‘Ted Kennedy: Priest of Redfern’ — a review

By Gary MacLennan

A review of Edmund Campion (2009) Ted Kennedy: Priest of Redfern: Melbourne: David Lovell Publishing

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 a s 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. The new forms of worship were supposed to act as “an antidote to capitalist individualism, which they saw as poisoning everyday life” (p. 29).

The analysis here is almost purely Durkheimian with its juxtapositioning of anomie [bad] and “solidarism” [good]. However the problem with capitalism is not that it prioritizes individualism. Arguably rather it destroys the individual by reducing her to an economic resource or worse a non-resource. It is the intrinsically class and exploitative nature of capitalism that must be addressed and unfortunately re-arranging the seating in the churches (p.57) is not enough.

If the social theory of the alternative church as described in Campion’s book was inadequate, it is debatable whether its theological basis was any more adequate. The clearest statement here was that which came out of the Newman Society at the University of Sydney (pp. 36-8). This concerned the “Three Realities” – Christ, the personal realities of the group members and the world in which the members found themselves, in this case the university. Interestingly first reality –Christ seems not to have been explored in a way which took account of the insights of biblical scholarship. Rather he seems to have become a non-historical inspiration of good deeds and a trope for the wretched of the earth.

I do not mean this in any way as a put down. Rather I wish to draw attention to the avoidance of problems inherent in Catholic Christian belief. Here 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 2 (1978-2005). The low point here was surely the condemnation of liberation theology at Puebla in 1979, where John Paul 2 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 forty 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.

The details of his ministry are both astonishing and inspiring. The experience of being in 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” (p. 74). With the help and guidance of the Aboriginal Activist Mum Shirl, Kennedy turned the church at Redfern in to a physical and spiritual home of the Koori people. Kennedy understood clearly as unfortunately few Australians do, that the injustice shown towards Aborigines under the imperatives of white colonialism has in Kennedy’s own words “stultified the heart and putrified the social atmosphere of our country” (p. 77).

Being a good man, Kennedy inevitably quarrelled with the hierarchy. Here his nemeses seem to have been Cardinal Clancy and his successor Cardinal Pell. When Clancy came to Sydney in 1983 to head the archdiocese, Kennedy and he had an angry meeting where Clancy rejected the notion of land rights for Aborigines and said that the conquest of Australia was fact of history (p.121). In 2000 when Clancy’s reign was climaxed by the raising of the steeples on the cathedral, Kennedy wrote a letter to the press condemning the lack of consultation with the poor about the spires project and describing the Catholic Church under Clancy as “dysfunctional” (p.175).

Kennedy’s relations with Cardinal Pell were no less hostile. Indeed the latter’s refusal to give communion to a number of gay Catholics sparked Kennedy into writing “Who is Worthy?” This was to be Kennedy’s passionate last defence of the alternative church that Paul VI and John Paul 2 in Rome and Cardinals Clancy, and Pell in Sydney had birth strangled. Campion is fully aware of the importance of Kennedy’s book and he is brave enough to do it justice (pp. 151-160). Thus he quotes the Kennedy line “Between God’s love and those who turn to it, let no one place an obstacle” and describes it as a “powerful meditation” (p. 160).

A tale of two saints?

In his account of Kennedy’s funeral, Campion broaches the subject of sainthood. He relates how many at the funeral thought Kennedy was a saint, but some at the funeral also felt that to discuss this was too much like following the example of the “santo subito rentacrowd” (p. 201), which was already at work calling for John Paul 2’s canonisation and so they refused to take part in any discussion of Kennedy’s holiness.

Such a reaction is indeed understandable if one looks at the official process of canonisation as practised by the Roman Catholic Church. John Paul 2 holds the Vatican record here with 476 saints and 1315 blesseds. No wonder this inflationary process has led to the kind of lampooning practised by Professor As’ad Abu Khalil, the “Angry Arab”, on whose website one is urged to contribute a miracle to speed up the process of the canonization of Mother Theresa. He himself offers “As’ad’s sink was miraculously unclogged in October 2003” (Khalil, n.d.). Campion also quotes with approval Dorothy Day’s reply to reporters who labelled her a saint, “You can’t dismiss me that easily” (p.201).

