I first met Tony Flannery at his mother’s funeral. He said the funeral Mass and gave the homily. It was very different to the usual – full of love for a mother who had been such an anchor for him and his brothers but challenging, open and enlightening about the conversations they shared before her death. Conversations about the existence of God, the existence of Heaven and a range of other theological and philosophical subjects that marked Tony, in my mind, as a special priest. Not for him the pious platitudes we hear so often in Church. He made you think, he helped your thinking and that in my view is the greatest gift a priest can give us. Or it should be.
Now I’m no philosopher or a Church professional. I’m simply a committed Catholic who tries his best to live according to the rules, who attends mass on Sunday and if possible every day. I don’t have an axe to grind, I’m not part of any movement within the Church, I’m simply an ordinary Joe fighting to hold on to my faith and overcome the doubts which, from my experience, grow rather than decline with age.
I stand here tonight at the launch of Tony’s book, ‘A Question of Conscience’, shocked by the treatment by the Vatican of a good priest; treatment which can only be judged to have followed his role in founding and chairing Ireland’s Association of Catholic Priests; treatment which it seems to me would not have been out of place at the time of the Inquisition.
Now I don’t agree with all of Tony’s views but he is an honest and good man and good priest and what I read of the way he’s been treated makes me ashamed of the actions of those representing my Church.
Consider the facts for a moment: the Vatican Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith made accusations against Tony, passed judgment against Tony and decreed penalties to be imposed on Tony before Tony was aware anything was happening. How can this be justified?
The Vatican refused to deal directly with Tony in spite of the most serious accusations against him including the possibility of excommunication. All communications were only with the Superior General of the Redemptorists of which Tony is a member. Even if this has been traditional through the years, how can it be justified today?
So much for the bright new era that Tony and his fellow Redemptorist students were promised in the era which followed Vatican II No more, he was told, would Church teaching be imposed in a rigid and unbending way – instead Tony and his colleagues were urged to present the message of Christ in a way and in a language that spoke to life as their audience lived it.
Context is important in examining Tony’s life and convictions and assessing the treatment meted out to him as he endeavored to present the message of Christ through his religious life in a challenging new era.
The Redemptorists were, in Tony’s student days, a traditional and moralistic Order but that was transformed to an Order in the forefront of change and renewal in the Irish Church.
Tony, and his young priest colleagues, no longer represented the fire and brimstone image of the Redemptorists but a new priesthood, who listened to people and, so, were in touch with the realities of their lives.
What they learned was that Irish Catholics were increasingly thinking for themselves and rapidly emerging from the era when the Church was dominant and they did as they were told.
“We were”, says Tony in his book, “imbued with the teachings of the Second Vatican Council which states clearly that human beings are bound to follow their conscience.”
Tony makes clear that from his early days as a priest he loved preaching the Gospel and has no doubt it is a powerful and necessary message for our time. Increasingly, however, he asked himself if the institutional Church was proving an obstacle rather than a help in conveying the message.
He sensed – and his presence at Pope John Paul II’s visit to Galway confirmed to him – that the Church was heading for a period of retrenchment and the hopes and dreams Tony and his young priest colleagues had for the Church were going to be dashed.
To conservative churchmen Tony has been a controversialist from early on. His first book, “Death of Religious Life?”, had as its thesis that the apostolic style of religious life was in terminal decline and was no longer fulfilling an essential need. The book was not well received.
In his books and writings, Tony has been blunt in his comments about the failings of the Church over centuries, but specifically in an era of sexual scandal and the terrible failure to deal with the fall-out from the Brendan Smith scandal and others.
The horrific stories revealed over the next decades changed the face of the priesthood and the Church here; fall off in Church attendances accelerated rapidly, people began to look at priests in a new less favourable light, even with some suspicion.
Tony’s great dream of a new and vibrant church turned into a nightmare. “We found ourselves in an institution that was falling apart,” Tony tells us, and he makes no bones about his anger at the Church for failure to act promptly and decisively in the face of the horrific action of some priests.
