Through expressive writing, Eugene Kennedy espoused a rich sacramental vision

by Thomas C. Fox

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The passing of Eugene Cullen Kennedy closes a rich chapter in Catholic church history. He was the last of three masters of the pen, Chicago-area colleagues, off and on friends who came out of the same pre- and post-Second Vatican Council generation to help explain -- and critique -- to the wider Catholic populace their changing church. In so doing, these writers and commentators, Fr. Andrew Greeley (who died May 29, 2013), Fr. Richard McBrien (who died Jan. 5, 2015), and Kennedy (who died June 3, 2015) all tried to encourage and direct the Catholic discussion.

McBrien and Kennedy had particularly close associations with NCR; both were longtime contributors and columnists. The losses of all three in a relatively short span have opened a hole in Catholic journalism and in our hearts that will not easily be filled. Add the recent death of another longtime Chicago-area, bright and prolific NCR contributor, Robert McClory (who died April 3, 2015), who fashioned himself more as a reporter than an analyst, and the full picture of church and NCR loss grows even larger.

As U.S. Catholic histories continue to be written, the Catholic Midwest in general and Chicago in particular will highlight the emergence of the post-Vatican II pastoral church, and Greeley, McBrien, Kennedy and McClory will be seen as having encouraged and shaped the life of that imaginative, inclusive, and justice-seeking church.

Kennedy was not only a colleague; he was also a friend. For decades, we would speak on the telephone or visit with each other when we could. We would listen to each other and, during especially repressive times, console each other.

Kennedy embraced a rich sacramental vision. In his vision, the Divine imbued all matter, and the sacraments -- in their infinite variety -- were aids to open our eyes to the richness of God's all-embracing love.

It was not an accident Kennedy's writing was rich in metaphors. Life and its countless expressions, in Kennedy's eyes, are living metaphors, offering opportunities in which to more fully enter the sacred. He wanted his church to both live and preach its traditional sacramental vision, but infused with the mind-expanding scientific and technological insights of the space/information age.

It pained Kennedy to see so much resistance, especially among bishops sheltered in a self-righteous clericalism he so deplored. Their pre-modern view of church as a top-down authority structure had collapsed, had lost credibility, and was no longer serving the faithful, and Kennedy saw himself as trying to build another model of church, a more collegial and generative church, that began its birthing process at Vatican II in the mid-1960s, a council that shaped Kennedy's thought for more than five decades.


Thirty years ago this week, Kennedy and I sat on a bench together on the campus of St. John's University in Collegeville, Minn. The U.S. bishops were there for their summer meeting. The week before, NCR had published a detailed account by Jason Berry about a young priest-pedophile in the diocese of Lafayette. La., and an equally long report on the abuses of other predatory priests around the nation by Arthur Jones, then NCR Washington bureau chief.

In an accompanying NCR editorial, we warned the bishops they needed to act forcefully to acknowledge and combat clergy sex abuse lest the church cause further pain to victims and face catastrophic losses in credibility and billions of dollars in lawsuits.

The bishops, meanwhile, were in Collegeville studying an extensive report on clergy sex abuse authored by Fr. Michael Peterson, Dominican Fr. Tom Doyle and attorney Ray Mouton, who had come together to study and report on the clergy abuse crisis for the bishops.

As Kennedy and I sat there on a clear sunny morning, we discussed the importance of the moment, the crossroads the bishops faced, and the temptation before them to simply dismiss the matter and shelve the report.

As the hours passed, our fears mounted. Clouds seemed to move in. Then, word reached us that the bishops had taken the report into executive session. More fear. At the end of the day, Bishop James Malone of Youngstown, Ohio, then president of the National Conference of Catholic Bishops, called a news conference to tell the media -- without even mentioning the report -- that the bishops had set up a special "pedophilia committee" to be chaired by Bishop Michael Murphy of Erie, Pa.

As it turned out, there would be no pedophilia committee. In fact, it took the U.S. bishops seven more years to establish its first subcommittee on clergy sex abuse. Even then, most bishops continued to deny there was a problem -- until the Boston debacle of 2002.

Kennedy long outlined two required pathways were the church to face the clergy sex abuse issue squarely. The first involved developing a healthy sense of sexuality within the clergy; the second involved forever ridding our church from its current unhealthy, unaccountable, misplaced authority structure.

The need for healthy sexuality was paramount in Kennedy's mind. He once wrote "unless we [our church] get our sexuality right, we won't get our humanity right, and if we don't get our humanity right, we won't get our church's sacramental life right."

