There’s far more at stake than the future of just one priest
“Truth can impose itself on the mind of man only in virtue of its own truth, which wins over the mind with both gentleness and power.” (Article 1, Declaration on Religious Liberty, Vatican II 1965)
Way back in 1965 this official statement reconciled me to the Catholic Church, after years of agonising as a student of history over its long record of religious persecution. That was all behind us now, I told myself. The church at its summit had at long last realised that truth cannot be conveyed or strengthened by coercion. The truth of the Creeds is centrally also love, so in future it would only be communicated lovingly, in freedom.
This conclusion was supported by the strong criticism directed by some eminent bishops during the council toward the formerly unjust practices of the church’s central theological monitor, the Holy Office (once the Roman Inquisition). This body became the ‘Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith’ on the same day the Declaration on Religious Liberty was formally ratified. Most of us then expected that the CDF would now develop procedures and structures that would bear comparison with the highest principles of jurisprudence in the secular world.
The CDF has instead reverted to the intellectual brutalities of the Holy Office, reneged on this key Vatican II declaration on religious freedom, and very seriously weakened the authority of the church.
From 1965 until 2012 in Ireland we could all confidently believe that those Irish priests who strictly adhered to all the positions of the magisterium, even on controversial matters, were doing so freely in good conscience. We could do so because there was visible freedom in the church to express conscientious reservations about some non-essential aspects of those teachings. That freedom was visible only because people like Fr Tony Flannery had shown the courage to call for a rethink on a number of issues, some in the difficult area of sexuality. He did that not from the ambo in the chapel but as a media columnist – so every adult Catholic in Ireland knew that he was expressing a purely personal, and therefore fallible, opinion. Far from accepting everything he wrote as necessarily correct, we knew that he might well be in error – as did he. However, we knew the dignity attributed to private conscience by St Thomas Aquinas and Cardinal Newman. We knew also that key changes in church teaching – for example on slavery and monetary lending at interest – could not have occurred without conscientious disagreement among theologians, or without a magisterium courageous enough to tolerate opposing views.
So Fr Flannery’s open statement of his conscientious difficulties served to buttress also our confidence in the magisterium, because it too, by its restraint, was visibly witnessing to the dignity of private conscience, as well as to its confidence in its own positions. Tony’s witness, like that of other outspoken priests, told me that I was a member of a thinking and mature church, not a closed and fearful club that could never dare to reconsider anything.
The truth of those issues would in the end convey itself solely by virtue of its own truth, as Vatican II had confidently insisted.
Now, in a process that defies the promise of St John the Evangelist that perfect love will cast out fear, the CDF’s perfect fear has cast out love – as well as justice – from the central administration of the church. We are forced from now on to the conclusion that it may well be this same fear, rather than sincere faith, that rules the minds of those who do not differ from the central magisterium on any issue. This decision to excommunicate a priest for giving expression to private conscience on some non-creedal questions has delivered another deadly blow against the trust that needs to reign within the church if it is to fulfil its mission, and to educate. It has compromised every priest on the island who never questions anything. What answer can such a priest now give to the most tempting teenage gibe: “Aren’t you just saying that because you would lose your job if you didn’t?”
I too wait now to hear how Irish bishops will react to this CDF decision. Tony Flannery’s future is at stake, but so is something else. I can see no prospect of a successful ‘New Evangelisation’ in an Ireland dominated by the delusion that a seamless clerical unanimity, achieved only by threat of excommunication, will defend the truth. Instead that delusion can only strengthen a rampant secularist campaign to represent Catholic teaching as nothing more than repressive indoctrination. The Irish fans of Richard Dawkins can sit back at present, knowing they can trust the CDF to score their best goals for them.