Review of Tony Flannery’s ‘From the Outside’ and other writings

A review, by Eamon Maher, of Tony Flannery’s book From the Outside, and of some of his earlier works, is published in the March/April issue of the Dominican publication, Spirituality.

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From the Inside to the Margins: Tracing a Priest’s Fall from Grace


I first met Tony Flannery in 1976 when I was a student in Cistercian College Roscrea. The Redemptorists came to give us a retreat which I reckon they may have found somewhat challenging – former Taoiseach Brian Cowen was in my class and he was one of many who prided themselves on raising thorny issues of a theological or moral nature! Anyway, the retreat was a success in the end and Tony’s sincerity and openness won over the questioning adolescents that we were at the time. The vast majority of my class ceased practicing their religion shortly after they left school. I remember one friend remarking to me that he loved the Mass in the monastery, with the Gregorian chant, the incense, all the bells and whistles that appealed to the senses, and that after the exposure to this rich liturgy, ‘normal’ Mass seemed dull and not worth the trouble.

I mention this first encounter with Tony Flannery for a number of reasons. Firstly, young people know instinctively when someone is faking it. When it comes to clergy, the antennae are particularly adept at detecting contradictions between a priest’s sermons and his actions, for example. In a retreat environment, trust is essential and it begins with the person who is in charge, inevitably a priest, or team priests, in the 1970s. It was clear to us from an early stage that Tony spoke from the heart, that he wasn’t just coming up with the usual platitudes, that he believed in what he was saying. That openness won us over.

My next encounter with Tony was through one of his first books, From the Inside: A Priest’s View of the Catholic Church, published in 1999 by Mercier. It demonstrated the same sincerity that had struck me at the school retreat. By then I was interested in the whole area of Irish Catholic identity and was pleased to read a priest who was prepared to go on the record about his sometimes-strained relationship with the Church. On the first page of the Introduction, he laid out his stall unambiguously:

At various times throughout my life in the Church I have known it to be authoritarian, dogmatic, devious, self-serving and even on occasion corrupt. But it has also opened up for me a world of great depth and beauty; it has been a gateway to mystery and to the realm of the spirit. I have experienced kindness, support and encouragement. For me it has many faces, good and bad.

At this point, Tony was writing from the ‘inside’, as a priest who loved the institution and yet saw that it displayed many of the same faults as other human institutions. By pointing out the Church’s tendency to be excessively dogmatic and occasionally corrupt, Tony was treading on dangerous terrain. Whereas it is permissible for a lay person (even if she or he is a practicing Catholic) to publicly voice misgivings about the behaviour of certain Church officials and its teaching, when a priest offers a critique such as the one contained in Tony’s book, it inevitably arouses anger and suspicion among traditionalists and those who want to preserve the status quo at all costs. These people believe that the Church is above reproach and that priests should display more loyalty than those unruly elements within the media and laity who constantly demonise the institution. Tony Flannery was never someone who was prepared to tow the party line, to remain silent when he saw injustice, inconsistency and a lack of charity in the Church’s treatment of certain groups and individuals. Hence he regularly questioned the value and immutability of the Church’s stance on mandatory celibacy, the ordination of women, homosexuality, contraception, divorce. This would ultimately lead to the sanction handed out to him by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF) eight years ago, to which we will return later.

Because he suffered sexual abuse himself when he was a child, Flannery probably identifies more closely with survivors than many of his brother priests do. In his case, the abuser was a worker with Bord na Móna who lived in the makeshift Nissan huts that the company supplied for its employees in the Galway village where Tony grew up. Hesays that there was no penetrative sex involved and that the man gave him a half-crown after every encounter. Flannery dutifully handed over this money (quite a large sum at that time) to his mother, who never thought to question why a stranger should display such generosity to her son. There was no way of discussing what happened with his family: he would not have had the words to express what transpired in that hut. Years later, when his superior in the seminary got him to admit what had happened, the reaction was not relief so much as the feeling of being violated again: ‘He too had trapped me, sitting in that chair behind his big desk. He had, in my eyes, also uncovered my privacy and my shame. He had left me exposed and naked, and feeling guilty about myself.’ (From the Inside, 67) Flannery highlights the harm done to so many people because of the Irish Church’s obsession with ‘sins of the flesh’, which seemed to be the only sins they were concerned with:

The body and everything to do with it, and most especially the sexual nature, was bad and sinful. How many priests and religious have lived lives of constant struggle with their nature, never learning to feel at home or at ease with their bodies, and as a consequence never learning to like themselves as they are? (From the Inside, 74-5)