Yet understandable as these reactions to the politics of canonisation as practised by John Paul 2 are, it seems to me that it is a serious mistake to leave the process of sainthood to the Vatican. For what is at stake is the defining of what constitutes goodness or holiness, and that is something that we must not leave to the Vatican. This can be seen most clearly if we look at the recent discovery that John Paul 2 was a flagellator who often slept on a bare floor when he was a bishop (Guardian, 2010, p19). These details have been released by Monsignor Oder, the Vatican official in charge of the canonization process, who regards them not as signs of a serious mental illness but rather of a “profound relationship with God” (Oder quoted in Guardian, 2010, p. 19).

By way of contrast Ted Kennedy drank too much (p.85), stank because he didn’t wash (p. 173) and was quarrelsome (p. 85). One is tempted to paraphrase the Sunday Times here and say that Ted Kennedy drunk was a better man that Carol Wojtyla sober, but that leaves us without a means of judging what is goodness or holiness. Here Vyschogrod’s neo-Levinasian definition of sainthood is very helpful. She defines a saint as

One whose adult life in its entirety is devoted to the alleviation of sorrow ( the psychological suffering) and pain (the physical suffering) that afflicts other persons without distinction of rank or group or, alternatively, that afflicts sentient beings, whatever the cost to the saint in pain or sorrow (1990, p. 34).

Within the terms of this definition Kennedy was manifestly saintly. But it is important to demystify the process of goodness here. Goodness or holiness is not the property of the esoteric flagellator sleeping on the bare floor. Rather in Bhaskarian terms its source lies in a rejection of what he terms the world of duality. This is the world that we humans have created and it is marked Bhaskar tells us

by unhappiness, oppression and strife – more especially, it is a world in which     we are alienated from ourselves, each other, the activities in which we engage and the natural world we inhabit, currently hurling into crisis and self-destruction (Bhaskar, 2002a, p.8).

This world of duality is the world of the selfish manipulative ego which regards every other human being as a potential rival or threat. This is of course the world of free market capitalism and also of the clerical church that Ted Kennedy so passionately opposed. Crucially though the world of duality rests parasitically upon a world of non-duality, a world of unconditional love and creativity. This is the world of our transcendentally real self or ground state. Ted Kennedy like all of us was called to goodness by his ground state – a state consisting of “creativity, love, capacity for right action and for the fulfilment of our intentionality in the world” (Bhaskar, 2002b, p.x ). But it was a concretely singularised call and it led Ted Kennedy to Redfern and his dedication to the Aboriginal people of Australia.

The book: Final words

Kennedy in writing his book, Who is Worthy? had his agenda and so does Campion in writing his biography. Not only does he rescue from oblivion the memory of the alternative Church and places on the record Kennedy’s devotion to the destitute and his support for Aborigines, throughout he endeavours to be balanced and civil to everyone, even those with whom he evidently disagrees. Still there a number of quiet and immensely enjoyable hits at the rich and the powerful within the Roman Catholic Church. Thus we are given a seemingly gratuitous reference to

Franz Jӓgerstӓtter, 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 (p. 49).

The point here would not be lost on those who recall a certain Joseph Ratzinger who was a member of the Hitler Youth because he thought open resistance was hopeless. Though to be fair to Campion he does mention that Jӓgerstӓtter was beatified in 2007.

I have already indicated that this is a fine and valuable book. It is an easy and accessible read. It is also careful and thorough in its scholarship but refreshingly committed to preserving the memory of a man whom Campion 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.

Bhaskar, R.(2002a), Reflections on Meta-Reality: Transcendence, Emancipation and Everyday Life, New Delhi: Sage.

_________ (2002b) meta-Reality: Creativity, Love and Freedom, New Delhi: Sage.

Campion, E. (2009) Ted Kennedy: Priest of Redfern, Melbourne: David Lovell. Khalil, A. A. Mother Theresa Miracle Watch. Located at <angryarab.blogspot.com>.

Time Magazine (1979) The pope deplores Marxist influence. Located at http://www.time.com/time/magazine/article/0,9171,920117-2,00.html#ixzz0bPHZNVUH.

Wyschogrod, E. (1990)
Saints and Postmodernism: Revisioning Moral Philosophy, Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

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