What did the bishop achieve?

Fr Tony Flannery has paid a high price for his membership of the Association of Catholic Priests (ACP). A founder member, over five years ago, in the dog-days of the Pope Benedict era, Tony and others (including myself) spelled out as our platform the need for an agenda of reform for the Church we had served for decades – and which everyone (or almost everyone) could see was dying by the day.
That we struck a nerve with our fellow-priests was obvious. Within a year or so over 1,000 priests has signed on as members. But because we didn’t fit into the tradition of priests being seen and not heard and because bishops were in denial of the reality of Catholic life in Ireland, we were regarded as ‘dissidents’, partly responsible (as Pope Benedict’s Apostolic Visitation team would later report) for the bleak situation of the Catholic Church in Ireland.
It would be funny if it wasn’t so serious. The high-powered ‘Visitors’ from overseas (Cardinals and archbishops) looked in from afar for scapegoats and the ACP, to their mind, fitted the bill. We were part of the reason, they concluded, why the Church in Ireland was in such disarray!
We (the ACP) had imagined in our innocence that the Irish bishops would be happy (even anxious) to hear the views of almost 30% of their priests, especially priests who had bourne the heat of the day and had served the Church for many years. But caution prevailed and the bishops refused to meet us – as did Archbishop Brown, the papal nuncio. We were, as they say, bad news.
We were warned that, as leaders of the ACP, we were easy targets for a swish of the crozier. We were warned that there might well be, in view of the Catholic Church’s history in the past, an effort to get at the shepherds so that the sheep would scatter, but we didn’t take that advice/threat very seriously. We couldn’t imagine that anyone could possibly be so irredeemably stupid. But, incredibly, they were.
Someone had reported some popular writings of Tony Flannery to the CDF in Rome.
What Tony was doing, in his column in Reality magazine, was asking, in popular form, questions that theologians and Scripture scholars have been asking for years. He was recognising the respectable concept in Catholic theology of the development of doctrine, the understanding that teaching can change, which it demonstrably has. He wasn’t saying anything hundreds of others hadn’t been saying for years.
But it suited to depict Tony Flannery as some kind of crazed radical intent on doing whatever damage he could to the Church and the fact that he was a founding member of the ACP left him exposed. He was ‘one of them’.
I have absolutely no doubt at all, but that Tony’s position in the leadership of the ACP did him no favours. The result was his ‘silencing’, and his effective banishment from priesthood – a terrible injustice to a decent man.
In view of his long and significant service to the Irish Church, the Irish bishops should be beating a path to Rome demanding his reinstatement – particularly in view of the fact that since the CDF did their worst, a new pope has been elected, and there’s hardly a whit of difference between the direction he’s pointing the Church and the platform of the ACP. Pope Francis is, as someone suggested, stealing our clothes.
But the Irish bishops, as ever instead of taking responsibility for their dioceses, even in the pontificate of Pope Francis when the ‘una voce’ dog-days of the last two pontificates are long gone, are still looking over their shoulders at Rome wondering what way Rome expects them to jump and asking, ‘how high?’
All of the above is a reaction to the decision of Bishop Billy Crean of Cloyne to an invitation by the Pastoral Council of Killeagh parish in Cork to invite Tony to speak in the parish church. Bishop Crean contacted the provincial of the Redemptorists to order Tony to withdraw and the man in charge of the Reds had the good sense not to do his bidding. The bishop then ordered the PP, Tim Hazelwood, to withdraw the invitation. Hazelwood quite properly told him that the invitation came from the Pastoral Council. The Pastoral Council decided to change the venue to a community hall where the writ of the bishop was presumed not to run. Still the bishop visited the Pastoral Council and, under pressure, they and the PP, agreed to withdraw the invitation.
Does the Irish Church imagine that Tony Flannery would do irreparable damage to its reputation if it allowed him to speak, in a community hall in far-flung Killeagh, on Pope Francis, of all people? Did the bishop think that Killeagh and Cloyne wouldn’t be able to cope with the damage that Tony Flannery would do in one talk? Or was it that he looked over his shoulder to Rome and decided that he had no alternative?
So what did the bishop’s decision achieve? It diminished and possibly angered Killeagh’s Parish Council and their PP. It sent a strong signal that Pastoral Councils, unless they are the voice of the bishop, will be given no say in the running of their Church. It has brought the Irish Catholic Church once more into disrepute in that it showed that other voices have no place in it, even if Pope Francis encourages them in the wider Church. It insulted Tony Flannery by portraying him as some kind of noxious virus. And it shows once again that the people are ahead of the priests, the priests are ahead of the bishops and the bishops, caught in the nineteenth century, are either out of touch or in abject denial.
In football terms, the management are living off the glories of the past, the players on the field are past their sell-by date and the frustrated supporters are leaving the grounds in droves, unable to cope with the final whistle.