But if the Irish bishops seemed to possess no real leadership, the Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith assumed more and more control of the Church.
Instead of being a servant of decision-makers, it actually became a decision maker itself and this, says Tony, is an unhealthy development. “We seemed to be heading back to a 19th Century model of the Church, rather than Vatican 2’s governance based on collegiality” , he says. That retrenchment in a challenging new era is at the heart of this book.
“A Question of Conscience”, is not about Tony, he tells us, but about the Vatican and how its constituent bodies deal with people who challenge any of their views.
Dissent is simply not tolerated, he says and Tony strongly believes he serves the Church best by bringing into the light of day the arcane and unjust processes that are the modus operandi of the CDF.
It is important to make the point that, while everyone might not agree with his views, these arcane and unjust processes were visited on Tony for articulating views that have been expressed by moral theologians and scripture scholars down the years. No more, no less. Views that are openly being discussed among theologians and scholars.
But what is sauce for the theological goose is not sauce for the ACP gander. In an extraordinary communication – unsigned and on unheaded paper – Tony is threatened with excommunication as a heretic for his views on the origins of the priesthood and whether celebrating the Sacraments belongs exclusively to the priesthood. Shortly after he received it Tony got a call asking him and his ACP Co-leaders not to make the communication public. And he did not.
Tony Flannery, in a statement requested by the CDF which they also required to have published, made clear anything he has written was written in good faith with absolutely no intent whatever to imply anything contrary to the truths of the Catholic faith to which he fully adheres and to which he has always adhered. The statement outlined his beliefs in accordance with his conscience. It is well worth reading to get the measure of the man.
It was, said Cardinal Levada, of the CDF, a very fine declaration of faith.
The trouble was Cardinal Levada retired soon afterwards. Since then Tony has been caught up in what can be described a campaign which would do justice to the most devious political organisation. It was because of this Tony Flannery went public with a New York Times interview and press conference in January and his book, “A Question of Conscience” , is an extension of this.
Tony Flannery has suffered grievously for his conscience and indeed ,as he sees it, for a lack of strong leadership in the Church. How ironic that, after the election of Pope Francis, discussion centred on the Vatican being in need of reform. Words like corrupt, dishonest and dysfunctional were used to describe the Vatican. Not to mention the accusation of “moles and vipers” there which we read about in recent weeks.
Irony is one thing, reality another. Tony Flannery is still out of ministry with, as he says, no real prospect of ever being allowed back. There has been no communication of any nature from the Vatican and he does not expect any immediate changes which will influence his situation. How sad, because as Tony makes clear after 40 years he still wants to be a priest and to function as a priest.
There are fundamental questions posed by the treatment of Tony Flannery:
- Why was action taken by the Vatican only after Tony helped found and chair the Association of Catholic priests which has now a membership of 1000 and whose objective is a renewal of Church in line with the teachings of 2nd Vatican Council?
- What in 21st Century Ireland is so insidious about an association of Catholic priests and the notion of a voice for priests at a critical time for the Church?
- Why did Tony’s writing cause no problems in the Vatican up to then?
- What makes Tony Flannery so dangerous theologically when he has articulated only what the surveys tell us is believed by the large majority of Catholics and is being discussed openly among Catholic scholars?
- What has secrecy and deception and intimidation to do with human relations in today’s world, most especially in the dealings of the Catholic Church?
Will we ever, I wonder, get answers from the Vatican?
I found Tony Flannery’s book, ‘A Question of Conscience’, at once riveting yet distressing in its description of the Vatican modus operandi which flaunts all human rights.
Yet shining through it all is the integrity of a good, committed Catholic priest who fights for the right of conscience at a time of major crisis in the Church.
We need Fr Tony Flannery at this time; we need the Association of Catholic Priests; we need a strong Church; we need more priests who recognize the realities of life today. I urge you to read “A Question of Conscience” and my hope is that Pope Francis reads this book too – and acts on it.