Because priests and religious had to endure such negative reinforcement during their training with everything pertaining to sexuality, it did not come as any surprise to Flannery that so many of them, finding no healthy outlet for their natural human and emotional desires, ended up engaging in heinous sexual acts with children, having relationships with women or other men, or resorting to alcohol as a way of dealing with loneliness and frustration. The virulent reaction of the public to the revelations of clerical sex abuse in Ireland was partly the result of their justified anger at how a clergy that constantly preached about the need for sexual continence and purity, failed miserably in their personal lives to live up to the high standards they expected from others. Many rightly pointed out the hypocrisy and duplicity that characterise the Church’s position on clerical abuse, and indeed on other issues. The hierarchy, in particular, must shoulder a lot of the blame:

The one question that has been asked, especially in recent years, is how a Church which exercised substantial control over the sexual lives of people could be guilty of so much mismanagement in that area when it came to their own priests. (From the Inside, 177)

Of course, it should be said that only a small minority of priests and religious were implicated in the abuse of children, but when the full extent of the cover-up by the Church authorities became known, people could see plainly for themselves that those in power put the reputation of the institution ahead of the safety of children: that was the final straw for many committed Catholics. From the Inside covers many of the seismic events that took place in Ireland during the 1970s, 80s and 90s. The divorce and abortion referenda of the 1980s revealed a rural-urban divide, with people living in the country tending to be more conservative, whereas their urban counterparts were pushing for a more liberal society. While the Church stance held sway initially, the fault lines were already beginning to appear as a better educated laity were less inclined to be dictated to on moral issues, especially when it came to their sexual lives. The visit of Pope John Paul II in 1979, rather than marking an apogee in terms of Ireland’s commitment to Catholicism, was a last-ditch effort on the part of the Church to fight the growing secularism and massive fall-off in religious vocations since the 1960s. This was a situation that would not improve in future decades. Tony Flannery points all this out in From the Inside and in so doing, he made enemies for himself, particularly among the hierarchy. Quoting the title of Joseph Dunn’s best-seller, Flannery stated that there were ‘no lions in the hierarchy.’ He went further, saying: ‘The Church reverses into change rather than initiating it’ (172), a very effective metaphor in my estimation. Then came the statement that many would interpret as a betrayal:

We have bought into the clerical caste system and have failed to look outside it for the answers to the problems that presented themselves. Our thinking has been much too narrow and hidebound by the system. (From the Inside, 173-4)

Clericalism was the big enemy, with its exaltation of the ordained, its placing of them on a pedestal and its tendency never to question their authority. It is interesting to compare the positions taken by Flannery in 1999 and with those that one finds in his latest book, published more than two decades later. In the interval, the author has been removed from active ministry, can no longer say Mass in public, write articles or give interviews. These sanctions have been imposed without his being accorded the right to a fair trial – in fact, he was not even given the opportunity to defend himself. He is not allowed to know what accusations about his alleged conduct have been submitted to the CDF, or who his detractors are. It is unbelievably medieval and unjust as a system, but the results are very real and painful for the priest in question. What has Tony Flannery done that is so egregious? In my view, he has committed the ‘cardinal’ sin (excuse the pun) of speaking his mind, of saying things that many of his fellow priests and lay Catholics agree with, of exposing inconsistencies in relation to Church teaching on no-go areas such as the ordination of women, same-sex relationships, contraception, the immaculate conception, and so on. Brendan Hoban, a fellow priest and founding member of the ACP(Association of Catholic Priests), describes the dilemma of priests who find themselves at variance with the status quo:

If you are part of a tradition, it is very difficult to become part of the dismantling of the same tradition. If you give a wedge of your life to any activity, it is extremely difficult to stand back and set that work in a realistic context. The bigger the institution, the more sacred the tradition, the more difficult it is to ask hard questions about it.

Flannery has asked the ‘hard questions’ and his reward has been ostracization and banishment from the clerical club. What struck me while reading From the Outside, however, is the lack of bitterness on the part of the author who actually has come to consider his period in exile as a blessing. He has had time to read and reflect on what happened to him and on where he now stands in relation to certain Church doctrine. He reiterates his belief that there is no real obstacle to the ordination of women. One of the arguments put forward is that Jesus did not choose any women to be part of his team of apostles, but that fails to take into account the status of women in Jewish society at that time and ignores the important role played by the women like Mary Magdalene,who were close to Jesus throughout his ministry. As for Mary, the mother of God, according to the revealed doctrine of the Immaculate Conception, she was conceived without sin, a concept that many Catholics find difficult to accept. Instead of concentrating on such complex teaching, Flannery prefers to emphasise Mary’s human qualities: ‘We can see her (Mary) as a human being, a mother and wife, who struggled with all the same  problems as any woman in a relationship and raising a family.’