He cared deeply about Catholic sacramental life, seeing the sacraments as windows into the mystery of our incarnational God. There was nothing abstract about Catholic sacraments in Kennedy's eyes. Catholic sacraments, he wrote, "are all sensual, sexual and spiritual at the same time."

Many of his early books were especially aimed at fostering healthier curricula in seminaries, places he viewed as breeding grounds for the perpetuation of a debilitated clergy caste.

Countless clergy, religious and laity, meanwhile, became better educated on matters of sexuality, psychology and morality by reading Kennedy's writings and by listening to his counsel. As a former Maryknoll priest with a degree in psychology, Kennedy was especially equipped to introduce unfolding social science findings into anachronistic Catholic sexual moral theology. He often collaborated with his wife, Dr. Sara C. Charles, a professor of psychiatry. Between them, they wrote countless articles and books aimed at guiding the Catholic church to embrace sexuality, not eschew it, to see it primarily as an expression of God's love, not as an object of divine wrath.

True authority

For Kennedy, much of one's attitude toward religion begins with one's image of God. In turn, this image establishes one's understanding of church and church structure. Kennedy, meanwhile, often returned in his writings to an exploration of the meaning of authority. He believed in authority, thought it to be an essential ingredient of church. He distinguished, however, between widespread Catholic ideas of top-down, "do as I say" authority -- which, he wrote, is misguided authority, more akin to "authoritarianism" -- and true authority, which "authors" life. The authority of a healthy Catholicism engenders "positive, dynamic growth." It is the authority that comes from the Latin root, augere: "to create, to enable, to make able to grow."

Kennedy wrote that authority models we still see so much in the church today are unworkable leftovers from an earlier age. These old models, he once wrote, are "no longer tenable in the space/information age, an age in which there are no longer ups and downs, tops and bottoms, the age in which information cannot be controlled and is rather spawned from multiple sources and authentic teachers."

Kennedy first found the germs of the new Catholic authority model he longed for in the pontificate of Pope John XXIII. He saw it again in the ministries of his friend, the late Cardinal Joseph Bernardin. Kennedy explored these ideas in a book, My Brother Joseph. Kennedy once called Bernardin "the most influential bishop in the history of the American church."

Bernardin "always tried to see people and issues whole, not distracted by the tiny details that others at times placed at the center of a discussion, destroying proportionality, distending the issue as a Coney Island mirror exaggerates images of reality. Bernardin always sought out the 'linkages,' as he called them, between the varied strands of the moral teachings of the church in order to present them whole to Catholics and the world at large."

The death of clericalism

While Bernardin represented the best of the priesthood, Kennedy deplored the fact that, as an institution, it remains mired in state of ineffective "clericalism."

"The priesthood is not dying," he once wrote, "but the clerical state is dead. It needs to be buried, preferably with a Viking funeral in Boston harbor so nobody can miss the spectacle of its passing."

As Kennedy saw it, clericalism was spawned in the church both by an unhealthy sexuality and a bad reading of nature of true authority. It is fostered, he wrote, by a protective cover that separates priests from the Catholic faithful and keeps them from understanding the pastoral needs and concerns of the laity.

"The clerical life became a protected zone in which many good priests found themselves oppressed by its free lunches and its spurious masculine bonding," he wrote. "The quasi-life of clericalism shielded men from responsibility and covered for them when they fell or failed. That clericalism, with its rewards for just wearing a collar and going along, is dying ingloriously, poisoned by the intoxicating privilege that led it to protect child molesters."

The impact of Kennedy's writings have extended well beyond the Catholic church itself. An example: Long attracted to the writings of Joseph Campbell, Kennedy edited Thou Art That: Transforming Religious Metaphor, bringing together some of Campbell's unpublished work. It was Kennedy who brought Campbell to the attention of Bill Moyers, who explored Campbell's thought extensively on national public television.

Kennedy told NCR in 2002, "His views were a treat for the spirit, showing that religion is not about harsh rules and regulations but about those stories that tell us God is at work in our midst. Joseph Campbell was all about the rediscovery of the primacy of our individual religious experience."

It was religious experience, as invitation to the Divine that marked everything about Kennedy. He gave his final answer to that invitation early this month as he closed his eyes for the last time.

We are left with a sense of loss, but also with a deep sense of gratitude and many Kennedy writings as rich and rewarding today as when they were first penned, in the decades, years, months and only recent days past.

[Thomas C. Fox is NCR publisher. His email address is Follow him on Twitter: @NCRTomFox.]

A version of this story appeared in the June 19-July 2, 2015 print issue under the headline: Life with a rich sacramental vision.

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