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  1. Donal O'C says:

    What did the Bishop achieve? Well, he has contributed to the new phase of the Tony Flannery Saga. This new phase is ‘constructive ambiguity’ where the waters are muddied about who has authority to lift the censure on Tony. ‘Pass the Buck’ is the latest activity as it passes from CDF, to Redemptorists, to Papal Nuncio and so on…

  2. I am pleased that Brendan in this, once again, excellent piece has explained the actual process that occurred in this latest and scandalous episode in the ongoing mistreatment of Tony Flannery.
    I am glad to know that the provincial of the Redemptorists refused to do Bishop Crean’s dirty work for him and I am pleased to learn that Fr. Tim Hazelwood and the parish council in Killeagh initially actually resisted — but I have to ask why did they eventually succumb?

  3. Lloyd Allan MacPherson says:

    When these things happen, consider them gifts. It brings old tales back into light and fuels your fires or at least it should. This is a conversation worth having but unlikely with the Pope as he has better things to do, as do all of us. Petition to have a formal apology from the Bishop and then make this known to his superior. Put your numbers (in the hundreds) to email and hit the Bishop collectively in two/three days. Be explicit in what it is you are requesting and follow up within 48 hours if there is no response. What is the worst thing he can do, ignore you?

  4. Brendan Dinneen says:

    Brendan, as usual, expresses a simple truth in simple terms. His final word sums up the whole sorry saga – “sad”.
    Tony Flannery has addressed more Irish Catholics in their respective parish churches than has any other priest or bishop in Ireland over the past forty years. He has helped people to understand that their faith is relevant to the real everyday world in which they live.
    He has been a highly successful Redemptorist missionary for his entire priestly life, a vocation from which he is now, apparently, indefinitely excluded – but not by his Order. They had to take direction from anonymous official(s) of the CDF in Rome. Read the full story in Tony’s book “A Question of Conscience”.
    Bishop Billy Crean is no anonymous functionary of the system. He is a much loved and highly respected priest of the Diocese of Kerry. He was appointed Bishop of Cloyne at a very difficult time for the Irish Church and the Diocese of Cloyne.
    As a newly appointed bishop with an ex CDF Papal Nuncio, who knows what phone calls Billy has had to take over the last few weeks?
    Yes, it is a sad cul-de-sac into which the Irish bishops have been corralled.
    Tony Flannery is, ironically, now a free man. The bishops are the ones that are silenced!
    Their response to their eventual “meeting” with ACP was another illustration of their state of collective denial.
    The ACP, all of whom are mature priests working at the coalface, wanted a conversation about the future of the priesthood in Ireland. They were told to go away and pray for vocations!
    Is there any constructive role in the Irish Catholic Church for well-informed, competent and articulate priests or laity – male or female, gay or straight?

  5. I had never heard of Billy Crean until last weekend. I knew nothing about him. So, when Brendan Dinneen@4 tells us that ” he is a much loved and highly respected priest of the Diocese of Kerry”, I take his word for it and I believe him. So, are we to believe that Billy too is a victim in all of this? Has he been bullied from above to take the action he took? Were my severely negative feelings towards him all week misplaced, I am wondering. I am feeling guilty now.
    Surely, it would be good for all concerned if the full story was known. Could the ” Sources close to …….” journalistic device not be used to fill in the blanks in this story. Brendan Hoban, in the original article above, has already filled in most of them.
    I also appreciate Brendan Dinneen’s strong affirmation of Tony’s outstanding ministry down through the years. Perhaps, you are a priest, Brendan, in whose parish Tony has preached. I have never heard Tony preach. However,I have read the full story in “A Question of Conscience” Most of all I admire him for the part he played in forming the ACP which has been such a God-send for us all, definitely the work of the Holy Spirit.
    One final thought; if Bishop Crean was bullied into taking the action he did in the parish of Killeagh, would this not be further justification for Fr. Tim and his parish council refusing to capitulate.

