The recent media publicity generated by the Bishop of Cloyne’s decision to ban silenced Redemptorist Tony Flannery from speaking in Killeagh parish raises interesting questions.
On face value, we have a story of parishioners and their parish priest being summarily over-ruled by episcopal diktat and forced to withdraw a speaking invitation to a well-known cleric.
The whole business is presented as a throwback to the old days of crozier- wielding episcopal despots who kept the laity in their place and silenced clerical dissent in all its forms.
The mild-mannered, gracious bishop of Cloyne, Dr William Crean, is shoe-horned into this stereotype. This presentation also presumes a premise which few commentators have questioned. The premise is that, not only should the Church be held to account by principles of democracy, but that it should extend to its individual members freedom to dissent beyond what any political party would allow.
This is simplistic because it does not address the nature of the Church’s foundation or its purpose in the world. The Christian Church, and very specifically the Catholic Church, takes its authority from its founder, not its members.
In this, it is essentially different from most other organisations. What Eamon de Valera might be imputed to think about certain Fianna Fáil policies and positions of today is irrelevant.
The baton has been passed to a new generation who are entirely free to make and change policy as they see fit. If the Christian Church can be compared to any earthly organisation, then perhaps it resembles more a foundation such as philanthropist billionaires establish to benefit their favoured causes and commemorate their names. In these cases, those administering the foundation have little or no discretion and the founder’s intentions are followed to the letter.
Christ left his Church with a message and a mission and charged his appointed leaders and their successors to “observe faithfully all that I have commanded you” (Matthew 28).
Their task was to preach the Gospel in complete fidelity through the ages in word and in witness. Of course, the many moral and faith questions that would emerge as a result of social, scientific and cultural evolution would have to be addressed as the centuries progressed.
The Gospel needs to be reflected on anew in every age. Even in the first days of the Church under the leadership of Peter, some vexatious questions arose that were not always settled without acrimony.
So it is hardly surprising that, in a century of such rapid social and scientific progress as our own, there would be contentious issues to settle. However, it is to the Church’s leadership, the bishops under the authority of the Pope, that this task falls.
Their task is divinely appointed and divinely supported according to the faith of the Church. From the very beginning, the Christian Church had its leaders.
Christ appointed them as the first in a line of succession mandated to go on, accompanied by himself “...even to the end of time” (Matthew 28). They were charged to lead a movement that would be defined to the world by its “unity”.
The biblical language and imagery around authority, shepherds, and keys, would be pointless if Christ did not intend to found and expand his Church under leadership. Without leadership, this defining mark of “unity” would not be possible.
The very crozier which is is so often alluded to now as a weapon of oppression is actually the protective staff of the shepherd, crook-topped to rein in sheep that stray.
Questions of belief and morals are not or never were settled by popular poll, nor by each individual for himself or herself. We often hear it said that the Church is not a democracy in a way that implies it should be one.
North Korea is not a democracy and that is unquestionably a bad thing because it causes its people to be subjugated and mistreated. Families, classrooms, and work floors, on the other hand, are generally not democracies and few would take issue with that.
The Church, of course, is a community of equals before God, who “does not have favourites” (Romans 2) and the Spirit “blows where it wills” (John 3). It is often from the mouths of the weakest and least regarded that great truths are told.
Nevertheless, it is as community that the Church makes manifest the Gospel and its divine founder. Individuals or groups acting in rebellion are a counter sign.
But what, then, of the prophetic witness, the individual whose conscience compels him to speak ? No Pope or any of his agencies are above reproof. Equally, no voice speaking with sincerity and conviction should be dismissed.
Even the first pope, St Peter, was rebuked by the blow-in, Paul of Tarsus. There must always be a place for the prophetic voice which, by its very nature, is one that disturbs and even provokes.
This is the voice of fraternal admonishment urged on believers by St Paul. It does not attack the teaching of the Church but what is wrong in the light of that teaching. The prophetic voice is not authentic if it seeks to redefine biblically based, long-established Church teaching according to its own reading of the signs of the times.
It is not authentic if it fractures the unity which is one of the prime marks of the Church. Fr Flannery offers a reading of scripture and tradition in the light of a moment in time whose zeitgeist is secular and relativist.
There is nothing off-limits for him. He not only disputes Church teaching on matters of sexuality but the very nature of the Eucharist and the priesthood. He is so radicalised that he attacks the very branch on which he is sitting by setting up an association of priests which tacitly acknowledges the very thing whose existence he disputes.
The other mark of the authentic prophet is courage. Not everything that looks like courage actually is. There is the apparent courage of those who have nothing to lose.
Fr Flannery was silenced by Pope Benedict but he has not been reinstated by his successor. He can afford to call a bishop “stupid” and “dictatorial” without consequences. The pastoral council of Killeagh seem content to let him do most of their talking.
Their parish priest, Fr Tim Hazelwood, has marched them up to the top of the hill only to march them back down again. They could have gone ahead with their invitation to Fr Flannery and had their guest in a venue that was not parish-owned. There would of course be consequences for them.
Bishop Crean has showed rare leadership in Irish terms in dealing with this situation. But he is not doing anything unusual by international standards. He is simply following established protocol.
A priest who is ‘silenced’ may not by definition teach or preach within the Church.
Bishop Crean is doing no more than his duty. He is acing exactly like Dr Nienstad, Archbishop of Minneapolis, who also refused to allow Fr Flannery speak on a Catholic premises in his archdiocese. In that instance, interestingly enough, the priest in question defied his bishop.