Father Sean Fagan RIP — a brief appreciation

I had mixed feelings today, when I heard of the death of Sean Fagan, sadness at his death, but relief that his sufferings were over. Not being part of the theological community, I had never met Sean until a couple of years ago, when I was editing a book on responding to the Ryan report, and I asked him would he write an article for it. It was then that I discovered that he was forbidden to write or speak publicly, and even worse, that if he disobeyed this order he would be dismissed from the priesthood. In spite of that he agreed to write for me, and he wrote what I consider a wonderful article on sexuality.
When, shortly afterwards, I had my own experience with the CDF, we now had something in common, even if he had more theological knowledge in his small finger than the sum total of what I possessed. It was around that time that I visited him in Lesson Park, and he was already struggling with bad health. I remember him showing me the number of tablets he took each day, – amounting to twenty two.
Since then I was at a number of events where he also attended, and once or twice where he spoke. I got to know enough about him to know that he was deeply upset by the banning of his book, and by the sanctions and threats he received from the CDF. The threat to his priesthood was what upset him most, as far as I could see. For that reason he was reluctant to speak publicly about his situation, though he did make some reference to it on a few occasions. The lifting of the threat against his priesthood came later, at a time when Sean was no longer able to either speak or write publicly, so I considered it to be a fairly mealy-mouthed and minimalist effort by the CDF.
When I went to see Sean on that occasion in Leeson Street, apart from having a ‘beef’ about the Vatican, there was one important thing I said to him. I told him that I owed him a great debt of gratitude, in that he, through his writing, helped me greatly to free myself from the inherited obsession with sin, and the fear of hell. I suspect that I am not the only one of my generation that is indebted to Sean for that. As far as I am concerned he was one of the most significant theologians of our time. Also, we did not need theological expertise to read his books, because they were written not so much for the theological community, but for the general believers.
That is why it is sad to think of his books being withdrawn and apparently destroyed, and that he lived to have his name and reputation besmirched by the Church authorities. At least he lived to see Francis in the Vatican, and I hope he found assurance in the way Francis presents God to us as a loving parent, full of mercy and forgiveness. That was how Sean portrayed God.
I trust that now, in the words of Uncle Vanya in Checkov’s play, “a great wave of mercy and compassion will sweep over him, and the stars will shine in the sky like diamonds for him, and he will be at peace”. He deserves no less for his wonderful life.

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  1. Thank you for that, Tony. I feel privileged to own a copy of “What happened to sin”. I am sure Sean is now at peace. God rest his soul. And may God forgive them for what they did to him.

  2. Wilfrid Harrington, OP says:

    Dear Sean, my colleague and friend. A thorough Christian and a brilliant moral theologian in the line of Bernard Haring. He, too, understood that the Law of Christ is Jesus himself — the face of the Father’s Mercy. One other victim of a shameful and shameless CDF, he helped and comforted so many of, as he liked to term, ‘God’s holy people’. He suffered for his caring. The verdict that matters is: ‘Blesed are the dead who die in the Lord, henceforth. Yes — says the Spirit — that they may rest from their labours; for their works go with them’ (Rev 14:13).

  3. Brendan Butler says:

    Thank you Tony for that expression of appreciation for the life of Sean.
    I would hope that Sean will be remembered as a’Martyr for Truth’ and that those words will be etched on his tombstone.
    His passion for truth and justice was a feature of all his work and life. Because of his pursuit of truth which was his duty as a theologian he was reported to the CDF which in its mean and nefarious underhand ways put pressure on his order to silence Sean. What was most sinister was the attempt to confiscate all his books and consign them into oblivion. But Sean’s legacy will never be destroyed.
    Here the CDF was following the old Roman empire’s method of ‘Damnatio Memoriae’ whereby the imperial authorities would destroy any material evidence of a person whom it considered brought dishonour to the state. However Sean’s memory will never be forgotten.
    The CDF also used what is the standard system adopted by totalitarian states to gag and silence anyone who dares confronts naked power. Sean once showed me the letter which under intense emotional and mental stress he most reluctantly had to sign if he wished to remain a priest. The letter ended by warning him to not write to newspapers, or to give radio or t.v. interviews but what was most intimidating was the warning that, under no circumstance, could he tell anybody that he had received this silencing.
    For years he had served his Order in Rome but all this service was quickly forgotten as his superiors bowed under CDF pressure and dished out the dirt on Sean.
    Doubtlessly all this accumulated stress affected Sean’s health and well being. In a sense he was following his Leader Jesus on the path to crucifixion. Finally he has gained entrance into the eternal kingdom of truth and justice.
    Sean, we know you are now resting in the peace of God but do not allow us to rest in peace until your name is finally vindicated.

  4. Pat Courtney says:

    I never met Fr. Sean. It is so easy to suppress one when his dignity and integrity are stripped. CDF seem to ignore Gethsemane.
    Sean’s final years echoed the deep pain of the one he loved and trusted. In ill health, he may have prayed to take this chalice from him; I am sure he would have added; ‘yet, not their will, but yours be done’. Would Jesus have inflicted such pain on one who loved Him so much? CDF has sinned against a great man. In that anarchic body, there is no room for mercy; so much for the year of mercy. I do not say, Sean, ‘may you rest in peace’, as if I hope you are. You are at peace, eternal peace.
    Pat Courtney

