TERRY PRONE: Fr Flannery may not be burned at the stake but the censure itself is frightening

COMPARE and contrast, if you will, the utterances of two Catholic priests.

Priest A, on one of the most popular national radio programmes, says he has reservations about celibacy and the Church’s ban on married priests. He goes on to suggest that homosexuality is intrinsic and indeed evident in an individual from the time they’re about three years old, ergo something, if expressed, that might not be sinful.

Priest B says much the same, except not on national radio, where he seldom appears. He says it in a small-circulation religious magazine. Priest B is currently under investigation for heresy by the Vatican. The Vatican doesn’t announce the terms of reference, process, or duration of its investigation, but those in the know say that if he is lucky, he will undergo six weeks of silent reflection and be allowed, thereafter, to resume writing and speaking, as long as he steers clear of contentious subjects such as celibacy or gays within the Church, or has his words scrutinised by a clerical censor before their publication is authorised by Rome. If he’s unlucky or obstinate, he could be in deep trouble.

So why is Priest A getting away with saying much the same things as Priest B, perhaps even more bluntly, to a multiple of priest B’s audience, while priest B’s statements are being parsed at the highest level, with dire consequences implicit in that parsing? Marian Finucane put a version of that question to Priest A on her Saturday programme. Simple. Age. Fr Colm Kilcoyne is 77 years and retired, so, he asks rhetorically of the Vatican: “What could they denude me of?”

That might lead to the belief that Priest B, the one currently under investigation as a possible heretic, is a radical young populist. Sorry. He’s in his 60s; not retired, though. So let us, just for the sake of argument, advance the proposition that this man, Redemptorist, Fr Tony Flannery, is a hugely famous self-publicist capable of fomenting widespread dissent among the faithful.

That one won’t fly, either. Fr Flannery may currently be famous, but that’s due more to the contribution of the Vatican than to his own efforts, which centre on a column he’s been writing for the last 14 years in the monthly Redemptorist magazine, Reality. Reality is a fine publication which has a discrete brand, but it is hardly equivalent, in the number of readers it boasts, to a column in a weekly newspaper, (as Fr Kilcoyne had for years) or a nightly radio programme (as was presented by the late Fr Michael Cleary). Tony Flannery also writes and edits books, few, if any of which have made it to the bestseller lists. Let’s put it this way: If Fr Flannery yearns to be a household name, he’s a slow learner when it comes to achieving his objective. The Vatican deciding to investigate him changes all that. He’s now a lot more famous than if they’d ignored him, rather than setting out to forensically examine his work.

Writing in this paper on Saturday, Dan Buckley indicated that the probe is likely to be conducted by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, which was, of course, headed by the current pope when he was Cardinal Ratzinger.

“Three hundred years ago,” Buckley pointed out, “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.”

While the penalties awaiting Fr Flannery, were he to be found to be heretical in his views and writings, will be considerably less severe than burning at the stake, the very process is frightening, as one of his fellow priests confirmed this weekend, when he wrote that he experienced fear as a result of learning about the investigation of the Redemptorist. No cleric takes lightly the unleashing upon him of the Church’s moral Swat team. It does not matter that the cleric involved may garner support from other religious, from the faithful or from media, since the issue is doctrinal orthodoxy, on which, as the Congregation sees it, there is neither debate nor the possibility of debate. Indeed, in this situation, public support could well prove problematic, rather than helpful, to him.

However, controversy around his views, many of which — as Colm Kilcoyne cheerfully pointed out — are widely shared, will be unhelpful to the public perception of the Church. The believing public is likely to wonder why the big guns are being turned on a less-than-revolutionary Redemptorist when the Church’s officer class was so slow to move decisively on the clerical child sex abuse issue.

Nor does this happen at the best of times. Currently, if a positive view is taken, the Catholic Church in Ireland is just beginning to emerge from the worst scandal in its history. Archbishop Diarmuid Martin, while seeking to take an optimistic view, has been less than confident about it in some of his international media utterances. The trailing consequences of the various publicised misdeeds on the part of individuals and institutions, represent clear and present (or, in some cases, clear and future) threats to Catholicism in this country. One of those threats is to the long-term future of Catholic education, with the implacably courteous Ruairi Quinn accepting that some of the congregations named in the Ryan Report don’t have the readies to contribute to a 50/50 split with the State on compensating survivors. The minister has gone on to suggest that, instead of divvying up cash they may not have right now, the orders and congregations should hand over the deeds to institutions like schools, so that the State would own (and run) those schools once all the members of the teaching orders and congregations have died off. A bigger threat, surely, than one slightly unorthodox West of Ireland churchman?

OF COURSE, the end result may be quiet compromise, with Flannery continuing to publish, albeit under the watchful eye of a censor. Which, in itself, raises wider questions, the first of which concerns other priests who may be perceived as outspoken and who may write in public media to which the imprimatur does not apply.

If putting a censor in place is — as has been indicated — one of the ways in which the Vatican manages such priests, then should those who read their work be made aware that it is censored before they read it? The tradition among journalists is that nobody, even or especially those involved in a given story, sees what they’ve written (other than a sub-editor or senior editor) before the purchasers of the paper read it.

Should the same apply to clerical writers? Do any of the clerical writers for secular publications have to submit their work to a censor before submitting it to the newspaper in which it appears? And, if they do, is that process revealed to their readers by means of a note on every column?


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