The strength of religions, and of the Catholic Church in particular, has lain, and still lies, in the fact that they feel very strongly the need for the doctrinal unity of the whole mass of the faithful and strive to ensure that the higher intellectual stratum does not get separated from the lower.
The Roman church has always been the most vigorous in the struggle to prevent the “official” formation of two religions, one for the “intellectuals” and the other for the “simple souls” … That the Church has to face up to a problem of the “simple” means precisely that there has been a split in the community of the faithful.
This split cannot be healed by raising the simple to the level of the intellectuals (the Church does not even envisage such a task, which is both ideologically and economically beyond its present capacities), but only by imposing an iron discipline on the intellectuals so that they do not exceed certain limits of differentiation and so render the split catastrophic and irreparable. (Antonio Gramsci)
Gramsci’s writing on the Church consists of little more than suggestive jottings from prison. While they are useful in that they remind us that the Catholic Church is not a monolith, their schema of the Church of the Simple Souls (ie the peasantry), the Church of the Intellectuals and the Core Church belongs to a time when there was a large European peasantry.
However Gramsci’s notion of the Church of the Intellectuals potentially at odds with the Core church of the Curia can help us understand important aspects of the dispute between the Church community of St Mary’s South Brisbane and the Arch Bishop of Brisbane John Battersby. In brief, the Bishop wrote to the parish priest Peter Kennedy threatening to close down the church if the priest and congregation did not return to a more orthodox version of the faith.
This is the second occasion on which the bishop had chastised Kennedy and his errant parishioners. A similar missive was sent four years ago. Battersby drew special attention in his latest letter to the fact that there was a statue of the Buddha displayed in the church. The statue was there because, unlike Battersby, Kennedy took seriously the impulse towards ecumenicism endorsed at the Vatican 2 and made his church available to a Buddhist group.
Fr Kennedy has now received a final letter from Bishop Battersby. This is a remarkably brutal document. Kennedy has given a life time to his parishioners and the Church. Yet Battersby sacks him, offers to “look after him” if he resigns and then threatens xcommunication if he does not go quietly. There is, it is true, some pious cant about the Mother of God and a selfpitying whine asking for prayers for the Bishop, ie this hurts me more than you.
But none of this can disguise the harsh authoritarian nature of the decisions Battersby has taken. Nor can it disguise the personal suffering that Battersby has callously inflicted on the faithful of St Mary’s. So what was and is going on here? Well the answer lies partly in the nature of the St Mary’s community and the faith they are practicing. This is an inner city church that at times fills to overflowing with up to 800 worshippers. The parish priest Peter Kennedy is a classic liberal intellectual who has championed a wide range of good causes – indigenous rights, gay rights, women’s rights etc, etc. The liturgy also has evolved to include an active role for women including women preaching. They also sing a range of ultra modern hymns and give out communion to all and sundry.
However it is most important to grasp that what has provoked the Church authorities to close down Fr Kennedy and his church is not Kennedy’s radicalism in itself. For sure they loathe his ideas. Nevertheless it is Kennedy’s success in attracting a congregation that has the Church worried. Quite simply they would prefer an empty church to a radical one.
The Roman Catholic Church is after all the organization which, while moving to expel Fr Kennedy, has opened its arms to Bishop Williamson of the St Pius the X Society. Williamson is an ultra rightist who denies the Holocaust and believes there is a Jewish conspiracy to take over the world. So there is a space for Williamson within the Church that Pope Benedict is creating but there is none for Kennedy. This then is a return to the Church that blessed the Fascist Franco, sucked up to the Fascist Mussolini and did deals with the Nazi Hitler.
