to Bishop Peter Ingham

A letter from Fr Ted Kennedy to Bishop Peter Ingham written in 1997 during his struggle with the hierarchy of the Sydney Archdiocese to secure land for the Aboriginal Medical Service adjacent to St Vincent’s church in Redfern.

Bishop Peter Ingham
Catholic Presbytery
Clemton Park NSW 2206


Dear Peter,

You will remember that in my last letter to you I indicated my fear that communication could easily break down with B and I instanced a letter from him on the 15th April 1997 and my reply 20/4/1997. He then replied on 6th May 1997, then I to him on 27th May 1997, copies of which I enclose.

That was the background to the meeting at the Medical Service on Friday 3rd October. I was grateful for your presence; and reflecting on that meeting, I must frankly say that it left me soul-seared, because he manifested an attitude which is not only inadequate in personability, tact and style, which it certainly was, especially in his way of dealing with the only aborigine present Mrs Naomi Mayers, but in missiological terms quite harmful to the cause of reconciliation.

Peter please bear with me as I offer my side of this argument which has the potential of turning into something very hot and very long.

That Friday ended with my listening to Noel Pearson, giving a brilliant analysis of the subtle political forces that have been building up recently against the Aboriginal people. Pauline Hanson is only the tip of the iceberg. The insidious philosophy of economic rationalism pre-existed her and remains well entrenched in the policies of the present government. He warned with some passion and urgency that Australia has been presented with a Kairos moment that will never come again. The guilt of ‘white’ Australia is not about what our forefathers did in the past, but what we are allowing to happen right now.

Then the bewilderment which I had experienced in the exchange with B at the morning meeting turned into anger. The penny had dropped. I became profoundly aware of the perniciousness of economic rationalism, not only in the fabric of society but also in the Church. That same obnoxious mentality of economic rationalism has become blatantly entrenched in the policies of this Archdiocese, and most clearly depicted in the powerful position taken up by B. I believe that we are facing not only the inadequacy of bureaucracy which can be narrow and controlling and bereft of pastoral experience, but the values being offered at many levels are being assessed and rejected by a single-value system which is ruthless, self serving and ultimately dangerous for the life of the Church, because it chokes off key elements of orthodoxy. I believe that it deserves to be exposed.

For the last few years, observing B’s public appearances, I have been asking myself, as Price Warung did last century,

How was he to understand that never yet did the devil forge so potent an instrument of evil (save one) as an Englishman’s belief that when he acts from a sense of duty, he must be right? And that exceptional one was the medieval Spaniard’s notion that the more finished fiend he proved himself, the more pleasure he conferred upon the Mother of God and the Saints.

Now I see the problem with new eyes, and am determined to sound the warning long and hard that economic rationalism is no less immoral, no less socially repugnant when dressed in pious clerical garb or under the cover of a slick and tricky urbanity, I find nothing short of spiritual bankruptcy in B’s declared position because it is devoid of the prerequisite awe and reverence due to the poor of the earth.

Economic rationalism is the dogma which insists that markets and money are the ultimate regulators of life. In the words of Michael Pusey (the author of "Economic Rationalism in Canberra"):

Forget about history and forget about national identity, culture and ‘society’. These things are obstructions to market forces and to ‘structural’ adjustment’. Market prices are the only reliable way of setting a value on anything.

The trouble is that this dominating mentality operates at a level which can entice us into an apparent new and freshly found freedom which allows us unsuspectingly to think what we like, or believe what we like, or even preach what we like, provided that – and here’s the rub – provided that we don’t question or knock the system. When this mentality is applied to the Church we find the same ruthless reductionism at work. The economically-geared mind-set spits out as irrelevant, useless or sentimental, all higher values – the depths of propheticism, the lessons of Church history, the fresh insights of liberation theology, the pre-occupation with the language of prayer and mysticism, the resounding importance of imagination for the life of the soul, the vital underpinnings of environmental theology for the life of the world, applied ecclesiology with its insistence on the participation in decision making starting from the bottom, all essential realities that belong truly to the inner life of any faith-community, these are filtered out because they won’t pass through the economic sieve. Talk about these things meets with an eerie silence that suggests a total deafness.

