Review of Tony Flannery’s book ‘From the Outside’ by Brendan Hoban

From the Outside

Brendan Hoban

Many years ago, at an inter-church meeting, a Protestant minister who later became a great friend asked me the question: ‘Can you tell me this? Is it true that Catholics believe there are four persons in one God – Father, Son, Spirit and Our Lady?’

Once he asked the question, I understood why he asked it because we were at the time in the midst of an outbreak of what theologians sometimes call ‘Mariolatry’, the tradition of devotion to Mary that can lose the run of itself.

It was a dismal year. Rain was falling. Statues were moving. A variety of questionable Marian devotions were achieving a high profile, putative visionaries were peddling a variety of services and in some cases driving top of the range Mercedes cars.

The practice of not submitting theological error to the rigours of, say, official heresy-hunters in the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF) was justified on the basis that those involved were ‘good’ or ‘holy’ people and ‘You wouldn’t like to hurt them?’

Bishops ­– with the famous exception of Thomas McDonnell, bishop of Killala, who explained the strange happenings of that summer in scientifically forensic detail – tended to play down the excitement and theologians (keeping all options open) tended to look the other way.

In an effort to keep as many as possible on board, there has been something of an unspoken conspiracy between church authorities and theologians to present the Catholic religion as one ‘one size fits all’, to pretend that Catholicism is not a broad Church, that doctrine does not develop, that we are now and we always were and always will be singing from the same hymn-sheet.

On the basis of this book, that theory will be hard to sustain.

Tony Flannery’s story is well known and there is no need to repeat it here. Just a year after the Association of Catholic Priests was formed in 2010, the CDF set their sights on him by informing his congregation, the Redemptorists, that they regarded some of his writings as heretical. In the meantime, the extraordinary behaviour of the CDF, the Redemptorists and, it has to be said, of Pope Francis who sat on his hands, has after nine years of pain and sadness moved Flannery ‘from the outside’.

The only silver lining to this particular cloud is that Flannery’s semi-detached position has given him the opportunity to stand back from Church and priesthood and given him, in his own words, ‘the freedom to pursue new ways of thinking’: ‘I think it is true to say that I am now a different person from the one who got that first phone-call informing me of the Vatican’s interest in me . . . I have changed a good deal in these past years, and I hope this book will illustrate the nature of my changing ways of thinking and believing’.

The key point here is that Flannery in this book examines the set of doctrines that encompass the truth from a Catholic Church perspective – and its corollary that ‘all other belief systems are false’. And brings to his explorations, not just a refreshing sense of freedom but intelligence, reason and common sense. The result is an honesty, a clarity and a courage that should embarrass those we usually designate as ‘theologians’.

Flannery is sometimes given to describing himself as ‘not a theologian’. In that, he is selling himself short. Because it prompts the question: what makes a theologian? Are theology degrees and publications (in book-form or in credible theological reviews) needed to justify the appellation, ‘theologian’? Is the role of a Catholic theologian just about explaining Catholic theology? Or is there a place for exploration, intellectual freedom and a respect for the implications of the legitimacy – championed by Newman and Pope Francis among others – of the development of doctrine?

The more important theologians today are those who translate theology into digestible portions, who disavow theological jargon (including a welter of foot-notes) and who connect with the lived experience of people though a writing style that’s readable and accessible to the general reader.

Flannery ticks all those boxes and embellishes his reflections with an openness and a curiosity that I suspect resonates with people and priests. For example, he considers the Nicene Creed we recite at Mass. In 325 it reached its definitive position in a dogmatic statement of faith ‘for all time’, a definition that is in many respects ‘time-limited’, that has been un-revisited in 17 centuries and that seems to suggest that God can be explained and described rather a mystery beyond our comprehension. Can, he asks, a definition of the divine, formulated in the fourth century, be presented as ‘literal truth for all time?’

This is a book that takes a fresh look at a number of issues that for years theologians have voyaged around very carefully or else written about in a way that defeats the average Catholic. This is the nearest un-put-downable ‘theology’ book I’ve read in years.

If we had more theologians like Flannery, I think we’d all be reading more theology.

