The Revolutionary Priest
Father Peter Kennedy had hundreds of followers and his church, St Mary’s at South Brisbane, was a beacon of enlightened thinking. What business would close down such a successful franchise?
Yet Fr Kennedy’s licence to exercise the rights of priestly office has been revoked and his followers face the possibility of excommunication. Kennedy has been banned from conducting services as a Roman Catholic priest anywhere in the world, while his sidekick, Terry Fitzpatrick, has been banned from being active as a priest in the Catholic Archdiocese of Brisbane.
Despite this, almost all of Kennedy’s flock from St Mary’s have followed him to his temporary “church” at the nearby Brisbane Trades and Labour Council Building. Indeed around 1200 people a week currently attend “St Mary’s in Exile” with services held at 6:30pm on Saturday, and 9am and 5pm on Sunday. In contrast, the official St Mary’s, which has now cancelled one of its services, currently attracts less than 100 worshippers a week.
As yet, no attempt has been made to interpret the battle between the institutional Church on the one hand, and Fr Kennedy and his many followers on the other, within a wider Queensland, Australian and global context. This needs to be done because the Catholic Church has been an influential force in Australian society and political life.
Australian Catholics have contributed widely and sometimes controversially to the rich tapestry of our public life. In his seminal history, The Roman Mould of the Australian Catholic Church , John Molony traverses the various conflicts within Australian Catholicism, some of them reflective of global tensions, between a rebellious and nationalistic Irish episcopate — led by Melbourne’s Archbishop Daniel Mannix — and attempts by Rome to bring them to heel. Yet the replacement of English Benedictines by Irishmen like Mannix signified a concession to the view that the Colonial Office should not run the Australian branch of the Catholic Church, and that no vestige of the subordinate position of restorationist Catholicism of the United Kingdom should taint the Australian Catholic experience.
From time to time, Rome has attempted to bring its rebellious Australian cadres into line through the appointment of disciplinary and interfering bishops and nuncios, but the historical record shows that Australian Catholics subscribe overwhelmingly to the political and cultural values of the secular state, and have remained firmly opposed to an established church.
When, during the World War II, Archbishop Giovanni Panico was appointed Apostolic Delegate to Australia, he actively campaigned for the appointment of native-born Australian priests as Bishops and Archbishops, instead of Irish-born priests. This was seen as a very controversial move in some quarters of the Catholic Church in Australia.
So where does Peter Kennedy fit into this distinctly Australian tradition — in which respect for authority has to be measured against the capacity of authority to show leadership, command respect and engage critically with contemporary culture? Kennedy’s most spectacular foray into the field was during the authoritarian regime of National Party premier Johannes Bjelke-Petersen, when Kennedy led the opposition of the Queensland Catholic Church, with the tacit approval of his then Archbishop, Francis Rush, to the moral and political excesses of the corrupt Queensland government.
Kennedy invited several key players, including myself (then widely known as an “Anti-Joh”) and Tony Fitzgerald QC (who presided over the Commission of Inquiry into Queensland police and governmental corruption) to address his congregation — a testament to the engaged nature of his pastorate. Thus Kennedy deliberately brought the Gospels to engage with public life. And what a difference it made to engage with a priest who was well read, articulate and passionately involved with his audience, whether indigenous or white, Protestant or Catholic, male or female, straight or gay.
Kennedy offered an alternative model of Catholicism, one that is not as unique as is sometimes thought, but which is decreasingly tolerated as global Catholicism becomes more monochromatic and is reining in the so-called “excesses” of Vatican II reforms. Indeed, far from pleading guilty to excesses, Kennedy and his following convincingly argue that the rolling back of renewal has been on the part of the mainstream Catholic Church and its episcopate.
At a global level, the turning back of the clock began in earnest with the papal election of John Paul II. While the Polish pope was highly successful in sounding the death knell of Communism, his alliance with Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher led him to make compromises with neoconservatives. This conservatism was reflected in a rejection of women as participants and priests in the Church, a matter now firmly closed since John Paul II’s papacy. Another issue was John Paul II’s crushing of liberation theology, which was the most interesting and relevant flowering of Catholic social teaching since Vatican II. He allowed his anti-communism to override and obliterate new theological and practical approaches to social justice.
Then the Vatican promoted clerics who in many instances were known to have blood on their hands — not simply indirectly through their compliance with policies intended to support corrupt military dictatorships but also through their silence over the murder of hundreds of priests, nuns, bishops and lay people in developing countries. Under the former and current popes, Catholic social teaching has been removed from its pivotal role in Australian Catholic consciousness and identity and replaced by an unhealthy return to Latinist practices that were not so long ago the precise reasons for Vatican II being called.
Father Kennedy’s helpmate at St Mary’s (and now at St Mary’s in Exile), Terry Fitzpatrick, is a priest of the Toowoomba Diocese and insofar as he is still a Catholic priest he is simply on leave of absence from the Toowoomba Diocese and has been so for 15 years. This is since he disclosed that he was the father of a boy, Jordan McGuire.
Edward Kelly, then Bishop of Toowoomba, immediately relieved Fitzpatrick of his position and forced him into taking leave of absence. In contrast, the current Bishop, William Morris, took the view that Fitzpatrick had some responsibility for the upbringing of his child and has continued to support him during his extended leave of absence. Jordan, who has taken his mother’s surname, has been cared for by both of his parents.
Unsurprisingly while Fr Fitzpatrick is not the first priest to father a child — but one of the few to acknowledge it — he has never been officially invited back to Toowoomba, in part because such a move would be deeply opposed by conservative Catholics and other fundamentalists.
Recognising these failures of the Catholic Church to renew itself is essential to an understanding of current events in Brisbane and elsewhere. It is well known that the power given by the Vatican II to a commission to change the direction of Church teaching on contraception was revoked at the last minute by curial conservatives concerned as much about their loss of power as their opposition to such practices.
Pope Benedict has further consolidated conservative directions by adverse references to Islam at the time of the Crusades, to Buddhism as a form of autoeroticism, and by proposing that condoms may not be used in the fight against AIDS.
In short, at exactly the same time as global consciousness has awoken to the dangers of Islamic fundamentalism, institutional Catholicism, fuelled by a resurgence of fundamentalism in its own ranks, now places increasing obstacles in the path of international peace and justice.
To see a once great and well respected Church, founded on the principle that faith and reason jointly inform a Catholic conscience and sentiment, move in this direction is therefore a profound tragedy. Fr Kennedy is the victim of a Church more concerned with papering over the cracks than in cleaning up its own act as a force for good in the world.
Indeed, Kennedy appears to have been made the scapegoat for advocating a socially liberal — and personally inclusive — Catholicism which is out of favour with Rome.
The revolutionary priest in Ross Fitzgerald’s prize-winning novel Soaring (Angus & Robertson, 1994) is loosely based on Father Peter Kennedy.
Emeritus Professor of History and Politics at Griffith University and a Professorial Fellow at the Australian Catholic University, Professor Ross Fitzgerald is the author of 31 books, including The Pope’s Battalions: B.A.Santamaria and the Labor Split . His co-authored Under The Influence: A History of Alcohol in Australia is soon to be published by ABC Books.