A Conversation with Kristina Keneally

Kristina Keneally is a Catholic and the first woman elected premier of New South Wales. She is a journalist and cohost on To the Point, through which she addresses gender, the Catholic church and politics. She is also the Director of Gender Inclusion at the Macquarie University Graduate School of Management and the current patron of the Stillbirth Foundation Australia.

Conscience: You rose through the ranks from your college days in the United States to the very top of the political system in Australia, even becoming premier of New South Wales (NSW). What advice would you have for a young woman entering politics today?

KK: Invest in yourself. Ask yourself what your strengths and weaknesses are, then invest in addressing your weaknesses. And be brutally honest and completely thorough! When I first started in politics I realized I needed better financial literacy, so I took a corporate finance class. I realized I needed help with media, so I did media training and voice lessons. I had no idea what a 30-something woman should wear to parliament, so I consulted a stylist. I realized I didn’t know enough about parliamentary procedure, so I attended sittings as much as possible to watch and learn. Men often have it easier—they just wear suits—and may be sponsored along by other men. The bar is high for women: our voices, clothes and competency are scrutinized in ways men do not face. It isn’t fair. It will eventually change. But for now, it is what it is. Back yourself and invest in yourself. Turn your disadvantages into advantages, and put yourself in the best position possible to do what you really want to do: affect change, lead, make new policy and make the big decisions.

Conscience: Famously, when your diocese’s bishop was on a local talk show, you called to ask him why girls could not be altar servers. The bishop’s “unsatisfactory answer,” you said, awakened you to “how women are disadvantaged in the church and society.” Why are women still not treated well in our church?

KK: The Catholic church hangs on to the notion that biology determines function. Women are maternal and nurturing; men are paternal providers. The church wraps this all up in its ecclesiology: The church is depicted as female, responding to a summons from God the Father. Men are actors, while women are receivers. Mary’s response to a paternal God to bear his child is the paradigmatic example: “May it be done to me according to your word.”

This concept of gender determinism and the related idea of gender comple­mentarity puts a limitation on the full human agency and dignity of women. It also limits our understanding of what it is to be a man.

But the greatest violation of this skewed and self-serving notion of gender is ordi­nation. Only the ordained can exercise power, make decisions, administer sacra­ments and formulate church teaching, and only men can be ordained. Why? Because Jesus was male. In persona Christi: The priest stands in for the person of the male Jesus; therefore the priest must be male. As if the most important thing about Christ is his gender! And here I thought it was his incarnation of the divine in human form, and his salvific action on the cross! The question to which I still have no satisfactory answer is this: If my female humanity can’t represent the person of Christ, how does his incarna­tion as a male human who is crucified and resurrected incorporate female humanity, and save me?

Conscience: While others are delighted that in Pope Francis Catholics appear to have a less caustic, more smiling pope, you went on the record to say (when he shut the door on women’s ordination): “Let’s remember, Jesus did not have a fear of people with vaginas. The Vatican does. It is just utterly ridiculous in this day and age.” Do you think this popular pope has a blind spot when it comes to women?

KK: It’s not just a blind spot: it is delib­erate blindness. I find Francis more frus­trating and dangerous than his immediate two predecessors. He lulls the world into a sense of comfort and ease with his informal style and his gestures to inclu­siveness. He talks a good game when it comes to downplaying the harsher and more judgmental emphasis of popes past. But ask yourself: If Francis left the job tomorrow—and by his own admission he says he doesn’t think his papacy will be a long one—what will have changed in form or substance? Very little. His focus is on style, and it distracts the world from noticing that he is doing little on issues of child sexual abuse and even less when it comes to women and the contributions they could make to the church.

Conscience: Social justice and freedom of conscience—how have these very Catholic concepts influenced your life and beliefs?

KK: These are very Catholic concepts! Without these I might have thrown in my Catholic faith for some other Christian church ages ago. The most radical and important aspect of the Gospel is Jesus’ preferential option for the poor. Jesus put himself alongside the marginalized, the outcast and the powerless: the poor, the sick, the children and women. I think he’d be horrified upon return to see how much the church hierarchy today resembles the Pharisees and Sadducees of his time! I’ve tried to live my professional life in a way that contributes to reducing inequalities, championing the needs of the disadvan­taged and recognizing the human dignity of every person.

But I couldn’t do this without reliance on the Catholic concept of conscience. Vatican II’s emphasis on the primacy of a fully formed conscience is a rare recogni­tion by the hierarchy of the wisdom and intelligence of lay Catholics. Pope Francis carried this forward in a strong way in his document Amoris Laetitia when he said the church was there to form consciences, not to replace them. He called on priests, parishes and families to act in the sight of God and consider how to deal with ques­tions of birth control, homosexuality and divorced Catholics. The problem is that we Catholics have no forums for making such decisions, and Francis changed none of the deliberative processes within the church to accommodate and support this newfound use of conscience! I know par­ishes and dioceses that are trying new forms of decision making. It will be fas­cinating to see if the hierarchy tolerates Catholics who, in good conscience, openly defy church teaching on these and other issues.

Conscience: In your maiden speech to parliament, you quoted Rosemary Radford Ruether, who is regarded by many as the godmother of Catholics for Choice and Catholic feminism. Why has her work been significant for you personally?

KK: There was a moment in my under­graduate Catholic doctrines course, reading Richard McBrien’s seminal text­book Catholicism, when I realized my nascent Catholic feminist impulses were being written into a full-blown theolog­ical system by the likes of Ruether, Elis­abeth Schussler Fiorenza and Elizabeth A. Johnson. It was as if I was starting a journey into the unknown and suddenly found a roadmap. The fact that all three were in the prime of their careers—actively thinking, challenging, lecturing and writing—was exhilarating. And their approach, like their work, was inclusive, dynamic and democratic.

I deliberately cited Rosemary Radford Ruether in my inaugural speech. She represented the kind of feminism I wanted to practice as a politician: prac­tical, focused on women most in need of a voice and inspired by the Christian Gospels. My aim as a political actor— then and now—is to use my voice as best I can to lift up women who face oppres­sion and disadvantage through poverty, violence, lack of access to education or as a result of the intersection of race, gender, religion and class.

Conscience: If you were stranded on a deserted island, what book and beverage (water excluded) would you most prefer not to be without?

KK: Do I have to pick between coffee and red wine? In real life, I drink more of the former. But on a desert island, I’m thinking the wine would be more attrac­tive. And I’d take the collected works of David Sedaris. No matter how often I re-read his books, I still laugh out loud!

Conscience: What does Kristina most like to do after a busy day or on a weekend to get away from life’s hectic pace and relax?

KK: A perfect weekend involves some­thing in nature—a hike or a kayak trip. I try to do something outdoors, in nature, a few times a week. It uplifts the soul. I’d also spend time watching my sons play basketball and letting my husband cook dinner. He is a much better cook than me!

At the end of a long day, I love a good crime drama on TV. I think I’m a frus­trated homicide detective—I did briefly consider joining the police force. There’s something satisfying about seeing an injustice defined, examined and resolved neatly in 48 minutes of television. That never happens in politics or anywhere else! It is pure escapism.

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