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Brisbane's archbishop feels the squeeze February 24, 2009

There's a fascinating undercurrent running through the story from Brisbane, Australia, in which a pastor is defying his archbishop's authority. On the surface the conflict appears to be a struggle between the pastor, Father Peter Kennedy, and Archbishop John Bathersby. But Kennedy and his supporters are sending a slightly different message.

When the archbishop engaged a mediator to resolve the dispute, Father Kennedy rejected the idea as another "bullying tactic." The defiant pastor went on to say, "you see bullies never get enough of bullying and Rome bullies the bishops and the bishops bully us."

So now the distant, faceless power of "Rome" has been brought into the discussion. Father Kennedy is hinting broadly that Archbishop Bathersby would not have taken disciplinary action if the archbishop himself hadn't been under pressure from the Vatican.

This is not a new suggestion. Through the months of open public conflict with the archbishop, Father Kennedy has consistently told reporters that the faithful of St. Mary's parish in South Brisbane support him, except for a few angry malcontents who have taken their complaints to Rome-- presumably because they could not find a sympathetic hearing in Brisbane.

Is that true? Would Archbishop Bathersby have been willing to tolerate the liturgical and doctrinal abuses, if the Vatican hadn't insisted that he take action? That is a serious charge. The archbishop's public statements have indicated that he is appalled by what he has found happening at St. Mary's parish. Did he make those statements only for show-- only to save himself from the wrath of the Vatican? That is what Kennedy's theory implies.

Nor is Kennedy alone. In a commentary on the dispute that tilts heavily in favor of Father Kennedy, television journalist Peter Kirkwood makes this telling observation:

But it is well to keep in mind other pressures on the archbishop. If he strays from orthodoxy, he will be brought into line by central authorities in the Vatican. I think it's fair to say that under the last two popes, in this tension between central and local authority, between orthodoxy and local diversity, the emphasis has swung towards the centre and local bishops don't have the autonomy they should have.

Actually I don't think it's "fair to say" that the Church has become too centralized, and still less accurate to say that this centralization has occurred during the two most recent pontificates. But for the moment let's leave that question aside. For now, notice that Kirkwood, too, creates the impression that Archbishop Bathersby would have preferred not to intervene in the affairs of St. Mary's parish.

This impression is not easily dismissed. Consider the history of the dispute. The complaints about irregularities at Father Kennedy's parish-- invalid baptisms, unauthorized concelebration, heterodox preaching, and more-- had been heard for months. We can assume (can't we?) that the archbishop, hearing those complaints, had spoken with the pastor and asked for assurances that St. Mary's was adhering to the doctrine and discipline of the Church. Yet the complaints persisted, and last summer the dispute became public.

In August, Archbishop Bathersby made the stunning statement: "At the present time St. Mary's, I believe, is not in communion with the Roman Catholic Church." The threat was unmistakable: if the parish was "not in communion," it would be a small step for the archbishop formally to announce its excommunication. But the archbishop did not take that step.

Instead, after pleading with the people of St. Mary's to recognize the proper authority of the Church-- that is, his authority-- Archbishop Bathersby warned that if he did not see signs of reform by December 1 he would begin a "formal process." He did not specify what that "formal process" might entail, but the clear implication was that some severe canonical disciplinary action-- if not excommunication, something equally dramatic-- was being contemplated.

December 1 passed, with the community at St. Mary's still defiant. In January, the archbishop remarked that he saw "not the slightest indication" that the parish would acknowledge the minimal requirements of communion with the Catholic Church. He added that it was "frightening" to think that so many Catholics were being given such woefully inadequate instruction in the fundamentals of doctrine. Still Archbishop Bathersby-- who is ultimately responsible for the welfare of all the people in his archdiocese-- delayed formal action. He said that he did not want to take action until he could provide a full explanation.

Finally, early in February, the archbishop took action. He relieved Father Kennedy from his post as pastor of St. Mary's-- a step that he could have taken on his own authority at any time, without any "formal process" or public explanation.

Even then-- even after the archbishop had held off for so long, and chosen such a mild pastoral response, Father Kennedy flatly refused to cooperate and boldly announced that he was prepared for a confrontation. There is "bullying" going on here, I'd suggest, and it's not being done by the archbishop!

How can we interpret this sequence of events? Archbishop Bathersby was doing his utmost to avoid the sort of public showdown that is now taking place; that much is clear. But what were the archbishop's motives for that forbearance? Was he secretly sympathetic with Father Kennedy? Was he taking action only because the Vatican forced his hand? Or was he acting as a zealous pastor, as his public statements indicated-- determined to uphold the teachings of the Church, but loath to cause a breach within the Catholic community?

There is no way to answer those questions with 100% certainty. Archbishop Bathersby can issue any number of public statements professing his sincere pastoral concern about the abuses at St. Mary's; Father Kennedy and his allies will hint that the statements were released under duress.

If the archbishop takes decisive action promptly, on his own authority, he will be depicted as a tyrannical zealot. If he seeks compromise and accommodation, he will be seen-- when he finally does take disciplinary action-- as the pawn of dark forces in Rome. A dissident pastor has found a clever new way to subvert the authority of the Church.

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