With the hindsight of 500 years, it is not hard to see that Martin Luther could have been handled much better. He was obviously an awkward character, but he did not start out with the intention of splitting the Church. The lesson is that even awkward characters can make a rich contribution if they are allowed to. If receiving their gift requires not walking the extra mile with them but 10 more, then so be it.
For Martin Luther in Germany in 1517, read Tony Flannery in Ireland in 2017. No doubt, Fr Flannery tries the patience of those in authority. Like Luther, he will not do what he is told. And like Luther, he signals a state of crisis in the Church that urgently needs addressing but which has hardly yet been recognised.
Fr Flannery, a Redemptorist, was ordered to cease his public ministry in 2012 by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, until such time as he recanted his views on women’s ordination, married priests, contraception, and the doctrine of the Eucharist. Last week, to celebrate his 70th birthday and with lots of publicity, he celebrated Mass in public in defiance of the ban. So many people turned up that there was standing room only in the community centre used for the occasion. Flannery is also one of the founders of the Association of Catholic Priests (ACP), which the Catholic bishops of Ireland refuse to deal with, despite its having 1,000 members or more.
Meanwhile those same Irish bishops were in Rome for their five-yearly ad limina visit, in the course of which they correctly identified some profound problems in Irish Catholicism. The most striking is the alienation of young women from the Church. Mothers are fundamental to the passing on of the faith to the next generation, so this is very bad news. By comparison, the defiance of Fr Flannery shades into insignificance. Yet ironically, he, and the ideas he represents, may well hold the key to addressing that alienation between the Church and the Irish people.
Mass attendance in Ireland may be declining sharply, and the public reputation of the Church may be at rock bottom, to no small extent because of scandals surrounding the abuse of children by the clergy and women Religious. The latest report on child abuse in care homes and institutions in Northern Ireland is yet another searing indictment. But, particularly outside Dublin, there remains a profound yearning for a community of faith people would feel proud to belong to – if only the Catholic Church could find its way to being that.
The bishops are gradually moving, with varying degrees of enthusiasm, in the right direction, and asking some of the right questions. They know the old model of Catholic Ireland is broken. But mainstream opinion is accelerating away from them, and one day it will be too late to catch up. Still, in the majority of dioceses, there is a resistance to genuine consultation, of which the refusal to speak to the ACP is a symptom. If there is a future for the Catholic Church in Ireland it will belong to the laity, and especially to Catholic women. There is a long and difficult road ahead. But the first step is a simple one. Lift the ban on Tony Flannery, and take seriously what he has to say.
If only they had listened to Luther …