‘A Question of Conscience’ is not about Tony Flannery but about the Vatican

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.

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  1. Seamus Ahearne osa says:

    Bill O Herlihy spoke very well on Thursday. He said that he wasn’t a philosopher or a Church professional; that he was a committed Catholic who attended Mass on Sundays and daily if possible. He said that he didn’t agree with all of Tony’s views and then he spoke passionately of his sadness at how Tony has been treated. He clearly was shocked at the behaviour of his Church.
    I think he also provides a possible way the College of Bishops in Ireland can deal with this problem. They could speak to Rome in this manner:
    1. We (as the Bishops of Ireland) believe that this issue (Tony
    Flannery, Sean Fagan, Brian Darcy, et alia) has been handled
    very badly by the CDF.
    2. We further believe that this mishandling of people has been
    detrimental to the Church in Ireland and is affecting real
    Evangelisation in our country. .
    3. We than ask all such Censures be withdrawn and that the local
    Church become responsible for dealing with such problems.
    4. We also say that we don’t agree with all the views of these
    priests but we value an honest and robust discussion which is
    essential in the Church evolving in a New Ireland.
    (Priests’ Council and Pastoral Councils might take up the same issue and write to Charles Brown. )
    Seamus Ahearne osa

  2. There was a report that the nuncio stated in an interview that the CDF did not silence Tony Flannery, but that he was silenced by his own religious superiors.
    If this reported statement is true, then I suppose it had to be a lie.

  3. Linda, Derry says:

    Why do some Catholics have a problem, unless being instructed to sin, with obedience, “doing what they were told?”. Not being rude, contradictory or argumentative just for the sake of it, but sincerely trying to comprehend what the problem is. My understanding is that Jesus told the apostles, the first Bishops, “they that hear you, hear me” and Our Lady instructed “Do as he tells you”. I know that doesn’t mean we exaggeratedly make a God or idol out of anyone with ignorance or complacency as to the reality that, due to human frailty, power and influence can corrupt, or that any mere mortal, with respect, is unwaveringly infallible in all they say or do,never sin, get everything right all the time, I believe however that the Holy Spirit works in a particularly powerful way through papal church teaching and infallibly so when teaching definitively ex-cathedra e.g the Assumption of Our Lady, Women Priests etc. St Padre Pio said “where there is no obedience, there is no love, and where there is no love, there is no God”. It would take some ego to think we know better than Jesus Christ, Our Lady and a stigmatic saint . That’s my belief anyway 🙂

  4. Soline Humbert says:

    Women Priests ex cathedra? Alleluia! Magnificat!
    ” teaching definitely ex cathedra eg The Assumption of Our Lady,Women Priests etc”.
    I thought the only ex cathedra definition was that of the Assumption of Mary in 1950,
    but if you tell me that Women Priests are now ex cathedra…that’s wonderful news. “As the church as always taught…”

  5. Margaret Trench says:

    I would like to endorse the proposal made by Seamus Ahern.
    As a church struggling to find a credible voice now in Ireland this issue has to be dealt with by the church authorities. Otherwise every position our church leaders take, every debate they contribute to, every attempt at renewal and evangelisation, will result in them (and us Catholics) being dismissed by people who will quote from this saga of ‘dealing with silenced priests’
    We know this from the recent Pro life debate- the calls for a free vote on conscience grounds – were received as lacking in credibility – a case of do what we say but not as we do.
    We need to move on.
    We need to take advantage of the good will that is now out there for the church since the election of Pope Francis.
    As a daily mass goer too, I plead with our Bishops, as well as praying constantly, that this issue will be dealt with soon and in a way that will help us to again rebuild a church committed to the person of Jesus Christ.
    Come Holy Spirit Come.

  6. Martin Murray says:

    Linda (Post 3 above,) things are not as straightforward as they may seem. Apparently Pope Francis very recently in a wide-ranging interview for sixteen Jesuit publications around the world, has insisted that “thinking with the church” cannot mean solely thinking with the hierarchy.
    If its any consolation he also again rejected the ordination of women to the priesthood. But of course that doesn’t mean that those of us who believe in it cannot continue to call for it to be considered as the voice of the Spirit in our hearts for our time. That voice I believe is gaining in strength and may indeed one day be discerned for what we believe it is.
    See http://ncronline.org/blogs/ncr-today/pope-rejects-church-small-minded-rules-jesuit-interview

  7. Eddie Finnegan says:

    Now, which raving heretical lunatic has just delivered himself of this dollop of heterodoxy? Shouldn’t we delate the dangerous wretch to the CDF ?
    I could guess who put the madman up to this. If it wasn’t Tony Flannery, it must have been Seamus Ahearne or Iggy. Jesuits! Augustinians! Redemptorists! Aren’t they all the same? Give me a sane, silent and subtly invisible Maynooth man any day. Luckily, we have no local episcopi who might take this Argie seriously.

  8. Soline Humbert says:

    Martin, actually I may have missed it but I saw no reference to women priests,for or against, in the interview with Pope Francis.
    What I did notice was “I dream of a church that is mother and shepherdess”…Shepherdess…with only male shepherds?…

  9. Joe O'Leary says:

    Eddie, I am guessing that this must be from the pope’s interview — a goldmine worth thirty encyclicals, which I am just reading now.

  10. Tom Morgan says:

    It’s a little clearer today that the new Pope is no supporter of the bloated moral dogma of the North American hierarchy. For those of us who have walked away this is heartening. If the substance rather than the style ever gains ground beyond the few silenced prophets we respect in Ireland- then maybe a glimmer of hope will return.

  11. Eddie Finnegan says:

    Joe,@10: “a goldmine worth thirty encyclicals”. Only thirty? I’ve taken my pick and shovel over the past 24 hours to the 92 Wikipedia-listed encyclicals starting with nine by Gregory XVI (Paul Cullen’s mentor) and I’m sure it’ll do more good than all 92 stretched start to finish – even including ‘Mater et Magistra’, ‘Pacem in Terris’ and ‘Populorum Progressio’. Some strange titles from the accidental opening words of those 92.
    Relieved, then, to see that Francis’s encyclical-by-interview has begun like St Patrick’s Confessio: “Ego Bergoglio, peccator.” A better title than the Jesuits’ “A Big Heart open to God”. A more ominous title from his second paragraph might be “Vix Romam Cognosco” – “I don’t know Rome very well”. Well, we’ll see.
    It’s good again to see a public-private person’s real thought revealed with the help of a searching but empathetic interviewer: as with Cardinal Heenan (or even Richard Nixon) reluctantly opening up to David Frost. Or, better still, Seamus Heaney generously opening up to Dennis O’Driscoll in ‘Stepping Stones’.
    I agree with your suggestion in a follow-up thread: ACP should mine this goldmine in a series more geared to the pastoral and spiritual concerns of pastors who may or may not be visible members of the Association – those “sane, silent and subtly invisible Maynooth men”. Maybe those pastors should include bishops too.

  12. The Tony Flannery challenge is, I think, less one issue than a continuation of religions in search of a first cause for the billions of galaxies in the universes. Yes, plural.
    To find a way to cope I left the Catholic priesthood forty some years ago and was ordained in another denomination. We all need to find our own way and quit trying to reform self-righteous denominations and keep the search for truth alive and revealing. My best to Tony. I too was a Redemptorist priest but did not find fighting leaderships worth the effort.

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