And if that is true of all the higher cultural values of white Christians, how on earth can aboriginal values get a hearing? Aborigines above all still show their dignity and pride by resisting the powerful tendency to iron them out flat; as if once so flattened they could then be pushed through an ATM machine, and made to serve the God Mammon.

Peter, as I sat in that meeting in that dilapidated, century-old, clapped out building, comparing it with the old Presbytery at St Mary’s Cathedral which was demolished, (though it was in far better repair) and with the new Cathedral Presbytery, I felt sick and ashamed. Then I realised that B was feeling anything but abashed. What he was prepared to fight for tooth and claw was half an old building. (The other half had long ago been given back by the Monte Mercy nuns). He pointed out to Naomi that the Medical Service had struck it lucky because the Archdiocese had let them be. The next morning, the Sydney Morning Herald had the story of the sale of the Church land and the development at St Pat’s Church Hill. I just have to acknowledge that a yawing gulf lies between B’s God and mine.

As I sat in that decrepit building in Turner St, I was aware that we were only a stone’s throw from the house in Albert street from where Caroline Chisholm, in her broken health and embarrassed penury in May 1859, sent a message across the City that leap-frogged over the monks at St Benedict’s and St Mary’s Cathedral to St Augustine’s Balmain, begging the kindly Fr John Joseph Therry, friend of the poor, for a loan of twenty pounds.

Soon she was to fall further out of favour with St Mary’s Cathedral powers by publicly opposing pew-rents that favoured the silver-tails. Polding and Gregory, the ever-loyal monk-Friday, were keen to maintain Governor Bourke’s Church and School’s Act of 1836. Bourke had hoped that the people would be ‘taught’ by their state-supported ministers to see the government ‘as their common protector and friend’. Gregory, the business man at St Mary’s Cathedral, in his high handed way, set up a witch-hunt in 1861 to find out who were the priests favouring the abolition of State Aid. Caroline Chisholm publicly aligned herself with these priests, believing State Aid, as a link with secular power, was spiritually compromising, the cause of a deep pastoral malaise in the Sydney Church. It is my hope that when she comes to be canonised, her spirituality will be clearly seen to be set in its proper social context.

That point of the foundations of the Sydney Church being inextricably tied in an alliance with the British Crown itself calls for a humble acknowledgement that we have a debt to the aboriginal people for our part in the unfolding of the process of colonization. In Bourke’s Church Act of 1836 the capital expenses on all church buildings were met by the British Crown.

But once again Peter, I can only register my revulsion at the stony faced reaction in the denial of truth, the cold imperviousness to the simplest feelings of human compassion. These I regard as the minimum elements to be hoped for in any realistic attempt at reconciliation. Dorothy Day loved to quote Tedor Dostoesky’s words: ‘Compassion is the first law of human existence’.

Peter as I promised, I will attempt to put down the theological framework which I see as the necessary background to the role of the Church in Redfern. Ever since I came to Redfern, 26 years ago, I have been inspired by the lives of Dorothy Day and Peter Maurin who gave personal hospitality at personal cost to the poor. In our first faltering steps we really just stumbled on a pastoral method which turned out to be highly successful. We adopted a language which all aborigines know and speak to each other-giving personal welcome to each other. Yet it is a language which in white Church circles has no currency and is in fact under threat. I am not unaware of the cynical sneer it meets, and from very high levels in the Church.

Yet at the same time in the early 1970’s we were aware of the developing theory of justice which dove tailed in to our experience. It was well expressed by the writings of Fr. Pedro Arrupe S.J. and Fr Alfaro S.J. who wrote the draft on the Synodal Document Justice in the World. The ground breaking thought that the Bishops signed their name to in that document was that action on behalf of Justice is a constitutive element of the preaching of the Gospel. I have to say sadly that in the present-day Sydney Church, that thought has no energy or even interest.