  6. Peter Clifton says:

    Like Paddy Ferry, I too have read Tony Flannery’s “A Question of Conscience”, but I put down the book with two quite distinct reactions.
    As regards the procedures followed by the CDF, they were a total disgrace. No one from a common law system
    would consider that they came anywhere meeting elementary standards of fairness. In a word or two, the
    defendant never received a fair trial.
    If, however, one stands back from the procedural shambles, and looks objectively at the complaints and at Fr
    Flannery’s impugned writings, one is left (at any rate, I am) with the very definite feeling that his opinions
    place him well outside the limits of Catholic orthodoxy. My conclusion was that his views would much more
    comfortably be accommodated within Anglicanism; and at the liberal, rather than the Catholic or evangelical, corner of the Anglican triangle. I say this with no disrespect whatever to Tony Flannery or to Anglicanism, but
    simply as reflecting what seems to me to be the reality of the matter. But I may, of course, be misunderstanding
    and over-simplifying questions which are beyond my reach as a lawyer!

  7. In relation to No. 6 above:
    Peter, I read with interest your feedback on my account of my dealings with Church authorities, and your reecognition of the injustice of the procedures.
    As regards your second point, I would appreciate if you could be a little more specific; it would help me to understand. Which of my written views are, in your opinion. “well outside the limits of catholic orthodoxy’, and would be more at home in the “liberal corner of the Anglican triangle”?
    Like you,I do not want to show any disrespect to anglicanism, or indeed any other faith that people hold on to in an effort to find meaning in this complex and mysterious life we live. But I have been, and continue to be, labouring under the belief (illusion??) that my expressed views are more in tune with the mainstream view in our Church, and as such I would consider myself as ‘centrist’ rather than occupying an extreme position.
    Maybe you can enlighten me>

  8. Peter Clifton says:

    Tony Flannery @ 7 – Many thanks for your swift and courteous reply. I am travelling in Europe at present, and have given away your copy of my book, but on my return I will get hold of another copy and get back to you – it
    may take a couple of weeks. If you were able to let me know your address for correspondence, I
    would prefer to do so by letter. Very best wishes to you. Peter

  9. Responding to No. 8.
    Peter, I don’t think that is a good idea. Your original assertion about my unorthodox views was made in the public forum, i.e. this website. Further discussion, if there is to be any, should also take place in the same forum.

  10. Peter Clifton says:

    Tony – I entirely accept your point. I aim respond on this thread within a fortnight. Peter

  11. kaythegardener says:

    The fine people of Killeagh missed a wonderful opportunity to hear for themselves some clear explanations of some of the current problems in the RCC, especially those affecting the laity.
    Fr Tony came to Portland, Oregon, USA a couple of years ago & held the audience spellbound for nearly 3 hours. Nothing heretical or scandalous was said on his part…
    Are the Hierarchs so thin-skinned that they imagine grave scandal over every report or disagreement of their actions??
    Many of them ARE downright stupid, petty & bullying…
    Trying to censor the messenger just spreads the message even quicker & farther.

  12. Brendan Cafferty says:

    @ Peter Clifton & @Tony Flannery. Peter I think it is wrong that you should make allegations like that in a public forum while you are ” travelling” and unable to back them up when challenged. You obviously have had some general ideas in your head when you posted as you did, and you entitled to do so of course. But then you come along and say you have to wait until you get home. You should have been man enough to give a broad view of what you had in mind when asked. So you now wait to get your hands on the book and go through it with a gimlet eye ? Not good enough to try and paint with a broad brush.

