Redfern's radical priest


Ted Kennedy, Priest of Redfern
By Edmund Campion,
David Lovell Publishing, 2009
201 pages, $24.95

This fine book is valuable on two accounts. Firstly, in telling the life of the radical priest Ted Kennedy who was, using Dostoevsky's words, "a wholly good man", and secondly as an introduction to the alternative church within official Roman catholicism.

Edmund Campion implies that to understand Kennedy one must recognise this oppositional church.

This book is published at a time of right-wing triumphalism within catholicism. The recent sacking of the Brisbane radical priest, Peter Kennedy (no relation), following complaints from a reactionary provocateur, shows the pressures on the champions of the Second Vatican Council.

In this context, the act of remembering becomes a revolutionary act. It is the capacity of memory to keep alive hope that makes the historian's task such an important and controversial one.

The young Ted Kennedy came under the influence of a number of radical priests and others, crucially European worker priests and Dorothy Day's US Catholic Workers movement.

The high point of the influence of the alternative church was the Second Vatican Council (1962-65). The beginning of the right-wing resurgence may be dated from Paul VI's 1968 encyclical letter, Humanae Vitae, which banned birth control. Worse, of course, was to come under John Paul II (1978-2005).

What is interesting 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.

The new forms of worship, Campion says, were supposedly "an antidote to capitalist individualism, which they saw as poisoning everyday life".

However, the problem with capitalism is not that it prioritises individualism. Rather, it destroys each individual by reducing all to an economic resource, or worse — a non-resource. It is the intrinsically class-based and exploitative nature of capitalism that must be addressed and, unfortunately, re-arranging seating in churches is not enough.

If the alternative church's social theory as described by Campion was inadequate, it is debatable whether its theological basis was any more adequate.

I do not mean this as a put down. Rather I wish to draw attention to the avoidance of problems inherent in catholic beliefs. Brisbane's Peter Kennedy did not avoid doctrinal questions such as the virgin birth, Jesus' divinity and the existence of a transcendent God, and he paid a considerable price for his theological radicalism on these questions.

However the bracketing off of these questions by Ted Kennedy and his colleagues made possible their continued participation in the Roman Catholic Church, albeit increasingly marginalised.

Ted Kennedy was nurtured in the movement towards the Second Vatican Council. However, the last 40 years of his ministry were spent struggling under the yoke of an increasingly reactionary church.

Initially he wanted, Campion tells us, to be part of a ministry that catered for "the artists and intellectuals and countless other people … who … feel alienated from the ethos of … [the Sydney] Archdiocese". However a vacancy appeared in Redfern in 1971 and he remained there for the rest of his priesthood.

Redfern has a large Aboriginal population and Kennedy was to become their friend, counsellor and champion. The details of his ministry are both astonishing and inspiring: Redfern radicalised him deeply.

He fought for Aboriginal rights, and criticised the church hierarchy for not giving their total support and for not becoming "mouthpieces for the hot breath of the poor". With the help and guidance of Aboriginal activist Mum Shirl, Kennedy turned the church at Redfern into a physical and spiritual home for Kooris.

Kennedy understood clearly that the injustice shown towards Aborigines by white colonialism has, as he put it, "stultified the heart and putrefied the social atmosphere of our country".

Being a good man, Kennedy inevitably quarrelled with the hierarchy, especially cardinals Clancy and Pell. When Clancy came to Sydney in 1983 to head the archdiocese, he had an angry meeting with Kennedy where Clancy rejected the notion of Aboriginal land rights, saying that the conquest of Australia was a fact of history.

In 2000, when Clancy's reign climaxed with the raising of steeples on Saint Mary's cathedral, Kennedy wrote a letter to the press condemning the lack of consultation with the poor about the spires project. He described the Catholic Church under Clancy as "dysfunctional".

Kennedy's relations with Pell were no less hostile. Pell's infamous refusal to give gay catholics communion sparked Kennedy's book Who is Worthy? This was to be Kennedy's passionate last defence of the alternative church that Paul VI and John Paul II in Rome, and Clancy and Pell in Sydney, hated.

Campion is fully aware of that book's importance and does it justice, describing as a "powerful meditation" Kennedy's line: "Between God's love and those who turn to it, let no one place an obstacle."

In writing his book, Kennedy had his agenda and so does Campion in his biography. Not only does he rescue from oblivion the memory of the alternative church, he also records Kennedy's devotion to the destitute and support for Aborigines.

Throughout he endeavours to be balanced and civil to everyone, but there a number of quiet and immensely enjoyable hits at the rich and powerful within catholicism.

Thus we are given a seemingly gratuitous reference to "Franz Jagerstatter, the Austrian peasant executed in 1943 because he refused to fight in Hitler's war, thinking the regime evil and its war unjust. He must follow his conscience, he said, even though his bishop and various priests went the other way/"

The point here is to recall a certain Joseph Ratzinger, now Pope Benedict XVI, who was a member of the Hitler Youth because he thought open resistance was hopeless.

Campion's easy and accessible, while scholarly, book is refreshingly committed to preserving the memory of a man whom he obviously admired. It deserves to be read by all those who seek to serve the victims of history and who long for a better world.

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