Never has the lack of overall spiritual direction been so clearly manifest than in the failure to provide spiritual leadership in the crisis within the ranks of the St Vincent de Paul Society. Back in the early 1970’s the words of Fr Alfaro that orthodoxy is tested by orthopraxis burned their way into official Church teaching. At that time the Professor of Moral Theology at the Gregorian University in Rome visited Australia on a lecturing tour, Fr Gordon Hamel S.J. He told us how the traditional Seminary Tract on Justice had been jettisoned in favour of a biblically based concept of Justice. It had once accepted unquestioningly the tenets of the Napoleonic Law which respected the rights and responsibilities between those who have – in a quid pro quo relationship. But Biblical Justice insists on the rights and responsibilities of those who have and those who have not – where there is no quid at all on the one side of the scales.

Here were seminal theological thoughts which provided me with a more than sufficient charter for throwing myself into the aboriginal struggle. It meant abandoning the ‘clerical compromise’ which has the power to tie your hands but also your heart and your very mind. (It also promised a deep and dark loneliness).

On the 16th October 1970, the new black President of Tanzania, Julius Nyerere seemed to set the tone for the new self acknowledged face of the Church in his address to the Congress of Maryknoll Sisters in New York:

Representatives of the Church and the Church’s organisations, frequently act as if man’s development is a personal and ‘internal’ matter, which can be divorced from the society and economy in which he lives and earns his daily bread. They preach resignation; very often they appear to accept as immutable the social, economic and political framework of the present day world. They seek to ameliorate intolerable conditions through acts of love and kindness where the beneficiary of this love and kindness remains an object. But when the victims of poverty and oppression begin to behave like men and try to change those conditions, the representatives of the Church stand aside.

Unless the Church, its members and its organisations express God’s love for man by involvement and leadership in constructive protest against the present conditions of man, then it will become identified with injustice and persecution. If this happens it will die – and, humanly speaking, deserve to die – because it will then serve no purpose comprehensible to modern man.

It is important that we should stress the working with, not the working for … only by sharing work, hardships, knowledge, persecution and progress, can the Church contribute to our growth. For if the Church is not part of our poverty, and part of our struggle against poverty and injustice, then it is not part of us.

In 1974, with what I saw then as justifiable confidence, I reported to Cardinal Freeman on behalf of the Redfern Community:

I like to think hopefully of our Bishops standing at an intersection where two roads meet – the road of expressed misery, poverty and oppression, and the road of the Church’s magisterial teaching. It is only here that orthodoxy turns into orthopraxis. I know that the circles in which Bishops often move are not their self-chosen ones, but inherited and shaped by various expectations. But until they become mouth-pieces for the hot breath of the poor to blow long and hard into the life of the Church, even if it means sending the rich away empty, the Aboriginal people will despair of obtaining support from a source from which they can make lawful claim.

On 20th November 1981 I replied to a letter of Bede Heather when he was still an Auxiliary Bishop in Sydney, outlining a theological framework for work in Redfern.

I allow myself to think that my convictions have been formed out of a painful persistent process of prayerful reflection, together with the poor and those who share our work here. I allow myself to think that we have found a radical and enduring master-thought, generally coherent, and consistent with the present magisterial teaching and with the Gospel.

It all gets down to the point which we either reject or accept. Our total Christian and priestly ministry is judged effective by the way the poor of the earth find us personally to be signs of faith, hope and love. Is their human spirit uplifted by our lives, so that they experience from us a fidelity to them, a hope for them, and love for them? I am speaking here of the unambiguous poor – the people whom Jesus called blessed, not the spiritually deprived rich in need of blessing.

These unambiguous poor find that some of us white Christians belong with them, though ambiguously. But most of us belong unambiguously with the unambiguous rich. As I understand the Church’s teachings now, orthodoxy is tested by orthopraxis. So that the second group are not just falling down in some moral duty while retaining the faith. They are actually denying the faith. If the poor witness both Christian groups sharing ambiguous language without an earnest effort to resolve and define, then neither they nor the interests of orthodoxy are being served.

Not long ago I made a resolution that, whenever I communicated with my Bishop (and your letter comes to me on his behalf), I would appeal for a mutually acceptable ecclesiology within which we would talk.

