Questioning the faith of our Fathers

TONY Flannery must have committed some terrible crimes. He is a Redemptorist priest of nearly 50 years standing, who says he is being threatened with ex-communication from the church he has served all his adult life.

Ex-communication is generally reserved for the most grievous of crimes. There are men who have murdered with the most callous intent, yet remain within the fold. There are men who have abused children and managed to avoid being cast out into the spiritual wilderness where the ex-communicated go mad. Yes, indeed, only those sinners who are deigned to be irredeemable, or display a level of evil which suggests they might be possessed, are ejected from the institution’s loving fold.

What grievous crime has this Flannery man committed against his fellow human beings, or even Jesus Christ, through the good offices in the Vatican? Flannery’s crime is to raise questions for discussion within the fold. He has, over the years, asked whether the church’s teachings on contraception are realistic. He has wondered aloud whether there will ever be a position for women priests within the church. On occasion, he has referenced the rather harsh view the Vatican takes towards homosexuality these days.

For raising these questions, for opening up discussions about the most primal instincts of human beings — sexuality and spirituality — he now finds himself, in the autumn of his life’s work, being threatened with ex-communication. Is there something slightly insane about the whole thing?

Over the course of his long service, Flannery has written extensively about church and spiritual matters. He was for many years the editor of the Redemptorist magazine, Reality. He says that in that time he hardly ever attracted any negative comment from the Vatican.

Then, in the autumn of 2010, he and a few other clerics set up the Association of Catholic Priests. It was an independent body, formed after decades during which many within the church lost confidence in a hierarchy that so badly mishandled and misread many issues, but most particularly, clerical sex abuse.

Flannery came to the attention of the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith, the ecclesiastical police body in the Vatican. Last February, Flannery was informed by his superiors in the Redemptorists that he was to be removed from priestly ministry. The CDF had been seriously put-out by some of his writings. He was being painted as a turbulent priest. He claims that the offending words were mere sentences in different articles, most of which were taken out of context.

The Redemptorists didn’t have a problem with him, but its principal had received instructions from the CDF. In a Kafkaesque twist to this tale, the CDF did not at the time, nor has any representative of it since, communicated directly with Flannery.

The priest kept his head down for most of last year, hoping that a resolution would be found. Then, a fortnight ago, frustrated at his treatment and the lack of progress, he broke his silence.

He told a news conference that he had been asked to write an article in which he must denounce comments he made previously, and resolve never to discuss the offending issues again. The communication he has received from Rome was on a blank page, with no signature or no letterhead. In dealing with the issue, the CDF is acting akin to what might be expected of the secret police in a communist state.

“I never got a chance to meet my accusers,” he told Pat Kenny last Friday week.

“I never got a chance to explain myself. They asked me to sign a document saying I accept that women can never be ordained.”

Note the specifics. Not that women shouldn’t be ordained, or can’t be ordained, or that the time is not yet here when women could be ordained. But that women “can never be ordained”.

As for the unsigned communications, he believes it was in that form because “they will disown it if they come under pressure”.

He made the point that today’s Church was not the one he grew up in.

“The Church I grew up in was the Church of the Second Vatican council, it was an open Church. They won’t drive me out of the Church. At the moment we’re going through a period where there’s a retrenchment and a pulling back from Vatican Two.”

Reaction to his plight has been mixed. He has received support from fellow priests such as Peter McVerry, and Brian Darcy, men who attempt to do their pastoral duty in the real world of today, rather than the world of 2,000 years ago, as it is imagined by some in the Vatican.

There have also been voices among the laity in the church saying that if Flannery and others don’t like the way things are, they know where the door is. This is the kind of piety that brooked no questions about the church’s role in this country when the institution was sordidly corrupt.

Unlike the lay foot soldiers, Flannery gave himself wholly to his religion. When he signed up as a teenager, the priesthood was a noble calling, one that promised a life in where pastoral duties were highly valued in Irish society, where the priest stood as a pillar of moral authority.

Those days are long gone. Ireland has opened up, and it was inevitable that the dominance of Catholicism would wane. However, the opening-up also included turning over stones of silence, under which lay the narrative of clerical sex abuse, and the callous disregard for children shown by those in the upper reaches of the institution.

All of that tumbled out when men like Flannery and McVerry were in their prime, struggling to keep their religion relevant to a depleted flock, while grappling with what must have been a sense of betrayal. The cover-ups, it has been shown, ran all the way to the Vatican, and right into the offices of the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith.

And now, as the dust is beginning to settle on the excavation of the past, the CDF is hanging out its colours once more. Where once the body showed callous disregard for children, now it appears to be displaying the same dearth of humanity in dealing with one of its own soldiers.

Flannery is no revolutionary. He is a man with a functioning brain, who is disposed towards questioning aspects of his calling, examining the role of his religion in society today. He is quite obviously somebody who believes in extending a hand of friendship to those who are not born in the image of the perfect Catholic. But it would appear that these days in that institution, there is no room for thought, or even debate.

Once more the basic tenets of Christianity are lost in an institution that spends so much energy obsessing on matters sexual and the subservient role it has decreed for women.

What would Jesus Christ have made of it all? From all that is known about his brief tenure on this mortal coil, short odds could be offered on which side he would have found himself in this conflict.

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