The treatment by the Vatican of the Irish Redemptorist priest Fr Tony Flannery is disgraceful, and the scant regard shown by Rome for due process procedures is more in keeping with the modus operandi of Stalinist regimes than a Church supposedly wedded to the gospel of Jesus Christ.
This is a Church that preaches justice and purports to defend the dignity of human beings and individual human rights. Yet when it comes to one of its own, all of these norms are violated. The point is well made by our former president, Mary McAleese, in a foreword to a book Fr Flannery has written about his case.
She quotes a passage from a homily by Pope Francis at a Mass in Rome in April in which he said the Church was not a bureaucratic organisation but a mother. “The imagery is beautiful and heartening,” writes Ms McAleese. “But I ask myself what mother treats a son as Tony Flannery has been treated?”
Equally distressing is the evasiveness of the Irish Catholic Bishops on the whole matter, hiding behind the very thin excuse that Fr Flannery’s predicament is not an issue for them as he is a member of a religious order and not a diocesan priest.
While Fr Flannery, a founder member of the Association of Catholic Priests, has been treated as a “non-person” (his own description), the Irish bishops have stood idly by — bearing out, again, the truth embedded in the title of the 1994 book by the late Fr Joseph Dunn — No Lions in the Hierarchy.
He learned in Feb 2012 that the Vatican watchdog, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith — the old office of the Inquisition — was not at all pleased about some articles he had written in Reality, the magazine published by the Irish Redemptorists.
Summoned to Rome by Fr Michael Brehl, the superior general of the order, he was shown two A4 pages, the first of which contained four extracts from articles in Reality. Writing about the structures of the institutional Church, Fr Flannery had said: “Whatever Jesus intended, I don’t think anyone can credibly claim that he intended the type of system we now have in the Church.”
He also questioned the abandonment of collegiality (the sharing out of decision-making in the Church), and the increasing tendency to centralise everything in Rome. In other articles, he suggested that the Church should take seriously debates about the need for compulsory celibacy as a condition for priesthood, and the absence of a voice for women in decision-making at all levels in the Church, especially at the episcopal and Vatican level. He also said that Catholic teaching on sexuality needed updating.
The upshot of all of this was that he was told to withdraw from public ministry and not to publish any further articles or give any interviews to the press. He was also instructed to withdraw from his leadership role in the Association of Catholic Priests. The superior general was told: “You are to seek to impress upon Fr Flannery the gravity of his situation.”
Later, the CDF made further demands, including a statement that he accepted all the moral teachings of the Church and that women could never be ordained priests.
“The document made me extremely angry,” said Fr Flannery. “I was in my mid-sixties and had spent almost 50 years in religious life, 40 of them preaching the Gospel and working for the Church. I wondered who these faceless people were who had produced this document, on an A4 page with no heading or signature, containing these diktats that were to be imposed on me.”
He was in the process of finding out that one of the big difficulties for a priest in dealing with the authorities of the Catholic Church is the “enormous emphasis they put on secrecy” as an essential component of the whole exercise. In a world in which freedom of speech is such a cherished right, the CDF’s blatant disregard for this is disconcerting.
And he rightly rejects that CDF’s “explanation”, that the imposition of secrecy is in order to protect a priest’s reputation. Accordingly, later on, the CDF got “extremely angry” when Fr Flannery’s case was made public.
“I believe that their concern is not likely to have anything to do with the good name of the priest but rather with their obsession with keeping their own archaic and unjust practices from being aired in public,” he said.
He is surely right in believing it was “my involvement in the founding and leadership of the Association of Catholic Priests that changed the attitude of the Vatican towards me”.
There is now in the Vatican (and this goes back to 1978 and the beginning of the long pontificate of Pope John Paul II) a deep-rooted hostility to collegiality, and to any local or national expressions of collegiality.
Under John Paul II and his successor, Benedict XVI, the Vatican has assiduously set out to undermine the status and authority of National Episcopal Conferences and to marginalise all national associations of priests. The great fear among the powerful elite in the Vatican is the emergence of a strong national Church which would insist on a far greater degree of autonomy in conducting its affairs, including local control over the appointment of bishops.
Fr Flannery’s decision to write a book now about his case, A Question of Conscience (a book that includes details of the correspondence with the CDF), is a courageous one, and should give solace to other priests coming under the CDF spotlight.
“While it is my personal story it is not really about me,” he said. “It is about the Vatican and how its constituent bodies deal with people who challenge any of their views, who question official Church positions. Any questions raised about the exercise of Church authority, or the Church’s teaching on sexuality are closely scrutinised and dissent is simply not tolerated.
“During the later years of the papacy of Pope John Paul II and again in that of Benedict XVI, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith assumed more and more control over the whole Church and instead of being a servant of the decision-makers, actually became a decision maker itself. It was an unhealthy development.
“The hopes arising from the Second Vatican Council, of a new style of governance based on collegiality, were trampled upon; instead we seemed to be heading back to a 19th century model of the Church. Meanwhile, in Ireland we had bishops who, while good and sincere in themselves, seemed to possess no real leadership ability, never venturing in public an opinion that in any way challenged the diktat of Rome.”
These bishops, of course, were appointed either by John Paul II or his successor, both of whom were hostile to collegiality. Hence the emasculation of the World Synod of Bishops that followed. Indeed, in a recent review of a book on Pope Francis, Hugh O’Shaughnessy described John Paul II as “the artificer of the long and tenacious campaign to push John XXIII’s thrilling and much needed reforms of the Second Vatican Council into history”. A new and critical reappraisal of the long pontificate of Karol Wojtyla — the most authoritarian and autocratic of popes since Pius IX (1846-1878) — is badly needed.
*A Question of Conscience by Fr Tony Flannery is published by Londubh Books at €14.99