I do not accept the role of having special ministry to the poor, while others might be called to a ministry in other areas. I believe that my Bishop has the same degree of personal accountability to the poorest of the earth as I have – no more, no less. I believe that we all, as Christians together, must accept that the most important people in our life are actual poor people – that a Christian community comes into existence only when individual followers of Jesus, accepting the burden of alienation along with the poorest, decide to form a community to support each other in their shared alienation and to forgive the alienator.

The only point of having AUTHORITY within the Christian community is that the person who holds it, accepting his personal responsibility to encourage and support his subordinates in their final accountability to the really poor. If my Bishop does not accept those somewhat exact terms of reference I must say that I can no longer call him Father, (as St. Francis of Assisi said to his own father).

I believe that these clearly recognizable people, the poor, must be the constant and final reference point around which any Christian’s spiritual life must resolve; that, if I am unpoor, uncoloured and unoppressed, then for my salvation I must go and kneel before them, to receive a blessing from their hands. If I have money, I must give it to them, not anonymously but personally, so that I make them personal friends. Then they, who possess ipso facto a guaranteed first class ticket to the everlasting tents, will receive me into them. I believe that the quality of this personal relationship with the poor must remain anonymous to all the other unpoor people who so often invert the proper areas of anonymity and publicity (‘let your light shine before men’, refers for them, to their peers. ‘Do not parade your good works before men’ becomes a reference to the poor. Now these inverted priorities have become institutionalised in the St Vincent de Paul Society).

Most of the problem lies with the verbs which we choose to place in between ourselves and poor people. If we confine ourselves to the Gospel term ‘give welcome to’, with its two-way connotations, the problem disappears. But pretty well every transitive verb which we use to replace that term lands us outside the Gospel frame of reference. And so I feel that I must abandon the ‘transportation’ model of despatching resources, whether spiritual, material, psychological or muscular across an ever widening gulf. Then I find myself in conflict with the dominant prevailing assumptions.

There are three official documents which have been issued on behalf of the Australian Catholic Hierarchy, the first of these is The Social Justice Statement on Aborigines in 1978 which states in part:

The challenge presented by the just demands of Aborigines for Land Rights, for restitution of and compensation for land, is crucial both for Aborigines and for the rest of the Australian community. In a special way, the response of Christians will be a test of their integrity, and the authenticity of their faith. The process of restoring further land, and of making restitution and compensation will not be easy, but this is no excuse for the perpetuation of injustice. The efforts of the Canadian and New Zealand Government to make restitution to their indigenous populations show that the task is not impossible.

It is possible and indeed desirable, that individuals and groups give a lead here by taking the initiative to restore some lands to the Aboriginal community. Christians and Church bodies – dioceses, religious communities, parishes, organisations of the laity – should be especially responsive to such an appeal. By such action they could acknowledge the injustice, and the complicity of their organisations in it. It would require consultation and dialogue at the local level, and Aborigines may need additional assistance to ensure that they can use the land as they wish. It would challenge the acquisitiveness, covetousness and materialism of our society, which made the dispossession possible, and has for so long delayed compensation. It would set an example of a willingness to dialogue with local Aboriginal groups, and to make the sort of sacrifice required of the white Australian community in natural justice.

Aborigines: A Statement of Concern, Social Justice Sunday 1978.

In September 1992, the Bishops issued the second official Church statement the Common Wealth for the Common Good. At the time, I acknowledged that the Bishops did incorporate one single contribution from the poor Church – the concept of ‘preferential option for the poor’.

In trying to come to terms with this phrase, I wrote:

The Bishops never get past the conception of a Church for the poor to a Church of the poor. They do not betray any inkling that it must involve prioritising the spiritual initiative which lies in the hands of the poor, from which the rich are called to receive. They still fall back on the image of a one-way street whereby material and spiritual resources are dispatched in the direction of the poor. One might have hoped that such an image of throwing goods at the poor would have been finally dismissed by the Apostle Paul as in itself profitless as early as the year 54.

Aboriginal people feel particularly let down because the Bishops make no reference whatsoever to the crux of all aboriginal pauperization – the question of land. No wonder that the poorest of the poor consistently find that such attempts to represent them end up severely unnuanced and suffering from an unbelievable radical omission. Aboriginal people feel particularly let down.

