It’s hard to think of another time when the goings on at a local Parish church has received so much media coverage. Father Peter Kennedy, the about-to-be-ex Parish priest of St Mary’s Catholic Church at South Brisbane, featured in the glossy weekend magazines of both The Courier-Mail and The Australian. This follows a myriad of previous stories in the local media, the ABC’s website and Catholic media in recent weeks covering the long running and now quite bitter dispute, with Fr Kennedy and his parish community on one side, and the local diocesan Archbishop John Bathersby.
The St Mary’s parish community also has a website, which contains a lot of the background to this dispute, including some of the letters from the Archbishop and responses from Fr Kennedy. There’s also Facebook and MySpace pages in support of the parish and its priests. It’s gained coverage in the British Catholic periodical The Tablet (some coverage not online), featured in the local Gay press and Green Left Weekly, and been the subject of Marxist assessment on Online Opnion.
As I’ve mentioned a numbers of times before, I’m an atheist. I was raised as a Catholic and also know plenty of people within the local Catholic community and bureaucracy around Brisbane – not least because many of them are active in social justice issues and welfare services in the region. So I understand a fair bit of the context and background of different disputes. I’ve been to a few forums at St Mary’s – even spoken at a couple of them – but I’ve never been to a church service there. I know plenty of people who have, included more than one federal MP.
The term ‘broad church’ is used a lot to describe large political parties, but it is even more apt for large religions. As with many other creeds, there is a massive variance in local practices amongst Catholic parishes around the world.
Reading many of the media reports on this matter, and also the letters and responses on the St Mary’s website, it seems to me that some of the media coverage is a bit unclear on why Fr Kennedy and his parish have got into so much strife. The majority of the media coverage suggests that the Archbishop’s concerns centre on the use of women as preachers and being involved in handing out communion, and the priest blessing homosexual couples and not using the right formula of words in Baptisms (i.e. saying “Creator, Sustainer and Liberator instead of Father, Son and Holy Spirit).
These indications in the media seem quite odd to me, as I’ve known plenty of occasions where women have been involved in services and delivered the sermon during a mass. I recall my mother doing this at least a couple of decades ago and seen plenty of occasions of women being involved in handing out the Eucharist at communion time. And whilst there’s no doubt the Catholic Church would be seriously unhappy with a priest performing a marriage service for a gay couple, I’ve certainly known occasions where openly gay couples have been involved in parish activities and had priests play a part in commitment ceremonies.
The letters from the Archbishop to St Mary’s and their responses don’t make it very clear to me what precisely needed to be done by the local Parish to avoid the action now taken by the Archbishop. There’s been a lot of talk about a Buddhist statue being present in the church at one time. Even though some have disputed the accuracy of this, even if true it hardly seems a sackable offence, unless it was used a central part of worship, which I’m sure wasn’t. The fact that the priest doesn’t wear the usual garments hardly seems to warrant a sacking either.
From the outside, it looks more like both sides have just dug themselves deeper and deeper into opposing trenches over the last few years. Certainly the last few exchanges of correspondence read to me like two people who are simply talking past each other and not really engaging with what the other is saying. It does look rather like there’s a fair bit of pride (one of the so-called ‘deadly sins’) impacting on peoples’ actions on both sides here, although it’s not really for me to judge such things. In any case, the dispute is now so public and so entrenched that it’s hard to any resolution which will satisfy both sides. In such a circumstance, the one with the greater power usually wins, although in this instance it looks like a ‘win’ for the Archbishop will be a Pyrrhic one.
Even if I did believe in a God, the church’s open attacks on gay people and repeated failures to tackle many cases of serious sexual assault by their clergy, not to mention their ban on women being clergy, would make it impossible for me to sign up to this particular brand of faith – despite the considerable amount of good done by many church members and organisations at local level in assisting poorer people and speaking out on issues of justice. Of course, the Catholic church is far from the only religion which is intrinscially patriachal, treats gay people as second-class or protects its institutional interest rather than those of their followers when allegations of sexual abuse and breach of trust arise. But it has the most adherents of any religion in Australia, which does create some wider relevance in the local context.
One of the potential problems from the St Mary’s dispute which may well have a big effect on the wider community is what might happen to their very effective social services arm - Micah Services. This is a sizeable and important body which generates a lot of good supports to many of the poorer and disadvantaged people of the area, which developed out of the strong and active social justice principles that St Mary’s has focused on. Some of the key people involved in Micah are also involved in the local parish, and while I’m sure they won’t pull out of helping Micah to continue to deliver vital support services, there is a risk in the long run that some of the passion and support for Micah might be diminished if the attendance and energy put into the local parish declines.
Whilst disputes within religions can raise some interesting issues on an intellectual level, I feel that if they solely concern internal matters then it’s a matter for people who ascribe to that religion to work out. If you choose to be part of a group then, while you can still push for change from within, you sign up to their rules, processes and beliefs. I’m not part of it, so I don’t see it as something for me to get involved. I stay out of such things, unless they involve statements or activities that impact on the wider community, such as when the Pope attacks all homosexual people as being ‘disordered’.
A person who considers themself to be a Catholic is not forced to adopt 100 per cent of every single view ever expressed by the Pope or other senior church leaders. A good example of this is the prohibition on the use of contraceptives. Every survey I’ve ever seen shows that a clear majority of Catholics – at least in the developed world – do not agree with or follow this teaching. There is still room within Catholicism for a person to use an informed conscience to come to a view on various matters – although the precise meaning and effect of that teaching is often disputed. In a case from the early 1980s which has a few echoes of the current dispute, a local Brisbane priest, Father Bill O’Shea, got into some serious strife with the powers-that-be when some local people reported him to the Vatican for the views he expressed in the local paper about the role of an informed conscience in coming to decisions about matters such as contraception.
As many other outsiders have pointed out, it is hard to reconcile the image of a Church hierarchy so doggedly determined to dismiss a priest because he doesn’t wear the right garments or use the required formula of words in some of his liturgies and ceremonies, with the recent willingness of the Church to allow a clergyman to remain in the church despite denying the Jewish Holocaust of the 1940s and openly anti-semitic groups to retain church recognition or the many instances where priests who have sexual assaulted children have been protected by the Church or have been allowed to keep practicing as priests even after having been found guilty of such offences.
The local dispute here all seems rather unnecessary and destructive. However, even though it may have some flow impacts on the wider community, disputes like these are matters for members of the relevant church to sort out.