’s holiness was very different from the officially sanctioned version of that virtue. Kennedy’s father was kind and good to the poor but he also steered away from the structures and institutions that the Church officially sanctioned.
From this personal launching pad Kennedy came under the influence of a number of radical priests with very progressive ideas. Crucial here were the worker priests in Europe and Dorothy Day’s Catholic Workers movement in America. What is especially interesting though is that this alternative church expressed its difference not in doctrinal terms, nor in its attitude towards the historical sources of Roman Catholicism and Christianity, but rather in its resistance to hierarchy, an option for the poor and the evolution of a communal liturgy. In Brisbane Peter Kennedy did not avoid doctrinal questions such as the Virgin Birth, the divinity of Jesus and the existence of a transcendent God and he paid a considerable price for his theological radicalism. However the bracketing off of these questions by Ted Kennedy and his colleagues made possible their continued participation in the Roman Catholic Church albeit as an increasingly marginalised force.
The high point of the influence of the alternative church was the Second Vatican Council (1962-5). The beginning of the Return of the Right may be dated from Paul VI’s Humanae Vitae Encyclical which banned birth control. Worse of course was to come under the long counter revolution of John Paul II (1978-2005). The low point here was surely the condemnation of liberation theology at Puebla in 1979, where John Paul II said
People claim to show Jesus as politically committed, as one who fought against Roman oppression and the authorities and also as one involved in the class struggle…This idea of Christ as a political figure, a revolutionary, as the subversive man from Nazareth, does not tally with the church's catechesis (John Paul 2, quoted in Time, 1979).
The CIA must have been delighted.
The Alternative Prophet
Ted Kennedy was then nurtured in a movement which led to the Second Vatican Council. However the last 40-years of his ministry was spent struggling under the yoke of an increasingly reactionary church. Initially he wanted, Campion tells us, to be part of a ministry which catered for “the artists and intellectuals and countless other people…who… feel alienated from the ethos of [the Sydney] Archdiocese (p.70). However a vacancy appeared in Redfern in 1971 and he was to remain there for the remainder of his priesthood. Redfern is of course the suburb of Sydney that has a large Aboriginal population and Kennedy was to become their friend and counsellor and champion.
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