  13. Peter Clifton says:

    I am grateful to the moderator for restoring the comment box on this post.
    I have now re-read “A Question of Conscience.” Neither reading was undertaken in the spirit of a heresy-hunt. But the book is the tale of a controversy, told from the viewpoint of one of the protagonists, and this naturally prompts the reader to ask himself
    “Who was right?”
    On the procedure followed by the CDF, I very rapidly came to the conclusion, as I have already indicated, that the CDF acted disgracefully.
    On the substantive views of the author, it was only towards the end of the book that I concluded that these fell on the “non-orthodox” side of the fence.
    (1) The question of the ordination of women has been closed by Ordinatio Sacerdotalis (affirming the earlier Inter Insigniories; and elucidated by two subsequent responsa of the CDF). For Fr Flannery to treat the issue as still open to debate (pages 108-109) seems to me to run contrary to definitive Papal teaching.
    (2) Fr Flannery was asked by the CDF whether he accepted the whole teaching of the Church in relation to moral issues. I should say that the question is a distasteful one, being so broad as to raise a suspicion that it was put by way of a trap. Nonetheless, the only orthodox answer would surely be an unqualified affirmative, and this Fr Flannery was unable to give (pages 109-110).
    I hope that Fr Flannery will accept that my original comments were not made in any spirit of hostility. He has done valuable work, and his suspension is unfair to him and a deprivation to others.
    My reference to the Anglican Communion was limited to indicating where, in my view, Fr Flannery’s opinions (not necessarily Fr Flannery himself!) could most comfortably be accommodated.

  14. Cloyne now going in ever decreasing circles? The parish council of Killeagh have more than “missed an opportunity…”. What has very publicly happened is that a group of adults have been asked to behave as less than adults, less than their better selves, and have yielded to the request. This is not an instance of “the ascent of man.”

  15. I always had a feeling the something was rotten in the Catholic Church. It was only when I read Tony’s book that I realised I was not just being paranoid. Thanks for writing the book Tony it has helped me regain my sanity. Sometimes I am deeply ashamed of the working practices of the Roman catholic Church.

  16. Peter,
    Thank you very much for your latest comment. You do me an honour by not only reading my book once, but twice. Your comments are thoughtful and reasonable, and I fully respect your right to hold them, even if they differ from the positions I have chosen.
    Even more importantly, you present them in a respectful fashion, which is really refreshing. If all religious discussion could be conducted in such a fashion we would be a long way towards reaching solutions to the problems we are facing in our Church.

  17. Peter Clifton says:

    Tony – To conclude, thank you for taking my comments in the spirit in which they were
    offered. If everyone was as committed to upholding the decencies of debate as you are, and
    as I hope I am, the Church would be a healthier and happier place. God bless.

  18. I have no wish to prolong the conversation, above, between Tony and Peter. However, I wish to make one suggestion to Peter. I spent my summer holidays reading two of Garry Wills excellently researched books, “Why Priests” and “Papal Sin”. I first became aware of Garry Wills through references to him and his work on this site a couple of years ago.
    I would like to recommend these books to Peter as I think they may well change his assessment of Tony’s views on the issues referred to.

  19. Nessan Vaughan says:

    Bishop Crean’s decision is lamentable, although not surprising. It is a blow to any perception that Pastoral or Parish Councils are autonomous or independent of veto by Bishops. His decision is insulting to Fr Flannery and to the Parish Council itself. It is in tune with the leadership of the Church as exercised by Popes Benedict and John Paul- intolerant of any alternative perspective or presentation of the faith. However it does not sit well with the tone and tolerance exemplified by Pope Francis.
    The more I reflect on the work and leadership of the ACP, the more I am convinced that it is being encouraged and inspired by the Holy Spirit. I am conscious that it (ACP) was set up prior to the election of Pope Francis, whose papacy thus far, is, in my view, an endorsement of the work of the ACP and of the ACI leadership.
    Nessan Vaughan

  20. Yesterday’s reading from Wisdom 2 12-19 seems very topical – something that pertains to those with an instinct for power and who always seek opportunities to augment their power. Some years ago the great soprano Cecilia Bartoli was invited to sing at the Vatican. But on being asked to make a declaration that she “supported Vatican teaching”, she declined. The concert was called off. Cecilia Bartoli showed courage and dignity. And that is the kind of example that people need.

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