Mister man
Have you looked at your face
Like mine that is mirrored in land? Yours reflects only on pools.
My image goes deep in the sand.

Kevin Gilbert. 1990. ‘Mister man’ The Blackside, Hyland House.

I also added:

In the draft document, the Bishops promised that they would not resile from an honest self-scrutiny as to the just use of Church wealth. The final document reveals that they in fact have done just that.

But they did loudly and promptly renew that promise not to resile from facing the issues and pledged themselves once again to provide us with a separate document. The ominous silence over these last five years has become an undeniable source of scandal to many, as priests like B pass into a mode of total deafness. The implied inference unmistakably takes us for fools, whereas his blatant arrogance we find totally objectionable. And out of the resultant morass of cover-ups and legalistic evasions and Godless economic pragmatisms, now rises next to the birthplace of Australian Catholicism a forty story tower of Babel. We do not any longer seem to understand each other’s language. I know that B will offer a glib defence of his position and will coat it with the most pious of motives, and camouflage it with confounding rapid-fire legalese. But if you bark like a dog, bite like a dog, wag your tail like a dog, you are a dog. So, in my book he is an economic rationalist and must be regarded as such.

The third Episcopal statement is the recently released People First! Action Plan of October 17, 1997. At first sight the words look fresh even exciting until one realises that they came locked in a tired cynical vehicle that renders them still-born. The stench of stagnancy prevails.

Peter I ask you to ponder over the thoughts of two aboriginal leaders:

In ‘white’ Australia, the free enterprise system with its attendant values, attitudes and myths prevails. Any person expressing doubt in the fundamental tenets of the system is dismissed or marginalised A free-enterprise system is necessarily a concept alien to ‘Aboriginality’ Therefore Koori Australians must be wary of those in our ranks who promote free-enterprise and capitalism for it’s own sake If you are a person who believes in the free-enterprise system or its basic tenets like individualism, competition and accumulation of wealth, then you are by definition not a Koori.

Gary Foley. Sydney Horning Herald July 21, 1993

So is reconciliation possible? The answer is a definite maybe and only then if the fundamental power relationships within the nation are overturned. It might be worth it if, as I said, the indigenous agenda is accepted by non-indigenous Australians. This means more than mere good-will and a warm inner glow. It will mean for us a secure land and capital base. For you some economic sacrifice and a surrender of power by the state, Church and individuals. On the track record so far it would appear doubtful that non-indigenous Australians are willing or mature enough to make those sacrifices.

A major step forward would be for non-indigenous Australians to support the social justice package. And to understand fully that any package will not be fixed in concrete but will necessarily be an open ended process that is not capable of resolution in our lifetimes. A process that will involve non-indigenous Australians ceding power to Aboriginal and Torres Islander people. This time let’s get it right. Don’t leave us with nothing but a badge to wear over the naked lies on which white Australia has dispossessed and disempowered us over the last 207 years.

Barbara Flick ‘Reconciling Australia’ ABC Audio Tapes

When you try to respond to the depths of any aboriginal heart and try to take seriously aboriginal conditions for reconciliation, the conditions laid down by B sound fatuous and hollow, because he seems incapable of understanding that the Church cannot empower aborigines without itself being willing to surrender power.

I recalled at the meeting how 23 years ago, I was upset when the Bishop of the Diocese, as the Father of the Poor, made his first and only contact-with aboriginal Redfern in the form of a Landlord’s letter, no matter how benign. At that point B retaliated "you say landlordship; I say Stewardship". And in that single sentiment he revealed what a distorted meaning he draws out of the Gospel parable. When speaking about the way we should treat the poor, Christ never endorses a one-way traffic model of consigning welfare packages, legal leases, worn-out clothing, broken furniture across the ever-widening gulf between the rich and the poor. The only transitive verbs that Christ is willing to interpose is welcome, because it is the only word that avoids the condescendingness but includes the reverence due to him. Let us not forget the reality-the poor are Jesus.

