Brendan Hoban: Time for Church to right a terrible wrong

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.

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  1. Dermot Quigley says:

    Thank you Father Brendan for this thought provoking piece. I myself was declared a Schismatic by a member of the Irish Hierarchy for my support of the late Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre’s position on the question of the vetus versus the novus ordo. If the Bishop in question is reading this, he knows who he is.
    Happily I was told by an official in the Papal Nunciature in Dublin, that the declaration was invalid. This was a relief as I could now avail of the Sacraments again.
    I don’t know the details of Fr. Tony’s case so I won’t comment except to say I wish him Ad Multos Annos.

    If I as a Traditionalist and a layman, and Fr. Tony with his views, can both come under ecclesiastical censure, one could ironically remark that all in the Church are being treated equally in this regard!!

    Jesus taught the Apostles the Faith while he was on Earth and at Pentecost when the Holy Ghost descended on the Apostles, and made revelations taken from what is Christ’s. This faith was passed on down the ages, using the Tradidi Quod et Accepi principle.

    The job of any Pope is to pass on the faith exactly as he received it, unchanged. After all, Divine teaching can never be changed. The Pope is only its administrator after all, not its owner.

    I find the faith as taught in the Roman Catechism to be a challenging but clear yardstick to judge how faithful I am to the perennial binding and unchanging public revelation as taught by Christ and revealed by the Holy Ghost.

    As a Traditional Roman Catholic, I don’t worry at all about next month’s synod. No Pope can alter Divine teaching.

    The Instrumentum Laboris for the Synod has neither extraordinary nor ordinary universal magisterial status. To those who worry because they see characters like Cardinals McElroy and Cupich, or Fr. James Martin having starring roles, I say: Sursum Corda!! There will be no alteration to Church Dogma. Remember St. Matthew Ch 16 verse 18.

    There will almost certainly be a document full of confusing modernist Claptrap issued. So what? Ignore it if it contradicts Divine Revelation.

    For a long time I have been looking for a precise definition of a Synod. I found a brilliant one in Pope Pius VI’S Apostolic Letter, Auctorem Fidei. It reads as follows:
    “Ambiguity can never be tolerated in a synod, of which the principal glory consists above all in teaching the truth with clarity and excluding all danger of error.”

  2. Seán Ó Conaill says:

    Can Pope Francis be aware of the continuing barrier that the CDF poses to honest dialogue – and therefore also obviously to synodality – in places like Ireland? That long freeze-up does not thaw overnight, so the restoration of Tony to ministry is long overdue. The damage done by the CDF to dialogue and adult faith formation is still playing out here, e.g. in the total failure of the ‘Share the Good News’ Catechetical project of 2011.

    Authoritarianism in regard to teaching actually aborts teaching – by sewing a minefield of possible missteps that can only teach the defeatist attitude of ‘why bother and where are my golf clubs?’ Did any Irish bishop ever tell any pope that the encouragement of delation by anyone of supposed error was a key factor in the decline of the Irish church after Vatican II? Any ‘vocations’ campaign in this situation is obviously doomed – and the situation continues if any loose cannon in the CDF can block the promotion of anyone tuned in to what the pope is saying about mercy and sin. A permafrost thaws from the top down and those guys are buried very deep indeed.

  3. Paddy Ferry says:

    Hear! Hear! Brendan. Very well said, and it had to be said.
    Excellent as always. Thank you.

  4. Sean O'Conaill says:

    Today in America a long interview with the new doctrinal ‘overseer’. Asked if the pope has told him to let heresy run rampant Archbishop Fernandez says:

    “If one reads the pope’s letter attentively it is clear that at no time does he say that the function of refuting errors should disappear. Clearly, if someone says that Jesus is not a real man or that all immigrants should be killed, decisive intervention will be necessary. But at the same time this will provide an opportunity to grow, to enrich our understanding. For example, in such cases the person in question will need to be accompanied to better explain the divinity of Jesus Christ, or conversations will need to be had about some flawed, incomplete or problematic migration laws.”

    Right ho, Tony. So if your ban is not lifted soon just ask for should have happened over a decade ago – that you be ‘accompanied’!

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