Flannery admits that there were times in his preaching and writing when he may have ‘flirted with what some would regard as heresy’ (From the Outside, 17), but in that regard he may merely have been following Jesus’ example; after all his time on earth revealed him to be a true ‘revolutionary’: ‘The Kingdom of God, as he (Jesus) preached it, was a radically different way of living, of relating and of organising society. It is no wonder the authorities were threatened by him.’ (From the Outside, 33) The authorities seem to feel the same way about Tony Flannery, if his harsh treatment meted out to him is anything to go by. Jesus was not someone who sought the approval of Establishment figures: indeed, he was distrustful of the High Priests in the synagogue and of the representatives of the Roman Empire. His message of love and justice for all made many uncomfortable, because of its radicality and the threat it posed to the accepted norms of the time. Equally, Jesus was not judgemental or doctrinaire, something that Flannery points out very well: ‘Nowhere do we hear Jesus advising his disciples to make rigid rules for the communities, and to exercise control over them.’ (From the Outside, 75)How different this is from the Church that has emerged two millennia later. We now have very clearly stated rules that Catholics are expected to obey. Some, like the exhortation to love God and our neighbour as much as we love ourselves, the interdiction on killing others, are laudable. Others would appear less so. Is it sinful for homosexuals to express the love they feel for one another physically? I cannot see anything morally wrong with that. Nor do I consider it sinful for couples to have recourse to artificial forms of contraception to control the number of children they have. Missing Mass on a Sunday, once considered a mortal sin, is not something that would bother me unduly anymore. Catholics whose marriages break down and who get divorced should not in my view be excluded from the sacraments if they get remarried. Women who get pregnant outside of marriage should be supported by their partners, family and the state, and they certainly should not be treated in the horrific way they were by the Irish Church and state in the past, as revealed in the recently published report into the Mother and Baby Homes. I find myself very much in agreement with Flannery’s sentiments as expressed below:

Personally I find it impossible to believe that the Church, as it is now, with its present structure, authority system and long list of rules and exclusions would be what Jesus might have wished, if indeed he wished for any type of institution at all. (From the Outside, 105-6)

I too believe that Jesus would be appalled at what his followers have done and still do in his name. I have the luxury of making these comments without posing any threat to my job or position in society. The worst that can happen me is to be branded an à la carte Catholic. For Tony Flannery, however, being outspoken can have serious consequences. Having been a priest all his life, his income, accommodation, health insurance, friends, are all bound up with his membership of the Redemptorists. So when Rome informed the Superior General of his order that Tony was to be sanctioned, citing four areas in which his writings had been deemed to be at variance with Church teaching, the impact must have been horrific. When one reads through the description of how he is alleged to have broken with Church teaching, one can see just how selective and unjust the process is. The four areas covered are: 1. The reservation of priesthood to men alone; 2. The moral liceity of homosexual practices; 3. The institution of marriage and same-sex marriages; 4. Gender theory. The full correspondence he received from the CDF is contained in an appendix at the end of the book. I am surprised to find a reference to ‘gender theory’ in relation to Tony, as it is not something about which he has written to the best of my knowledge. In order for him to be reintegrated into the fold and considered fit to celebrate Mass publicly again, Tony would have needed to sign the doctrinal propositions accompanying the outline of the four areas and renounce the positions taken on each of them.Naturally, he refused to do so.

One wonders why, at a time when the Catholic Church in the Western world is a waning force and when an aging and diminished clergy find it more and more difficult to carry out their duties, someone like Tony Flannery should be singled out for censure and banished to the margins. In point of fact, the positions he adopted in 1999 are very similar to the ones he espouses today and were sometimes expressed even more virulently then. Being excluded from ministry for the last eight years and viewing things from the ‘outside’ has allowed him to appreciate that it is often the role of the prophet to be reviled. But Flannery has decided to continue sharing his vision of Church, which is closer to that of many Catholics such as myself, and indeed to what Jesus initiated. The words of another priest-writer, Jean Sulivan, whose experience of French Catholicism in the 1960s and 70s has a strong resemblance to what is happening in Ireland today, seem apposite:

I see the Church detaching its members from structures of profit, conventional security and mythologies of happiness in order to make them spiritual nomads, capable of commitment without illusion, always ready to absent themselves in order to go somewhere else, straining for the impossible and necessary.

Like Sulivan, Tony Flannery is ‘straining for the impossible and necessary’ and in so doing, he is opening a path for many of his disoriented contemporaries who see the great need for a spiritual dimension in their lives and are increasingly dubious that they will find it within traditional religious practice.Hence, my call to Tony Flannery would be: ‘Stick with it, the world needs prophets like you. And, above all, keep writing, because your experience is not confined to you: it mirrors what many others among us are feeling.’

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