Book Review – Labour History – 1/05/2002
Pluto Press, Sydney, 2000. pp. 151. $27.95, paper.
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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