Liberal Catholics expect freedom of speech and conscience — Kevin Hegarty

THE PAINTER Tony O’Malley had a custom of creating an artwork every Good Friday. When news broke during Holy Week of the Vatican censure of Fr Tony Flannery and the Redemptorist magazine Reality, I wished I could paint a picture to express my sadness.
Pope Benedict’s address at a Holy Thursday Mass in Rome copperfastened my gloom. Responding to a call to disobedience by Austrian priests and laity on celibacy and women priests he asserted that they had challenged “definite decisions of the church’s magisterium”.
Church leaders often talk of the right of free speech, most recently the Pope himself on his visit to Cuba. The recent Vatican moves are designed to create a climate of fear among liberal clerics. To echo a comment some years ago of the English writer AN Wilson, the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith has “ways of making you not talk”.
I know Tony Flannery quite well. He has given 40 years of sincere service as a priest, mainly as a preacher of missions throughout Ireland. He is an engaging and empathetic speaker and an innovative liturgist. His columns in Reality, based on his commitment to the ideals of the Second Vatican Council and his vast knowledge of the Irish church, were often thought-provoking.
He is one of the founders of the Association of Catholic Priests, set up in September 2010, and one of its leadership team. The association has provided a forum for debate and an independent voice for Irish priests.
Among its achievements was its intervention in the case of Fr Kevin Reynolds, who was grievously libelled in the Prime Time Investigates programme last May.
I expect that Fr Reynolds would agree that without this help he would still be languishing in a limbo from which he might never have emerged.
Perhaps it is not surprising that the Vatican has moved to censure Fr Flannery. The Second Vatican Council promised an open and dialogical church, willing to engage with the secular world. Since the 1980s there has been in Rome a retreat from its reforms.
Pope Benedict has a jaundiced view of the council’s spirit. Last year he sent a team of apostolic visitors to examine the Irish church in the wake of the sexual abuse scandals. In the summary of their report issued recently, the visitors have a cut at liberal Catholics. They noted that a significant number of Irish Catholics held views at variance with “the teaching of the magisterium”.
They should be accorded full marks for their powers of observation. The many liberal Catholics in Ireland hope for a church that is open to married and women priests, a rethink on the issue of contraception as exhorted by Humanae Vitae, and a reversal of the harsh insensitivity of the teaching on homosexuality.
We have come to these positions as a result of honest and honourable reflection. We are not seeking change for the sake of change. We believe that such reforms would aid the emergence of a church that is more humane, relevant and inspiring, a church released from the clammy grip of clericalism.
Nor are these sincerely held views at variance with the fundamental doctrines of the church as the visitors claimed in their report. These doctrines relate, for example, to the humanity and divinity of Christ, the resurrection and the sacraments.
I am not aware of any priest in Ireland who publicly dissents from these beliefs.
There is a tendency of conservative church commentators to argue that liberal clerics are an ageing, disgruntled minority who have turned their misinterpretations of the Second Vatican Council into a kind of holy writ.
To them we are castaways on a remote island, brazenly holding aloft the tattered banners of the 1960s. They won’t like this but I have to disillusion them.
Anecdotal evidence, coupled with the results of a number of professional surveys, indicate that the majority of Irish Catholics support radical change in the church’s ministry and moral teaching.
To paraphrase Gerry Adams in a different context, we are not going away. The Vatican has been a “cold house” for liberal Catholics in recent years. The least we expect is respect for our freedom of speech and conscience.
A reform of the church which excludes these rights is a form of repression. It seems that Pope Benedict thinks “a creative minority” of Catholic conservatives will transform the church in Europe. To me that sounds like a polite euphemism for an assembly of Rick Santorum lookalikes.
Fr Kevin Hegarty is a priest in the parish of Kilmore-Erris in Co Mayo, and a columnist with the Mayo News.

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  1. I would like to add my support to Fr. Tony Flannery and the team at Reality. I cannot believe that a priest of the callibre of Fr. Flannery would be silenced while priests who caused such damage to children were not.
    No wonder, I as a Catholic, am confused. What on earth are the Church in Rome up to?

  2. Vinny Mc Grath says:

    Well done! perhaps its time Ireland looked more to our own Christian past for answers and forget Rome.Fr Flannery is to contemplate till he gets the right answer??!! Perhaps Rome should spend less time on bureaucracy and more in proper meditation of Christs true Nature, I think He would be appalled by the cold authoritarian nature of todays church.They seem to forget Christ was a dissenter! Well done ACP your stand is to be admired!

  3. @Jac
    Sorry, misread name. Comment stands.

  4. Jim Stack says:

    The best reply I can make to this article is to refer Fr Hegarty to Comment 28 (“A Rural Priest”) posted on this site on 9th April. This comment explains carefully, but without malice, why the ACP position is of such concern to some of us.
    As a traditional lay Catholic, who has tried (however unsuccessfully) to abide by the Church’s teachings, and to contribute to the Church (including to the upkeep of its priests), I would like to add my own personal comment. Fr Hegarty’s reference to Rick Santorum lookalikes is disgraceful. To me, he sounds much like the man who “has moved on” and, not satisfied with that, then publicly sneers at the wife who has tried her best to remain faithful.

