Western People 12.9.23
Before Angelo Roncalli was elected as Pope John XXIII in 1958, he served in the Vatican diplomatic corps, first as nuncio to Bulgaria, an unpromising appointment during which he was often lonely and discouraged. After Bulgaria, to his great disappointment he was moved sideways to Turkey and he often wondered why.
Later, as pope, he called into the offices of the Vatican Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF) and found written on his file the words: ‘Roncalli, suspected of modernism’. (Modernism – at that time was regarded by the Catholic Church as a heresy – was a composite of rationalism, liberalism and religious freedom.)
History repeats itself and in a strange quirk of fate, Archbishop Victor Fernandez, who was similarly sidelined, has been appointed by Pope Francis as head of the CDF and is to be made a cardinal on September 30. No doubt the new Cardinal Fernandez too will take a look at his file and discover why efforts to promote him got short shrift from the then CDF authorities.
For years, the activities of the CDF have been criticised as inappropriate, unfair and sometimes patently unjust. The usual standards applying to the norms of natural justice did not seem to apply. Those accused were not given a chance to defend themselves. There was no right of appeal. Constituents of a fair and just judicial process like even-handedness, respect for rights (civil and canonical), and impartiality were often absent from the CDF’s proceedings. In a civil court that would be regarded as unacceptable; in a church court it was scandalous.
Yet for years the CDF, apparently regarded itself as beyond correction or control. It was a law unto itself and has damaged the reputation of the Catholic Church at a time when the brand was already under intense pressure and the authority of the Church compromised even further.
Francis has now taken the CDF to task. He has limited its reach, confined its role, slimmed down its functions and given clear instructions to its new head. Francis has made it clear that in the past the CDF used ‘immoral methods when, rather than promoting theological knowledge, possible doctrinal errors were pursued’. In relation to Francis’ comments, The Tablet pointed out editorially: ‘It will have escaped no one’s notice that from 1985 to 2005 the head of the CDF was one Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, Francis’ predecessor as Pope Benedict XVI’. The days when the CDF regarded itself as an independent republic beyond criticism or correction are well and truly over.
In the light of the present pope’s comments and his directions to the new head of the CDF, it doesn’t seem presumptuous to expect that attention be given to outstanding cases of injustice perpetrated by the CDF, especially in the recent past. An obvious case is that of Fr Tony Flannery. Stood down from ministry for over ten years now, it is extraordinary that – after a church judicial procedure that lacked even the semblance of justice, as well as the basic elements of judicial procedure – no way has been found to clear his name.
This is particularly odd in light of a letter Francis is reputed to have written to the new head of the CDF saying that in the past the CDF used ‘immoral methods’ and that he now expects ‘something very different’.
It’s all the more scandalous when during Francis’ years in office no priest or theologian has been subjected to the heavy hand of the CDF and yet clear examples of injustice (including the treatment meted out to Tony Flannery) that occurred just a few years before Francis’s election as pope cannot be undone for some inexplicable reason.
This is all the more frustrating as during the ten years Francis has been pope, it is quite incredible how issues that couldn’t even be mentioned are now being discussed in church circles as a matter of course, some of which are now slated for discussion at the upcoming synod in 2023-24.
For instance, before Francis, LGBTQ+ Catholics were ritually dismissed as ‘intrinsically disordered’ and excluded from participation in the Church. Now Francis has invited them back into a Church that he compares to a tent that needs to be widened to welcome everyone.
Before Francis the possibility of ordaining women wasn’t just discouraged. During John Paul’s pontificate it was almost a sin to mention it at all. But now women are being appointed to positions of governance in the Church and the upcoming Synod will address how women can participate in decision-making, mission and ministries at all levels in the Church. And it is clear too that the ordination of women deacons is to be discussed.
Other former unmentionables now being considered include the ordination of married priests and a reform of the selection of bishops. And the synod process itself has been transformed by creating ‘a conversation’ that will search for consensus – a far cry from the time when synod statements were drafted before the delegates had even reached Rome.
If all of that could be achieved in the ten years of Francis’ papacy, why in the name of God can such an injustice perpetrated on Tony Flannery be allowed to continue when it was so obvious to everyone that it had (as it will) to be overturned anyway?
In the adjudication on Tony Flannery, the varied participants involved have not endowed themselves with distinction – the CDF, the Redemptorist congregation, the Irish bishops or indeed Pope Francis himself. It is an embarrassing spectacle which is doing even damage to what’s left of the Church’s reputation. The only one emerging from this imbroglio with any credit is Tony Flannery himself.