B seemed to stay within the one way model (which is usually self-congratulatory) when he referred to the Church’s Stewardship of the Surry Hills property. He missed my point completely that the bureaucratic level of decision making is distant and removed from the grass-roots and therefore bound to make the wrong options as instanced by the white controlled Wirimbirra which has been suppressive and competitive of aboriginal initiative. Who among the blacks invited Sr Oliver in the first place? Who among the AIDS victims and helpers is now inviting the nuns of Mother Theresa? The bureaucratic decision makers should withdraw from the field.

B’s understanding of Biblical Stewardship lacks the quality of modern-day scholarship of, for instance, Ched Myers. The steward in the Gospel parable is endorsed because he abandoned the role of stewardship in favour of making friends with the poor who, already guaranteed salvation, will welcome us into everlasting tents.

Make to yourself friends, using that loathsome thing money so that those whose debts you remit will receive to into everlasting tents.

It is they who become stewards of our salvation.

There is indeed a Biblical concept of custodianship which remains a long way from the usurping notion of a high-handed ownership deal arranged by ‘trustees’ of an Archdiocese every single member being, unpoor, uncoloured, unoppressed and therefore decidedly unrepresentative.

There is the right to custodianship of land which aboriginal people justifiably possess and the transfer of title in this case would be but a feeble symbol of what any Catholic should believe. It is out of that belief that the parishioners of Redfern are unanimously resolved to hand back land to aborigines. In that, they are simply exercising their right to participate in sharing proper custodianship.

But there remains also the custodianship right of the public, which in so many cases has been flagrantly disregarded by B. Indeed the good will which has been quietly built up over decades dissolving the old sectarianism now seems to be going down the drain. This is true at Manly College where authoritative voices of protest like Tim Flannery’s, author of ‘The Future Eaters’ in the ‘Save the Bandicoot Colony’ crusade. When historians begged in vain for respectful protection of the old well used by the early monks at St Mary’s Cathedral Monastery, or the saving of the historic ‘Protestant Tree’ planted by the Protestant Town Clerk at the time of the Eucharistic Congress. How can the dream of Fr. John McEncroe for the use of the land which he bought in 1862 to add to the Davis gift of St Patrick’s Church-site land be held high.

The Protestant poet Henry Kendall grieved over the passing of John McEncroe, not least for his openness to the wider community.

His ways were light because he loved
His suffering peers apart from sect:
A silent power by trouble proved
And made elect

In fiery times when Faith is faint,
and Doubt has many words to say
We’ll often think how well this saint
Kept fear away

For searching to the core of creeds,
He found the sign that made him strong;
While we who sigh like seaside reeds
Do look and long.

In contrast B, with his Future-eating habits has certainly set the clock back. His own suggestion was that when a Religious Order hands back land to aborigines it is but synonymous with giving them a cash cheque. That reveals so much about his own ignorant lack of respect for personalism, or symbolism or gesture and aborigines sacred sense of land. It reveals a mind-set that is as closed and dead-locked as one of those black steel boxes used to protect title deeds. Yet strangely, as I have begun to meet him at eye level, I find in myself no animosity, but only a feeling of sorrow that important sensibilities were never allowed to grow. In Arthur Miller’s words we are now growing ‘closer and closer apart’. B’s slogan seems to be "Ecclesiapre seipsa non pro hominibus" A model which Vatican 11 sought to collapse. Before Vatican 11 the Catholics of Dublin had bought a site in the centre of Dublin for a new Catholic Cathedral to replace St Patrick’s Cathedral stolen by the Church of Ireland but also the substitute Pro-Cathedral. Instead as a symbolic gesture, they handed over that land for a Public Park to the City of Dublin, so rendering the land sterile to the aggressiveness of developers, a truly creative and forgiving act imaginative in the ways of doing justice.

The words of Vincent Buckley keep sounding in my ears:

Their noisy dying world
Deafens them like the last lapse of blood.
Corpses which, in other days,
Would have greened their crops
Block the city’s drains.
Their public speeches dwell on private morals,
Neither hating or approving great evils.
Surprised in attitudes of prayer
They struggle to remember which they chose,
A scorched-earth policy or
The laying on of hands.

Vincent Buckley. (1987) Christian Gentlemen Selected Poems A & R.

Yours in Christ,
Ted Kennedy.

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