At lunchtime on Friday, Ned Kelly’s Requiem Mass was finally celebrated in St Patrick’s Church, Wangaratta, in north-eastern Victoria. The bushranger was sentenced to death by hanging in 1880 and denied the religious rites he requested. His bones were recently rediscovered and identified, and his family has been able to organise a belated funeral and reburial.
On Friday, commentators and bloggers took the opportunity to pass judgment on Kelly. One called him a ‘psychotic and dangerous’ criminal ‘with a pathological hatred of the police’. Another deplored the ‘dishonest folklore and revisionism’ that has made him a hero for many Australians.
But they missed the point, as did members of the public who directed abusive phone calls and emails to Monsignor John White, who presided at the Requiem Mass on Friday.
White explained: ‘The life that Ned lived is not the point today... We have a church of saints and sinners and we are not here to say which category Ned fell into.’
Coinciding with Ned Kelly’s Requiem Mass on Friday was quite a different ritual, the broadcast of Oprah Winfrey’s interview with cyclist and now self-confessed drug cheat Lance Armstrong. The interview was seen by many as a calculated bid on the part of Armstrong to harness the positive power of Winfrey’s brand to induce public judgment that he is morally fit to resume his sporting career.
As ethicist Julian Savulescu put it in the Fairfax press on Saturday: ‘Rather than excoriating Armstrong, wouldn't it be better to ask why everyone is cheating, and why the rules are failing?’ Savulescu does not share the Catholic religious world view of Monsignor White, but they are both urging us to look at the big picture.
Ned Kelly killed three policemen, and that was a serious crime. But a reading of his Jerilderie Letter manifesto suggests his actions were a symptom of a system of British colonial rule that was stacked against Irish Catholics. In the same way, Armstrong’s behaviour is a product of what Savulescu calls an ‘ideology’ of zero-tolerance against performance enhancing drugs in sport, which he argues should be examined. Armstrong’s deplorable treatment of informers such as his former aide Emma O’Reilly is comparable with the way Kelly dealt with those who informed on him.
There are arguments to both condemn both Kelly and Armstrong as psychotic criminals, but also to recognise their achievement as trailblazing reformers, though Armstrong is still a work in progress. However judgment of whether they are right or wrong is best left to their own soul-searching, when they face their God or ultimate reality. As the agnostic Armstrong has said: ‘If there was indeed some body or presence standing there to judge me, I hope I would be judged on whether I had lived a true life’.
A true life or a deceitful life might be inspiring, or discouraging, for us to think about, depending upon how we view the behaviour of the individual concerned. But it is not something we can know unless we are Ned Kelly's God or Lance Armstrong's body or presence. The business of the rest of us is to consider how best to reform the rules by which we live our lives, and play our games, in a civil society.