Kevin Hegarty: Time to review Tony Flannery’s case

From the Mayo News:

Second Reading
Fr Kevin Hegarty

ONE hundred and fifty years ago, an ecclesiastical conflict was raging in Callan in Co Kilkenny. Fr Robert O’Keefe was the parish priest. His desire to provide comprehensive education for the poor of his community led him into conflict with the Bishop of Ossory.

It was a complicated affair, and it led to protracted civil and ecclesiastical litigation. There were faults on both sides. The dispute ended in 1879 when O’Keefe submitted to his bishop. He died two years later, a broken man. Thomas Kilroy has written a fine novel ‘The Big Chapel’ about the conflict.

Has the Catholic Church improved its capacity to deal sensitively with division in its ranks? Not much if one considers the case of Fr Tony Flannery. In 2012, the Vatican suspended him from public ministry because of his liberal views. He remains suspended.

Tony is a prophetic voice in Irish catholicism. (I must declare an interest here. We are friends, and I was privileged to write the foreword for his latest book ‘From the Outside: Rethinking Church Doctrine’.) Born in 1947, when Catholic ecclesiastical pomp was at its zenith in Ireland, he grew up in a church wilting under the challenge of societal cultural transformation, and he has ministered in a broken one.

The Second Vatican Council (1962-65) has been the guiding star of his ministry. It envisaged a church willing to dialogue with modernity, an institution open to engaging with the insights of the secular world.

Ordained in 1974, most of his ministry has been as a preacher of Redemptorist missions, mainly in Ireland. He avoided the fire-and-brimstone style once characteristic of his order. Involved in this ministry for over four decades, from Malin to Mizen Head, he got a sense of contemporary Irish Catholicism, its strengths and weaknesses, its hopes and aspirations, its hungers and its hurts.
He was an engaging speaker and an imaginative liturgist. On two occasions he gave missions in the community where I live. He left a positive impression. His sermons were always thought provoking, often inspiring and usually leavened with humour. He gave fresh heart to those disturbed by anguish and haunted by sorrow in their lives. His articles in Reality magazine were stimulating and devoid of pious cliché.

In 2010, Tony was one of the founders of the Associations of Catholic Priests. Its purpose was to provide an independent forum where Irish priests could freely articulate their views. Its constitution placed strong emphasis on the ‘primacy of individual conscience’ and the need to redesign ministry in the Church ‘to incorporate the gifts, wisdom and expertise of the entire faith community, male and female’.

His pastoral ministry coincided with several decades of retrenchment in the Catholic Church. The ‘glad confident morning’ of the Second Vatican gave way to a long and dismal journey into the night.
During the papacies of John Paul II and Benedict XVI, there was a retreat from the insights of Vatican II that had exhilarated many Catholics. For Catholics whose lives had been shaped by the ideals of democracy, free speech and academic freedom, the Church became an inhospitable place.

Liberal clerics were silenced. A climate of fear enveloped theologians. In the words of the English novelist, AN Wilson, the Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith has ‘ways of making you not talk’.

Given the atmosphere of these pontificates it is not surprising that Tony got into trouble. As a result of articles in Reality questioning Church teaching on compulsory clerical celibacy, women’s ordination and homosexuality, he experienced the heavy breath of Vatican disapproval. In the spring of 2012 he was banned from public ministry.

Pope Francis has often stressed the importance of dialogue in the Church. I find it incredible, however, that in his nine-year pontificate, Tony remains excluded from ministry. Rather pathetically, two years ago he was offered restoration if he withdrew the views that led to his suspension.

Sometimes the Vatican resorts to the smart-aleck defence that it is his own religious congregation that suspended him. The truth is that the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith ordered the Redemptorists to do so. Its leaders felt unable to defy this diktat. Such tawdry casuistry may thrive when clerical male misogynists meet. For normal people it is as welcome as a burger van at a vegan festival.

Recently Tony called for an independent review of his case. It is the least that he deserves.

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  1. John Kirwin says:

    Kevin Hegarty: Time to Review Tony Flannery’s Case…

    Amen, to Ed Finnegan from a member of the Association of US Catholic Priests AUSCP

  2. Joe O'Leary says:

    Kevin Hegarty: Time to Review Tony Flannery’s Case…

    Soline, I was just about to make the same remark:

    Now that Francis has publicly demoted the second in command at the CDF, who was the instigator of their recent homophobic document, the battle between the CDF and the Pope, in which Tony is a pawn, is surely tilting in Tony’s favour.

    Expect a new papal document any day soon. Its opening words will be: ‘As the Church has always taught….’

  3. Sean O'Conaill says:

    Who remembers now the Visitators of 2012, wheeled in following the horrors of the Ferns and Dublin reports – themselves a consequence of the longstanding papally-sanctioned policy of secrecy and avoidance on that issue that we now know had been followed by the reigning pope when Archbishop of Munich?

    The pope who also blamed secularism and the non-observance of canon law for the problem of clerical abuse in his letter to the Irish in 2010 – as though it had begun in 1789 or 1968 instead of the fourth century, in the wake of the Constantinian shift.

    So the censuring and sanctioning of five priests, including Tony, in 2012 made perfect diversionary and scapegoating sense – if Benedict XVI himself was to avoid any heat for the Irish debacle.

    That’s a very tall order now, given the responsibility of the authoritarianism of the papacy under both John Paul II and Benedict XVI for the Irish pall of silence and depression and alienation after 1968 that Kevin Hegarty refers to.

    Whatever happens now to Tony he can take comfort always in the knowledge that he was neither silent nor depressed in that era – the very reason that he and four others were singled out by the smoke-and-mirrors merchants in the CDF. He will be remembered as an honest and kindly man when the aiders and abettors of authoritarianism and decay will be recalled, if at all, as the final dismal undertakers of the Christendom and clericalism they wanted to prop up forever.

    It was, after all, for questioning whether Jesus would have approved of a controlling and overbearing cultic priesthood that Tony was silenced initially, a questioning that no reputable church historian would have the slightest issue with. It was only the controllers and overbearers who couldn’t hack it.

  4. Paddy Ferry says:

    Kevin Hegarty: Time to review Tony Flannery’s case.

    I agree with Kevin and all the comments above. This all has to be said again and again until someone — perhaps even one decent bishop — takes up Tony’s cause.

    And, Sean@5, a really powerful comment and so true.

    “…as though it had begun in 1789 or 1968 instead of the fourth century, in the wake of the Constantinian shift.”

    You will hear in Fr. Tom Doyle’s talk, just posted, that it began even earlier than that.

    And, he also confirms what I always suspected about the ontologically superior business.

  5. Eddie Finnegan says:

    Kevin Hegarty: Time to review Tony Flannery’s case.

    Soline, this is a very welcome development. In light of the Redemptorists’ Irish Provincial’s clear statement, part of my comment @1, re the silence of most of Tony’s confreres, may be somewhat wide of the mark. Now let’s hear it from the Bishops.

  6. Brendan Cafferty says:

    Kevin Hegarty: Time to review Tony Flannery’s case.

    Let’s hope that there is real action this time, not just buck passing, it’s your responsibility, not ours, etc. That this has gone on for so long is disgraceful. I would hope that the new AB of Tuam,, Francis Duffy, can come out and set the ball rolling with other Irish Bishops to follow in support. What better way to start his reign in the West and home of Tony.

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