Book Review – Labour History

Book Review – Labour History – 1/05/2002

Ted Kennedy, Who is Worthy? The role of conscience in restoring hope to the church.
Pluto Press, Sydney, 2000. pp. 151. $27.95, paper.

One of the many stories in this small book tells of an exchange between the author and the Sydney Archdiocesan secretary in 1968. Kennedy had failed to insist that the Protestant partner in a forthcoming mixed marriage promise to raise any children from the marriage as Catholic. This was less an act of defiance than a response to the fact that the bridegroom was 75 and his new wife 67. But the Archdiocesan secretary, with the unmild manner of a snappy Pomeranian’, insisted on a signature. When Kennedy relayed this, the Protestant partner responded with ‘admirable courtesy and tolerance’, assuring Kennedy that were he able to have a child he would be delighted to have it baptised a Catholic. The form remained unsigned. The secretary did not accept it. Never before, Kennedy comments, had he forged a signature.

This story encapsulates what Ted Kennedy sees as the deficit at the heart of the contemporary institutional church and his own problematic place within it. Most Sydney Catholics and most who are interested in Aboriginal politics would know of Ted Kennedy. Since 1971 he has been the parish priest at St Vincent’s Catholic Church, Redfern, an outspoken critic of the church, and a friend and advocate of Aboriginal people. He is often referred to as a prophet. One of the introductory ‘Perspectives’ to this book by Tony Coady, Professorial Fellow in Philosophy at the University of Melbourne, refers to his ‘authentic, singular voice of prophecy.’ This short book vindicates the claim. It was written in 1996 after a stroke left Kennedy with the desire to live the rest of his life as if he was ‘already dead’ and thus ‘more inclined to state things as they are, or as I see them, without fear or compromise’ (p. 27). The book was also triggered by the refusal of Archbishop George Pell to give communion to members of the Rainbow Sash movement and his later comments in the Bulletin that the primacy of conscience in Catholic tradition is a ‘dangerous and misleading myth.

Its main purpose is to demonstrate that Pell’s denial of conscience distorts Catholic theology and perpetuates the sort of harsh, legalistic, masculinist and highly clericalised church from which many in Australia have recoiled. He demonstrates the centrality of conscience in the writings of Catholic theologians, focusing in particular on Cardinal Newman but also on Thomas Merton, Reinhold Stecher and the second Vatican Council. More broadly, he traces what he sees as the mismanagement and misdirection of the church for the last 1,600 years: after the conversion of Constantine the church became ‘seduced by Empire’ and lost its clear focus on the humanity of Christ. In this new false conception ‘Christ ruled from heaven as an absentee landlord, leaving the male magisterium of the Church to govern on his behalf.’ (p. 43) God became a God of anger not consolation, and the priesthood elevated to an ‘absurdly discarnate position of divine power.’

He argues that there have been two ‘grotesque excrescences’ on the life of the church: the emergence of the prince-bishop and the theological concept of excommunication. Contemporary judgements of worthiness for communion encourage an unholy, strutting self-righteousness. Kennedy tells us that St Paul counted as unworthy only the rich who excluded the poor from their table. The poorest of the poor in Australia, the Australian Aborigines, have been excluded from the table of Australian Catholic leaders over 200 years. Kennedy traces a short history of Catholic attitudes to Aborigines from Columbus Fitzpatrick to George Pell who, when asked for his views on Aborigines in Melbourne in 1990, said we don t have a big number of Aborigines in this state’.

But the book does not aim to be a sustained argument. Arranged in shortish sections Kennedy juxtaposes theology, poetry, history and anecdote to make an impassioned plea for radical change. There is much here of interest to students of labour history. His understanding and critique of the male driven church is highly relevant, given the number of labour politicians born to Catholic families who learned their first lessons in politics in this milieu. His short discussion of his 25 years at Redfern is also a valuable document. In the early days up to 100 people would bed down at St Vincent’s on ‘cold wet nights.’ The book shows implicitly why he has stayed within the church. It is replete with a rich love of the best in the writing, poetry, painting and activism to have come out of Catholic culture. And he distinguishes the bureaucratic church—which he finally left after the incident with the ‘snappy Pomeranian’—from the church’s ‘deeper reality’.

A longer and more sustained account of his own life would now be of great value to those interested in the nuances of Australian cultural history. His description of his parents’ loosely detached presence in the church I found tantalising. They were ‘most prayerful’ but ‘shrank from pretty well all of the parish activities usually seen as indices of holiness’. The institutional church has been marked by the outwardly pious, and most historical sources record their activities. The large numbers who have stood back may be more telling of a characteristic Australian spirituality. A full autobiography from Kennedy could tell their story as well as many others.

©2002 Australian Society for the Study of Labour History

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by Anne O’Brien, University of New South Wales

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