  5. vincent mclaughlin says:

    I have only recently become aware of the Association of Catholic Priests in Ireland, mainly through listening to RTE radio. I totally agree with the comments made by Fr. Hegarty. I am a Catholic living in England. I do not hear these views being expressed by our priests. Perhaps I am not going to the priests who hold the same views as me. Do you know of a similar association in England?

  6. Thomasina says:

    Am absolutely appalled at the silencing of Fr Tony Flannery. I imagine some fundamental ‘Christian’ decided to arrange a complaint among his/her coherts to coincide with the hurt of the ‘Cross’ on Good Friday.I am a regular reader of Reality and I look forward to it’s enlightening articles each month . I suppose the next magazines to be censured will be — oh I better not name them!! I don’t know what the Church thinks it is going to achieve by its irrational approach to right thinking Christian beliefs.
    I now understand how a schism can happen.

  7. And what would Fr Hegarty have orthodox Catholics do in HIS new Church? I suppose we would just have to either like it or lump it. Would he expect non-conformists to leave HIS Church?

  8. Dr Rosemary Eileen McHugh says:

    I have great respect for the Association of Catholic Priests of Ireland and for their courage in standing up for Fr Tony Flannery. This year is the 50th anniversary of the Second Vatican Council. Looking at the history of the early church, I do not see that unity means only uniformity and conformity. There can also be unity in diversity. If we Catholics would recognize and respect the reality of unity in diversity, there would be more tolerance of liberals by conservatives, and more tolerance of conservatives by liberals. As a Catholic physician, I would hope that my church would be a healing church, where the voices of all the faithful would be heard. Vatican II was an attempt to free the church from the shackles of the Council of Trent, and from the self-defeating claim that the church never changes. To live is to change. Vatican II brought life back into the Roman Catholic Church. We were told that we, the faithful, were the church, the People of God, and that our voices were important. I hope and pray that Pope Benedict XVI and the Curia will stop their gestapo-type tactics against Fr Flannery and others, and begin to trust in the presence and guidance of the Holy Spirit in our church. Jesus LISTENED to others and preached. The Vatican preaches and never LISTENS, and does not seem to have insight into the signs of the times. I believe that the Pope is abusing the real meaning of obedience. As the Theologian Bernard Haring said at the Second Vatican Council: “Religious obedience has…dignity. In its absolute form, we owe religious obedience to God alone.”
    Sincerely, Dr Rosemary Eileen McHugh, Chicago, Illinois, USA
    (daughter of Thomas McHugh, formerly of Corha, Castlebar, County Mayo and of Rose Ann Moore, formerly of Kilbride, Swinford, County Mayo, Ireland)

  9. Jo O'Sullivan says:

    I wish to add my voice to those supporting open dialogue and freedom of conscience within the Irish Catholic Church. I am actually heartened by ALL the postings on this forum over the last week – those who wish to voice their support to Tony Flannery and Gerard Maloney AND those who wish to affrim the Vatican’s stance.
    This is healthy. By listening to all the voices with respect and open hearts and minds, under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, we, grown-up Catholics, can discern what our own well-formed consciences are telling us.
    Thank God for Tony Flannery, Kevin Hegarty, Sean McDonagh et al. who have accepted their people as mature adults and are not insisting “You must accept this because I say so!”
    The out-pouring of hurt and pain and anger and outrage and impotence and frustration that has appeared here over the last week just goes to show that it HAS to come out. And I mean that for ALL who have expressed views. We can no longer stifle our feelings and deny that there are different ways of interpreting Christ’s teachings among people who sincerely believe themselves to be good Catholics.
    Thank you, Holy Spirit, for getting us to this stage and please allow us to keep “fighting” until we can understand each other and work together to make our world a better place beccause we’re in it. Isn’t that what it’s all about?

  10. Maria (12th April, 10.18am):
    In making such aggressive comments concerning Fr Flannery you echo the bigotry of the unenlightened: some evidence on your part would be welcome to show where you believe the “true” Catholic faith seems to have “eluded” Fr Flannery. Comments like yours are typical of the mentality of Salem and the witch hunts of 16th and 17th-century England. There is such bitterness in your words – hardly the words of a Christian. Might I respectually suggest that you return to your Bible, and take a look at the words of Jesus (New Testament). It would seem your “Catechism” is one of fundamentalism.
    Continue on your road, Fr Flannery – you are a shining example to us all ! May you be blessed !
    The words of the above article by Kevin Hegarty are indeed to be echoed far and wide – the fundamentalist, bigoted evangelicals who are spewing their hatred these days on the political fora tell us how far these people are removed from any form of morality or ethics. It is such hatred that has engineered a decade of wars and illegal invasions in the name of “God”!

  11. Denis Daly says:

    Maybe it’s time for the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith to be made aware of the Chatham House Rule(!!) See http://www.chathamhouse.org if it wants to remain relevant.

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