Kevin T Kelly, 50 Years Receiving Vatican II: a personal odyssey,

Kevin T Kelly, 50 Years Receiving Vatican II: a personal odyssey, Columba Press, 2012, E24.99/ £19.99.A review by Frank Regan


Fr Kevin T Kelly is a Liverpool priest who has been working to renew the field of Catholic Moral Theology since the 2nd Vatican Council. He has published books and articles in this country and abroad and is one of the principal witnesses of the struggles of a post-Vatican II church and people of God to discern the signs of the times and to give a clear response. Indeed he has been a protagonist in that struggle.
He is a disciple of the late Bernhard Haring, imbued with his teacher’s concern to restore the centrality of charity to moral theology, to loosen it from the bonds of a rigid canon law and to explore what it means to live in the freedom of the daughters and sons of God. He is an admirer of Fr Charles Curran, US moral theologian who was deprived of his license to teach Catholic moral theology in Catholic University, Washington. Kelly is in good company even if those two theologians are ‘personae non gratae’.
His book is a collection of writings which cover 50 years of service to the English Catholic church. He does not regret any of them, but it is evident that he has experienced discouragement and disappointment along the way. He has a long experience in pastoral ministry, including in sharing a parish with the Church of England. This has fed into his concerns regarding the formation of adult christians in the Faith, the formation of an adult conscience and the formation of men and women committed to the world with its pain and joy.
Kelly’s reflections are an excellent flowing together of the autobiographical, the experiential, the pastoral, the communitarian and the ecclesial. His ongoing concern is the effort by the christian community to discern in the light of experience, biblical tradition and moral theology the way forward in very messy terrain. For example, he cites with approval the words of Cardinal Hume that the experience of married people can be ‘an authentic source of theology from which we, the pastors, and indeed the whole church can draw’. When married couples say that the teaching on contraception does not accord with their experience, they are being neither obtuse nor recalcitrant.
One of Kelly’s central concerns is the mission of the parish. He worries about too much parish inwardness when in fact the parish is sent to the world. He wants a mission parish in which justice and peace are central concerns. He even speaks of training people in social analysis, the ability to study the relationship between local communities, class interests, political parties and citizen participation. Radical stuff!
An important factor, almost always missing, is a coherent diocesan pastoral strategy and plan. This could create a structure which permits dialogue between parish and diocese. This is important when we realise that many parishioners have not given reception to some official church teachings. Another challenge is the non-accountability of priests. This leaves a parish at the mercy of the whim of its priest, or, worse, baffled and at sea regarding peculiar, sometimes criminal, behaviour.
One other question is the exercise of democracy in the parish. Even though the governance model of the church is monarchical, this does not mean that the views of priests and people ought not to be heard. At present there is a structural dysfunctionality which results in the disarticulation of the laity and clergy and the pastoral office of the bishop.
Kelly brings us back in time to the National Pastoral Congress of 1980. He was there and was a witness of the fire that was lit in the hearts of the more than 2000 delegates. Unfortunately, it did not bear the fruit that was longed for. One glowing example of the fire lit is the work of the National Justice and Peace Network. The network was to be of laity and so was viewed with suspicion. It was never given autonomy by the bishops despite all their talk of the Holy Spirit in the Church.
We have a two-tiered organisation of governors and governed with no channel of communication between the two. This is a severe handicap of the mission of the church to the world.
In chapter 20 our author raises the question: is there a link between sex abuse and systemic God abuse in the Church? We have been wracked by the child abuse scandal in our church. Kelly cites a fellow moral theologian, Peter Harvey, as saying that the Church is being “committed to treating the most horrifying symptoms of what is wrong as if it is itself the disease.” He goes on to point out that the real disease is “the clericalist culture whose diseased condition, most experts agree is at the heart of the ongoing crisis.”
Kelly goes on to cite two Irish priests, Peter Mc Verry and Brendan Hoban, who point to a systemic inhumanity in the organisation and culture of the Church. This brings to my mind Pope Benedict’s refusal to consider the possibility of structural reform. He says time and again that what is necessary is personal renewal. There is no arguing with that, but is there not a relationship between structure as facilitating relationship, and personal renewal which finds its most radical expression in loving the people, especially the Church’s weak (children) and marginalised (women, LGBT persons et al).
Kelly goes on to cite a clinical psychologist, Marie Keenan. She points out, in agreement with other social scientists and theologians, that there is an “organisational pathology” afflicting the church; that “a review of the Church’s governance structures, power-relation, and sexual ethics are long overdue.” It is very difficult for an addict to admit to addiction. The Church’s leadership is no different. But must the addict hit the bottom of the barrel, and then crash through it, before something is done?
There are many issues to be addressed: being a people’s church, the exercise of authority, change, clericalism, the new Mass translation, sexuality and loyalty.
Kevin Kelly has done us a service in letting us into his story as a Moral Theologian struggling within a Church blind to the signs of the times. Vatican II was a great moment in our history as People of God. There will be other great moments, but now we must live the ‘dark night’ and await the dawn.

Frank Regan
July 2012

This book is available at Amazon