Liberal Catholics expect freedom of speech and conscience — Kevin Hegarty
THE PAINTER Tony O’Malley had a custom of creating an artwork every Good Friday. When news broke during Holy Week of the Vatican censure of Fr Tony Flannery and the Redemptorist magazine Reality, I wished I could paint a picture to express my sadness.
Pope Benedict’s address at a Holy Thursday Mass in Rome copperfastened my gloom. Responding to a call to disobedience by Austrian priests and laity on celibacy and women priests he asserted that they had challenged “definite decisions of the church’s magisterium”.
Church leaders often talk of the right of free speech, most recently the Pope himself on his visit to Cuba. The recent Vatican moves are designed to create a climate of fear among liberal clerics. To echo a comment some years ago of the English writer AN Wilson, the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith has “ways of making you not talk”.
I know Tony Flannery quite well. He has given 40 years of sincere service as a priest, mainly as a preacher of missions throughout Ireland. He is an engaging and empathetic speaker and an innovative liturgist. His columns in Reality, based on his commitment to the ideals of the Second Vatican Council and his vast knowledge of the Irish church, were often thought-provoking.
He is one of the founders of the Association of Catholic Priests, set up in September 2010, and one of its leadership team. The association has provided a forum for debate and an independent voice for Irish priests.
Among its achievements was its intervention in the case of Fr Kevin Reynolds, who was grievously libelled in the Prime Time Investigates programme last May.
I expect that Fr Reynolds would agree that without this help he would still be languishing in a limbo from which he might never have emerged.
Perhaps it is not surprising that the Vatican has moved to censure Fr Flannery. The Second Vatican Council promised an open and dialogical church, willing to engage with the secular world. Since the 1980s there has been in Rome a retreat from its reforms.
Pope Benedict has a jaundiced view of the council’s spirit. Last year he sent a team of apostolic visitors to examine the Irish church in the wake of the sexual abuse scandals. In the summary of their report issued recently, the visitors have a cut at liberal Catholics. They noted that a significant number of Irish Catholics held views at variance with “the teaching of the magisterium”.
They should be accorded full marks for their powers of observation. The many liberal Catholics in Ireland hope for a church that is open to married and women priests, a rethink on the issue of contraception as exhorted by Humanae Vitae, and a reversal of the harsh insensitivity of the teaching on homosexuality.
We have come to these positions as a result of honest and honourable reflection. We are not seeking change for the sake of change. We believe that such reforms would aid the emergence of a church that is more humane, relevant and inspiring, a church released from the clammy grip of clericalism.
Nor are these sincerely held views at variance with the fundamental doctrines of the church as the visitors claimed in their report. These doctrines relate, for example, to the humanity and divinity of Christ, the resurrection and the sacraments.
I am not aware of any priest in Ireland who publicly dissents from these beliefs.
There is a tendency of conservative church commentators to argue that liberal clerics are an ageing, disgruntled minority who have turned their misinterpretations of the Second Vatican Council into a kind of holy writ.
To them we are castaways on a remote island, brazenly holding aloft the tattered banners of the 1960s. They won’t like this but I have to disillusion them.
Anecdotal evidence, coupled with the results of a number of professional surveys, indicate that the majority of Irish Catholics support radical change in the church’s ministry and moral teaching.
To paraphrase Gerry Adams in a different context, we are not going away. The Vatican has been a “cold house” for liberal Catholics in recent years. The least we expect is respect for our freedom of speech and conscience.
A reform of the church which excludes these rights is a form of repression. It seems that Pope Benedict thinks “a creative minority” of Catholic conservatives will transform the church in Europe. To me that sounds like a polite euphemism for an assembly of Rick Santorum lookalikes.
Fr Kevin Hegarty is a priest in the parish of Kilmore-Erris in Co Mayo, and a columnist with the Mayo News.