Obituary: Robert Blair Kaiser, journalist

Journalist and Humbertian who campaigned tirelessly for reform of the Catholic Church. Picture: Bill Heaney
Journalist and Humbertian who campaigned tirelessly for reform of the Catholic Church. Picture: Bill Heaney
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Born: 1930, in Detroit, Michigan, USA. Died: 2 April, 2015, in Phoenix, Arizona, aged 84.

Robert Blair Kaiser, probably the last survivor of the great American journalists who covered the Second Vatican Council, died on Holy Thursday at the age of 84 in a hospice centre in Phoenix, Arizona.

Kaiser was a fellow member of the Humbertians, a small army of scholars, politicians, prelates, judges and journalists who gather annually at the Humbert School, founded by Scots-born journalist and author John Cooney in Ballina in the west of Ireland, to promote peace in Northern Ireland and commemorate the Year of the French.

A great intellect, he was fascinated by the history surrounding General Jean Joseph Humbert, a French soldier who took part in the French Revolution and later led a failed invasion of Ireland at Killala in Co Mayo to assist Irish rebels in 1798.

Kaiser, who was a teenage convert to Catholicism, was a radical novice who spent 12 years in the Jesuits before turning journalist and reporting Vatican II for Time magazine, gathering important information and gossip at some of the finest parties in Rome at that time.

His gatherings were the hot ticket of the day and Kaiser had a legendary expense account. It allowed him to invite the crème de la crème of Vatican society from cardinals and bishops to ambassadors and diplomats to enjoy sumptuous receptions and dinners at his plush apartment.

He spoke with great authority at the Humbert School about the primary actors gathered under the dome of St Peter’s for Vatican II and how in the 21st century the Catholic Church was at last changing to accommodate its suggested reforms.

It was not moving nearly fast enough for him, however, and he was helping to give the Barque of Peter a push into the turbulent sea of reforms.

Disaffected Catholics, turned off from practising their faith by the clerical child abuse scandal, could set up their own home-grown “Church of the People” which would recruit women priests and introduce radical structural changes.

New “house churches” would be “run from the pews up instead of the pope down” in a revolution which would spark resurgence in the practice of religion in Ireland, where 70 per cent of Catholics have stopped going to Sunday Mass.

Just a year from ordination into the Jesuit order, Kaiser left and soon moved to Rome where his knowledge, writing and passion for the church propelled him forward. For a period he was a staff writer for The New York Times. Half a dozen of his books were to focus on the post-conciliar church and the council’s unfulfilled vision of church.

Throughout the decades that followed he was a highly outspoken critic of those he felt were trying to impede or stop the council’s reform agenda, most notably Popes St John Paul II and Benedict XVI, and the bishops they were appointing.

Kaiser pressed for reform to the last breaths of his life, a laptop computer on his chest while he was hooked up to oxygen.

Lecturer and author of 16 books, including two novels, Kaiser found every vehicle he could to fan the flames of church reform, often focusing on the need for lay men and women to elect their bishops as they once did a millennium or more back.

Janet Hauter, co-chair of the American Catholic Council, a church reform group, called Kaiser “a courageous man with the biggest heart of any (church) reformer I ever met; he was dauntless in pushing, prodding and confronting injustice in the church.

“He was a powerful force in the reform community partly because of the curmudgeonly personality with which he forcefully and unabashedly delivered his message to the world.”

Kaiser’s reform activities included a speakers’ bureau he formed in Phoenix. Supported by friends, including current and former Jesuits with whom he had stayed in touch, the bureau for years gave progressive Catholics a forum to share ideas and hopes, allowing Vatican II Catholics to keep these ideas alive in dark times.

His vision was that the church should be collegiate, even democratic, in nature, open to the world, and endlessly pursuing justice. It was a compelling vision and it stayed with him through his life, shaping his values and writings.

For his supporters, he was one of a kind, courageously combative and a spokesperson for a church of service and the poor, one that put the needs of ordinary people first.

For his critics – and there were many – he was an unyielding and arrogant ideologue. Friends and critics alike recognised his propensity for self-promotion, either accepting it as “simply Kaiser”, or viewing it as an off-putting characteristic.

I found him an affable companion who thoroughly enjoyed one of our days out talking to fishermen along the banks of the River Moy. He particularly liked stopping to chat with some Northern Protestant anglers who flock there for the salmon fishing season.

Whether one liked Kaiser or not, there was little question he stayed close to the heat, at the centre of church controversy and reform efforts, helping to shape the conversations, probing ideas, organising efforts aimed at building the Vatican II church he first encountered during the council.

Later he published Pope, Council and World: The Story of Vatican II, in 1963, telling the story of the struggle between progressive clerical forces and old-guard bishops as the council took shape.

The council was a high mark in Kaiser’s life, shaping it indelibly. It was also one of its darkest chapters. Kaiser and his wife, Mary, had a daughter, Betsy, who became a social worker.

However, Mary left him to live with a friend, the Jesuit Father Malachi Martin. This tortured Kaiser for many years, but he later married Karen, with whom he had a son, TD, who became a newspaper reporter.

Four decades later Kaiser wrote about this in a personal book called Clerical Error, which was the memoir he was promoting when I met him in 2006. It has been described as “an unusual but compelling mix of public history and personal confession”.

The book goes into the details of how his marriage disintegrated in Rome and is brutally honest and sometimes depressing, but always compelling reading.

If Popes St John Paul II and Benedict XVI were primarily responsible for thwarting the change in the church in Kaiser’s eyes, Pope Francis, now two years into his pontificate, has been its principal prelate conveyor of fresh hope.

Last year, Kaiser published Inside the Jesuits: How Pope Francis Is Changing the Church and the World, a work in which the author argued that Francis’s “Jesuit DNA” is central to understanding his vision of church and its place in the wider world.

Throughout the book Kaiser emphasised not only that Francis is different from his predecessors, but also that the nature of this difference lies precisely in the fact that he is a Jesuit.

The book once again allowed Kaiser to write personally about his own experience as a Jesuit, an experience that shaped his own DNA.

With Kaiser’s death, a rich memory of that epic church event is being silenced and many of the reforms he sought remain to be fulfilled.