Obituary of Rev Kevin Kelly

'Spirit of critical enquiry never extinguished'

Born: 27 June 1933
Ordained: 31 May 1958
Died: 25 September 2018

Father Kevin Kelly, who died on 25 September, aged 85 and in the 61st year of his priesthood, is probably best remembered for his work as a moral theologian.

For over fifty years he grappled, both as teacher and writer, with some of the major moral issues of our time: human conscience, divorce and remarriage, sexual ethics, bioethics, HIV-Aids, etc. He published several books, contributed numerous articles to theological journals and wrote letters to Catholic periodicals. His aim was to develop a compassionate approach to moral theology based on his pastoral experience as a priest; an approach that at times sparked controversy when he diverged from official Catholic teaching.

He was a co-founder of the Association of Teachers of Moral Theology (ATMT) in 1967 and in the late 1990s a co-founding member of the International Catholic Theological Coalition for HIV/AIDS Prevention. In 2007, in recognition of his contribution in the field of moral theology, he was awarded an honorary Doctorate of Divinity by Liverpool Hope University.
 
Kevin Thomas Patrick Kelly was born in Crosby on 27 June 1933 to Patrick and Winifred Kelly. His early education took place at the parish schools in Crosby and Ainsdale, and then at St Mary's College, Crosby, before he entered the junior seminary, aged fourteen, at St Joseph's College, Upholland. From his later writing it is clear that his priestly formation was not an altogether positive experience, describing it as 'the will of God which came through the voice of authority and the rules of the seminary'. Many of the college professors in the 1950s taught rigidly from the manuals of theology, but his enquiring mind was captivated by the more critical approach of priests like Alexander Jones and Tom Worden, both distinguished Scripture scholars.
 
Following his ordination at Upholland on 31 May 1958, the young Father Kelly was earmarked by Archbishop Heenan as a replacement for Father Paddy Hanrahan in teaching moral theology at the college. The plan was that he would go to Fribourg University in Switzerland in the autumn of 1958 to begin a licentiate in theology before going on to Rome to complete a doctorate in canon law. He, however, had different ideas and thought that the studies should come the other way round. Thus he completed his licentiate in canon law in one year, and spent the remainder of his time in Fribourg and Rome completing a doctorate in moral theology. Thereafter, he liked to describe himself as a 'lapsed, non-practising canon lawyer'.
 
In 1963 he returned to the Archdiocese to become a curate at St Clare's, Liverpool, where his days were busy, not least with parish visiting for four hours on weekday evenings. Having covered his district three times in the first six months he rang Father Jimmy Collins to ask, 'What the hell do you talk about when you visit people in their homes?' The reply stuck with him, and he said influenced his moral theology and pastoral practice thereafter: 'You don't talk about anything, you listen to people's lives.'

When he returned to Upholland in 1965 to teach moral theology it struck him that, compared with many of the young men in St Clare's parish who were married, had young children and were holding down a job, the seminarians in front of him had few real responsibilities and were largely treated like minors because of the strict discipline of the seminary. However, he followed the lead of Father Tom Worden, dean of studies, in trying to reduce the number of formal lectures and moving to a methodology based on research, essay writing and seminars, so that the seminarians could develop a critical approach to their studies. In 1967 he published his doctoral dissertation 'Conscience: Dictator or Guide? A Study in 17th Century English Protestant Moral Theology'.
 
With the transfer of the senior seminary to Ushaw in 1975, Kevin Kelly became the first director of the Upholland Northern Institute (UNI), which had been established as a centre for adult Christian education and to provide in-service training for the clergy. After five years, which he described as fruitful and stimulating, he took a seven-month sabbatical. Four months were spent as a visiting fellow of St Edmund's House, Cambridge, a time that laid the foundations for his book 'Divorce and Second Marriage' which was published in 1982. He also spent two months visiting countries in the developing world, notably India, the Philippines and Peru, an experience that, he said, 'marked him for life'. After a thirty-day Ignatian retreat in Dublin he was plunged back into the challenges of parish life.
 
He now joined the team ministry in Skelmersdale as its leader. The team of clergy, religious sisters and lay people was well-established so he had to learn quickly, but he came to embrace the collaborative nature of the pastoral work done in that town. After four years, although he enjoyed the parish work, he was increasingly aware that there was not much being written in the UK in the field of moral theology. So in September 1985 he took up a one-year Research Fellowship at Queen's College, Birmingham, an ecumenical establishment to train candidates for ministry. The fruits of his research in this period was 'Life and Love: Towards a Christian Dialogue on Bioethical Questions', published in 1987.
 
When he returned to the Archdiocese in 1986 he was determined to combine his parochial experience with the teaching of moral theology. For the next twelve years he combined working in the parish of Our Lady's, Eldon Street, with teaching firstly at Heythrop College in the University of London and then at Liverpool Hope University. His description of this period was that, 'Both sides of this "double life" fed off each other'. Significant personal developments for him during this time were his interest in HIV-Aids and his contacts with Cafod. Three more of his books were published as he combined parish and teaching duties: 'New Directions in Moral Theology: The Challenge of Being Human' (1992); 'New Directions in Sexual Ethics: Moral Theology and the Challenge of AIDS' (1998) and 'From a Parish Base:
Essays in Moral and Pastoral Theology' (1999).
 
In 1998 he was appointed parish priest at St Basil and All Saints, Hough Green, where the church was shared with the local Church of England parish. He was able to draw upon earlier ecumenical experience at Queen's College, Birmingham, as well as the ecumenical contacts he had made through the ATMT. The experience of these years taught him 'that the future is ecumenical'.
 
He retired from parochial ministry in June 2008 and returned to Liverpool to act as chaplain to the Sisters of Notre Dame at their Woolton Road convent until ill-health forced his move to Formby in the autumn of 2016. However, he still continued to write. His final book '50 Years Receiving Vatican II: A Personal Odyssey' (2012), as the title suggests, charts his own journey as priest and moral theologian as the Church developed her theology in the light of Vatican II. It gives great insights into his formative experiences and reminds us that the spirit of critical enquiry awakened in him sixty years previously at Upholland was never extinguished.
 
Father Kelly's body will be received into Our Lady of Compassion church, School Lane, Formby, L37 3LW, for a Vigil Mass at 7pm on Monday 8 October. His Funeral Mass will be celebrated there on Tuesday 9 October at 12 noon, prior to burial at Ainsdale.
 
May he rest in peace.