Tony Flannery, From the Outside, Rethinking Church Doctrine

Red Stripe Press, October 2020, €15.

    Signed copies of the book available.

Forward cheque for €15, payable to ACP, to Liamy Mac Nally, Sheeaune, Westport, Mayo. An online book sales service will be provided on this site within the next few days. 

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  1. Joe O'Leary says:

    I think that rather than expand the Trinity to a Quaternity to include the BVM, at the height of the Devotional Revolution that prevailed in Ireland for a century the Trinity was reduced to a Binity of Jesus and Mary.

    An Asian Cardinal wept in Fatima as he evoked the Union of the Hearts (sc. of Jesus and Mary).

  2. Joe O'Leary says:

    One could write a shadow theology spelling out the ontology of devotional binitarism. Consubstantiality of the Hearts of Jesus and Mary, perichoresis of their mutual indwelling, communicatio idiomatum such that Jesus cedes to Mary his omnipotence.

    The Memorare is a prayer directly to Mary, no “per Christum” and no reference at all to God. The one praying is “sinful and sorrowful” before Mary, not God.

    “De Maria nunquam satis” was a motto of the Marian tradition, and John Paul II urged “slavery to Mary” (drawing on Louis Grignon de Montfort, 1673-1716) and showed some sympathy to the push for two extra Marian dogmas: Mediatrix of all Graces and Co-Redemptrix, though to the chagrin of its adherents he refused to follow through (endless discussion in cyberspace:

    Fatima involved the whole Church and especially the papacy in its extraordinary fantasia and Medjugorje shows how powerful the “apparitional tradition” still is. To interpret all this, rather than just ignore it as a deranged fringe phenomenon, a lot of scientific anthropology and socio-psychology or depth psychology must come into play alongside theology.

  3. Mark O'Meara says:

    Doesn’t the Memorare ask Our Lady to intercede for us?
    Good luck to Tony Flannery for his new book – not that he needs it, as the book is already ‘sold out’ on Amazon, by the look of it.
    I can’t see where the ‘Cart’ on this website is?, or I might try to place an order here. But perhaps the Shop’s Till is yet to be created. Either that or my computer is playing up again.

    Editor: Your computer is fine! Our system is awaiting updating to sell Tony’s book. In the meantime copies are available for €15 (includes postage) by forwarding a cheque made payable to the ACP to Liamy Mac Nally, Sheeaune, Westport, Mayo.

  4. Joe+O'Leary says:

    Yes, “sought thy intercession”, good point. I love the prayer but in a “binitarian” reading the circle of intercession goes between Jesus and Mary.

    One Marian message talked about Mary holding back her son’s arm that was poised to strike!

    The best control of Marian “excesses” is the doctrines of the Trinity and the Incarnation. Marian discourses should be assessed as to how they represent the Father and the Holy Spirit, and how they represent the Incarnation and Mary’s role in it. So it looks like the safeguards set up in the 4th and 5th centuries are not obsolete or irrelevant after all.

  5. Paddy+Ferry says:

    Joe@1 & amp;2, I had never heard of binitarism nor the “Consubstantiality of the Hearts of Jesus and Mary, perichoresis of their mutual indwelling, communicatio idiomatum such that Jesus cedes to Mary his omnipotence” either.

    Phew!! Outlandish stuff that! I did know, however, that Pius XII wanted to make Mary the Co-Redemptrix. That would have been truly wonderful for advancing ecumenism!

    I always loved the Memorare, still know it off by heart and, in fact, it is on the back of my mother’s memoriam card. It never dawned on me that God was completely absent from the prayer.

    Joe, I wonder have you kept an archive of all your theological contributions on this site. What a wonderful compilation, with all the topics properly catagorised, in book form that would be. It could be the ACP’s next Zoom book launch. I would certainly buy a copy.

  6. Joe+O'Leary says:

    Paddy, I’m using that language tongue-in-cheek of course, dragging it in from its proper context in Trinitarian theology and Christology.

    Binitarianism is a term used to describe the idea that Christ and the Spirit are together the second person of a Binity (sometimes said of St Paul).

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