In 1893, a London trained lawyer was thrown off a train to Johannesburg because he was barred by his skin colour from sitting in the first class seat he had paid for. The experience transformed his outlook, and from being content to be a mild middle-class professional, Mahatma Gandhi became instead a political activist, whose ideas helped to transform the history and politics of at least three countries, and led to the total disintegration of the once invincible British Empire.
The strategy Gandhi developed during his early years in South Africa, “Satyagraha”, brought some early modest successes for the South African Natal Indian Congress, and later became one strand in the tactics of the South African resistance movement, and certainly contributed much later to the arrival of full democracy. Most powerfully, the strategy was a major factor behind the British withdrawal from India, paving the way for the disintegration of the once seemingly invincible British Empire. In the US, Gandhi’s ideas were adopted and adapted by Martin Luther King, under the English (inexact) translation of “passive resistance”.
I have been thinking a lot recently about this theme of passive resistance, or active non-co-operation, as it is currently occurring spontaneously in the Catholic Church. This morning, I noticed a headline from Australia, which gives the perfect excuse to pull together some otherwise disconnected observations. It is now one year since the misguided and unsuccessful attempts of the Australian institutional church to silence one of its most vigorous branches, that of the parish of St Mary’s, South Brisbane, and its priest Fr Patrick Kennedy. In a classic demonstration of non-co-operation, the parish simply upped sticks and relocated, to a venue outside of the ecclesiastical jurisdiction.
‘Our beloved heretic’: Rebel priest going strong
Brisbane’s rogue Catholic community and its rebel priest are still thriving almost one year after controversial practices within the church came to a head and its charismatic leader was threatened with excommunication.
In February Archbishop John Bathersby dismissed Father Peter Kennedy from his role at the eclectic inner city parish, St Mary’s South Brisbane, after he refused to change his ways and conform to traditions of the Catholic Church.
Fr Kennedy initially defied his sacking and continued to conduct weekly masses in which he would contradict core tenets of the faith – he allowed women to preach, blessed gay couples, performed illegitimate baptisms and questioned the divinity of Jesus.
This pattern pretty well repeats the process played out earlier in Minnesota, where similar attempts to rein in a congregation that were implementing fully the liturgically and pastoral reforms proclaimed by Vatican II, similarly backfired. Instead of meekly falling into tine, the courageous parish of St Stephen’s simply relocated and renamed themselves as the “Spirit of St Stephen’s”, leaving the control freaks of the diocese with a largely empty shell where once had been a vigorous and lively parish – a fitting symbol of where the institutional church could too easily be headed.
Other instances I can think of where attempts at control by the ecclesiastical mechanism are being simply ignored, are the womenpriests movement, the organised group of married but “discharged” Catholic priests who point out (correctly) that they remain priests, even after leaving the formal priesthood as church employees, and so continue to practice a priestly ministry independently of ecclesiastical control, the response of Maine Catholics to the Bishop’s fund-raising for Proposition 1 by pointed and visible demonstrations of non-compliance and active resistance, proposals in Ireland for “industrial action” protest by plans to withhold contributions to Sunday collections, the simple refusal by some orders of US religious women to co-operate with the unnecesary and unjustifed investigations by the Vatican meddlers, and now reports that otherwise loyal priests are seriously discussing the possibility of simply not implementing the controversial new translation of the liturgy.
Notice that none of these instances (except tangentially, in Maine) have anything to do with sexuality, but are all concerned with abuses of church power, reactions against the excessive and obsessive control which is at the heart of the problems of the modern Church. But the sexual area is where this non-compliance is already the most widespread: estimates are that no more than 5% of Catholic adults actually practice, sexually, what the church (officially) preaches. A substantial, but unknown , proportion of Catholic priests do not in fact preach this officially sanctioned doctrine, and in practice teach (privately) some degree of non-compliance, certainly on contraception, often also on masturbation, pre-marital sexual expression for committed couples – or on “homosexuality”.
Organised and very visible, “Satyagraha” within half a century brought down an empire. In the Catholic Church, non-compliance in one form or another is already widespread, but mostly unremarked. Nevertheless, it is surely at least feasible that this passive resistance, especially if more widely spoken of and used as deliberate strategy, can similarly help to limit the present far-reaching attempted control?