Nobody expected the return of the inquisition

Dan Buckley profiles a priest at odds with some dogmas of the Church

If Fr Tony Flannery lived 300 years ago, it is almost certain he would have been burned at the stake as a heretic. But the Vatican — and Catholic Church teaching in general — has come a long way since then.

Or has it? The Vatican retains a tendency to view unfavourably any Catholic — particularly a priest — who has the temerity to question its dogma. A group of priests acting in consort is bound to come in for particular scrutiny.

As part of his crackdown on so-called dissident clerics, Pope Benedict has ordered an investigation into Fr Flannery, one of the founders of the Association of Catholic Priests, an independent organisation that provides a forum for members to discuss issues affecting the Church in Ireland and Irish society in general.

The association shares some of the views espoused by the more radical Austrian organisation, the Austrian Priests’ Initiative, which last year issued a public ‘call to disobedience’ in relation to a number of Catholic Church teachings. The public letter, issued in June 2011, demanded “reform” on priestly celibacy, men-only priesthood, and the proscription on giving Holy Communion to divorced and remarried Catholics.

The letter accused the Vatican of injustice and violations of human rights and announced that the signatories intended to continue giving Communion to “members of other Christian Churches and, in certain cases, Catholics who have left the Church”.

In an extremely rare move, Pope Benedict issued a strong rebuke to the group at the Holy Thursday Mass at St Peter’s Basilica, one of the most solemn occasions of the Catholic Church’s liturgical year.

That rebuke will not be lost on Fr Flannery who already has a backlash of his own to contend with in the light of the Vatican intervention to stop him contributing his monthly column in his Redemptorist Order’s Reality magazine.

The investigation, which Vatican sources say was prompted by the priest’s opposition to the Church’s ban on artificial birth control and his support for the ordination of women, is expected to focus as well on the Association of Catholic Priests, which Fr Flannery co-founded. He also drew the wrath of the Pope for his public support for Taoiseach Enda Kenny’s criticisms of the Vatican over its handling of clerical child sexual abuse.

The investigation is also seen as a crackdown on the Irish priests’ association, which has called for major changes in the Church, including its teaching on sexuality. Some of the association’s members, including Fr Flannery, argue that priests should be allowed to marry and that the Church should permit the ordination of women priests.

The effective silencing of Fr Flannery comes in the wake of the Vatican’s apostolic visitation to Ireland which found evidence of a “certain tendency” for Irish priests to hold opinions that conflict with those of the Magisterium, the Catholic Church’s supreme teaching authority.

Fr Jimmy McPhillips, a member of the priests’ association, expressed his sadness at the treatment of Fr Flannery. Writing on the ACP website, he said: “I am saddened that Fr Tony is now being censored. I also admit to feeling shock, anger, and a little fear. As a member of the ACP — like the other 900 plus — we too are now open to censorship or, worse still, being ‘silenced’.

“While I may not always agree with what Fr Tony says or believes, I still respect and defend his right to hold those views and express them. Is this not part of what it means to be Christian? Are we as a Catholic Church not mature enough to listen to other opinions? We may not be a democracy, but we are certainly not a totalitarian regime.” Fr McPhillips said that censorship was not a truly Christian way to ensure fidelity.

The investigation into Fr Flannery’s views and activities is likely to be carried out by the Congregation For the Doctrine of the Faith, an institution which the Pope, as Cardinal Ratzinger, headed from 1981 until he was elected Supreme Pontiff in 2005.

Three hundred years ago the Congregation was one of the most feared institutions in Christendom and was known as the Roman and Universal Inquisition. It was at its most chilling in Spain, where thousands of “heretics” were tortured and mutilated and many burned at the stake.

A native of Attymon, Co Galway, Fr Flannery is the youngest in a family of four. His brother Peter is a fellow Redemptorist at Esker Monastery in Athenry, and his other brother, Frank, is Fine Gael’s director of organisation and strategy.


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