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Faith of our fathers: the crisis deepens

By Gary MacLennan - posted Friday, 20 February 2009

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 (i.e. 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 Archbishop of Brisbane, John Bathersby.


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 Fr Kennedy and his errant parishioners. A similar missive was sent four years ago. Dr Bathersby 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 Dr Bathersby, Fr 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 Dr Bathersby. This is a remarkably brutal document. Kennedy has given a life time to his parishioners and the Church. Yet Dr Bathersby sacks him, offers to “look after him” if he resigns and then threatens excommunication if he does not go quietly.

There is, it is true, some pious cant about the Mother of God and a self-pitying whine asking for prayers for the Bishop, i.e. this hurts me more than you. But none of this can disguise the harsh authoritarian nature of the decisions Dr Bathersby has taken. Nor can it disguise the personal suffering that Dr Bathersby 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 and so on. 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 Fr 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 organisation which, while moving to expel Fr Kennedy, has opened its arms to Bishop Williamson of the St Pius X Society. Williamson is an ultra rightist who denies the Holocaust and believes there is a Jewish conspiracy to take over the world. The subsequent worldwide uproar has meant that Pope Benedict XVI has had to climb smartly out of Williamson’s bed as it were. Nevertheless the entire incident is a reminder that 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. F 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 realise 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 Communist Party of the Soviet Union (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.

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About the Author

Dr Gary MacLennan was born in Northern Ireland and has worked internationally as a teacher of English, writing, literature and Australian film. Areas of expertise include documentary theory and practice, critical realism, cultural studies, current affairs and the media, film history and theory. Gary is an educational consultant with the Institute for Social Ecology. He has been a long term community activist and very dedicated Marxist and has been involved in struggles around Civil Liberties, Trade Union Rights, Palestininian Human Rights and Community Rights.

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