  5. Soline Humbert says:

    I am glad Sean’s long years of suffering have ended.I am grateful to him for his personal support over the years and his very courageous speaking out for the ordination of women at a time few dared to do so(and still don’t).He paid a heavy price in a church where abusive powers try and silence prophets and quench the Spirit.
    When we were meeting,at the height of the repression, he used to say “we will survive” and I would reply “we’ll do more than survive,we will flourish!” May Sean flourish in Heaven.His legacy lives on.
    All of his book “What happened to Sin” (2008) is available for reading on http://www.womenpriests.org/classic4/fagan_int.asp
    In it Sean concludes with these words:”There is far too much fear in the Church. We need to get rid of our fear, and one way of doing this is to feel that we are trusted. We need to trust each other more. After all, God trusts us: with his Son (in spite of what we did to him), with his word in Scripture, with his sacraments, indeed with his Church (and what have we made of it?). An incredible mystery, if only we could believe it. Perhaps God is telling us that the only way to trust people is to trust them, as he trusts us.
    In spite of the many unattractive elements in our Church at the present time, I have no hesitation in declaring that I am passionately in love with it, and I am very much at home in my Catholic faith. A pessimistic Catholic is a contradiction in terms. I find the goodness, truth and beauty of God in the wonderful world he has created and entrusted to our care, and I feel his love most strongly in the precious gift of friendship. As for the Church, it is my home. It brings me so much of the endless compassion of Christ; the kind strong gentleness and refined sensitivity of Mary the Mother of Jesus; the consolation from God himself to help us through the many dark nights of the soul; the strength of grace in the midst of weakness; the deep-down conviction of the mystical meaning of all reality; the deeper meaning of living and dying; the magic of enjoying the earth as the home God gives us out of love, and at the same time realising that we have here no lasting city.”

  6. Miriam Monks says:

    Rest in peace Fr Sean – now you know. What a welcome you will have received last Friday. Fly free from that persecution. The world has lost a moral leader.

  7. Richard O'Donnell says:

    Miriam @ 8. The world has lost a “moral leader” indeed. But his Christian words live on. As indeed they will long after his persecutors, but not their persecution, will have been forgotten.
    Enjoy being home forever, Fr. Sean.

  8. I am one of those who owe much to his priestly wisdom.
    After I read ‘Does Morality Change, I wrote to Fr.Sean as I had some queries. His reply showed that we were addressing a specific section from differing directions but fundamentally were in accord.
    The happy consequence of my challenge was to lead to many exchanges of letters over the years, which were all very helpful and assuring for me.
    It has been reported that one of the reasons for the CDF to have a go at Fr.Sean was their need for conscience to be
    absolutely subject to the Magisterium. There is some irony in this as John Henry Newman is now on the road to formal Sainthood, he who was a champion of the primacy of conscience.
    In one of his letters Fr.Sean wrote
    “Don’t confuse the ‘institutional’ Church, the organisation and its leaders, with the whole Church, which is all God’s holy people, each one with the I dwelling Holy Spirit”.

  9. Soline Humbert says:

    Sean’s obituary in last Saturday’s Irish Times (23rd July 2016) http://wearechurchireland.ie/fr-sean-fagan-theologian-whose-compassion-challenged-church-rigidity/
    The role of the Irish bishops is mentioned in it:
    “[Sean Fagan] believed Rome was contacted by an Irish bishop about the book.
    In 2000, the Irish bishops were instructed by Rome to denounce it. They demurred until the book was republished in 2004, when they issued a warning.”
    Did ALL the Irish bishops READ Sean’s book?
    Did they give him an opportunity to explain its content and defend his positions?
    And this from The Tablet of 21/4/2012 p 30
    “Cardinal Seán Brady is believed to have written to the Irish bishops’ publishing firm Veritas forbidding it to stock or sell books by Fr Fagan last year. A spokesman for Veritas denied any knowledge of the directive from Cardinal Brady but admitted that none of their outlets currently has any of his titles in stock. He suggested the reason was linked to a lack of demand for Fr Fagan’s works.”
    Total sales to date of Fr. Fagan’s three books were reported in the same article as 73,600. Unpopular ?

  10. I am also greatly indebted to Fr Sean – for words of encouragement and advice over many years. He was, and he remains, a voice of clarity, sanity and compassion.
    Aside from his great books, already cited here, I remember an article in Doctrine and Life of March 2001 – ‘Facing up to Spiritual Abuse’ – which summarised much of his teaching on the obsessive fixation with the minutiae of sexuality which so distorted Catholic moral theology, and the clerical attitude toward women, down the centuries. Several of my friends benefited greatly from reading it, while the pedagogical failures he wrote of still lie at the centre of opposition to reform of the church.
    It was brave indeed of Fr Sean to target ‘spiritual abuse’ just then, and I wonder if that article might have had something to do with what followed for him soon after. If the editor of Doctrine and Life would allow that, might that article be republished here as a reminder and memorial of a very great Irish Catholic?

  11. Soline Humbert says:

    “After his silencing,Sean Fagan declined an invitation to contribute to a book on moral theology, edited by Vincent MacNamara, a priest of the Society of St Patrick, and Enda McDonagh, a former professor of moral theology at Maynooth seminary.
    In their introduction to An Irish Reader in Moral Theology, McDonagh and MacNamara wrote that “due to circumstances outside our control, it was not possible to include any contribution from Seán Fagan SM, one of the most notable and readable moral theologians writing in this field. The result was an injustice perpetrated against the readers since it left them deprived of some of the most pastorally helpful writing”. (Justine McCarthy,Sunday Times.15th April 2012)
    The Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith,the Irish bishops and the Marist order all bear their share of responsibility for this injustice.

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