To grasp the significance of the attack on Kennedy we need to understand that he and his congregation belong to the church of the intellectuals. Kennedy is actively trying to fashion a faith which will transcend the antinomies of capitalist modernity. He wants to confront capitalist values with ethical norms that have been taken from the Sermon on the Mount – Blessed are the destitute… for they shall see God. In Kennedy’s faith Jesus is the outsider, the revolutionary, who opposes Empire and suffers a horrible death because of that. But for Kennedy Christ’s sacrifice calls on all of us to make a similar commitment in our search for the Kingdom of God on earth. The church of the intellectuals is of course the church that the clerical core fears the most. This is the church within which contains the seeds of an alternative to the church of the Curia. Ironically what Kennedy and his community are doing, whether they realize it or not, is struggling to ensure the survival of a church that is dying in front of our very eyes. Only through the ordination of women, the abolition of celibacy and the adaption of a sincere “option for the poor” can the Roman Catholic Church hope to survive. But the Church authorities will consider none of these things. A suggestive parallel here is the situation in Soviet Russia after Stalin’s death. Reform was critically needed, but there was no one to bring in the reforms. The reformers had all been murdered long ago.
The CPSU made something of an effort under Kruschev but then gave up the attempt to reform because that would have meant putting themselves out of business. They were the problem and could never be part of the solution. Similarly at Vatican 2 the Church of Rome made a half hearted effort at reform and then abandoned it totally under John Paul 2. The latter will prove to be the Brezhnev of the Catholic Church. History will show that, brilliant showman that John Paul was, he nevertheless in his – refusal to reform John prepared the way for the great disaster towards which the church is now inexorably sliding. So the drama taking place in South Brisbane speaks to the heart of the crisis within the church.
The core church – the clergy- has lost all moral authority. Even worse from their point of view their caste is not renewing itself. Internal church gossip has it that vocations are it seems largely confined to gays. There is a savage irony here. The most homophobic of organizations is almost totally dependent on gays for candidates for the priesthood. Given the crisis that confronts the clergy it is probably true to say that Battersby did not want this fight with Kennedy and his flock. But by all accounts he is a weak cowardly man who was pushed by the far right of the church. Possibly an Opus Dei cell is at work somewhere in this matter.
The head of the Australian Catholic Church, Cardinal Pell, is known to be sympathetic to Opus Dei. He overturned a ban on Opus Dei entering the Sydney diocese and during his recent visit here Benedict stayed with the Opus Dei community. This was a blunt message to the liberals within the Church where Pope Benedict stood. In any case that section of the church that he represents is determined to get rid of its liberal wing and to impose once more total discipline on the Church of the intellectuals. What we have then, in the St Mary’s crisis, is a ruthless offensive from the far right.
This is of course sheer craziness. Why would one want to shut down one of the few full churches in Brisbane? But those who the gods wish to destroy they first make mad, and the clerical heart of the Roman Catholic Church in Australia is approaching the psychotic. Trapped by an irreversible loss of prestige, they have reverted to type. Instead of embracing the church of the intellectuals as their best and last hope, they seem determined to destroy it. It is clear then that the Far Right using their connections in Sydney and Rome have launched an offensive.
The parishioners of St Mary’s did not pick this fight. They were content to remain quietly within the Roman Catholic Church. But they were a church community which has organized itself along democratic communitarian lines. For that alone they were anathema to the Right. For the same reasons it is imperative that the St Mary’s community be defended by all of us. Humanity at large is faced with the scissors effect of economic and environmental calamities.
Only an extension of democratic communitarianism to all institutions in our society will get us through. The philosopher Roy Bhaskar’s is fond of quoting the young Marx’s:
“the world has long dreamed of possessing something of which it has only to be conscious in order to possess it in reality…In order to secure remission of its sins, mankind has only to declare them for what they actually are.”
For Bhaskar the heteronymous world of domination and exploitation, that the likes of Benedict, Pell and Battersby will always defend, is a parasitical growth on the human ground state of love and creativity. One has only to recognize and to realize that fact to move on to a world beyond fear, hatred, exploitation and domination. It is their turn to a theology and practice of creativity and love that is the secret of the success of the St Mary’s community.
It is also the secret of why the Far Right seeks to destroy them. It is moreover the reason why we must be there to support them.
Gary MacLennan, Brian Laver, Sam Watson, Bernie Neville & the ISE
– Studio 8, Ahimsa House, (07) 3846 5077