I felt ashamed of my Church
When I watched Fr Tony Flannery at his press conference in Dublin, a week last Sunday, telling his side of the story I have to admit that I felt a mixture of emotions: sadness; frustration; anger, regret, sympathy. Returning that evening on the train, as I tried to unpack how I felt, these emotions had coalesced into humiliation and shame.
Here was a man who had given his whole life to the Catholic Church. He entered the Redemptorists at 17; ten years later he was ordained; and between then and his 66th birthday he has preached missions all over Ireland, written articles, published books and served the Church to the best of his ability for almost 40 years. Here he was explaining the stand-off in which he found himself with the Vatican authorities.
A year ago a few extracts from his writings were sent to Rome. As a result he was ‘silenced’, asked to carry out a number of religious exercises and to respond to the charges against him. He did all of that and the cardinal in charge of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF), William Levada, commented that his declaration of faith was ‘very fine.’ It seemed as if everyone was happy, Flannery’s declaration would be published and that was that.
It looked as if Flannery would be returned to ministry within a matter of weeks. That was June. By September, Levada had retired and a new head of the CDF, Archbishop Gerhard Muller, added a number of other points to the document, specifically a statement that he accepted that the Catholic Chuch could never ordain women and that he declare his acceptance of all Catholic moral teachings.
Leaving aside the reason for the abrupt turn-around, Flannery concluded that, despite the fact that the CDF had threatened that he would be excommunicated and dismissed from the Redemptorists – an extract from the relevant CDF document is on the ACP website – he couldn’t put his name to the content proposed by the CDF without impugning his integrity and conscience. At an absolute minimum it seems a strange way for the Church to do its business.
That’s not to question the role Rome has as a central authority, responsible for the preservation of the faith. But it is to question the way it’s done. If the history of the Inquisition and its successor the Holy Office has taught us anything surely it is that we bring the Catholic Church into disrepute if individuals and their rights are not respected.
Flannery doesn’t know who made the accusations against him. The CDF has never met him and any correspondence he has received from them through a third party had no letter-head and no signature. He was ordered to keep the process secret, not to engage with the media, not to attend meetings of the Association of Irish Priests (ACP) and was threatened that if he didn’t sign the specified document he would be excommunicated.
To say the least it’s hard to justify that approach as an acceptable way of doing business: it’s out of place in a modern society with its resonances of the Inquisition; it’s ineffective; it’s counter-productive; it’s providing ammunition for those who oppose the Church to ridicule us; and it’s shooting ourselves once again in the foot. But most importantly of all, it is impossible to justify from the perspective of the carpenter of Nazareth.
The treatment of Tony Flannery is reminiscent of what happened to theologians in the decades before the Second Vatican Council (1962-65). That Council effectively apologised to those theologians and much of their wisdom, communicated through publications that were banned by the Holy Office, was incorporated into the documents.
We believed then that now that the Inquisition was buried in the mists of past centuries and, as now the Holy Office had transmuted itself into the CDF, that ‘heresy-hunting’, as Archbishop Diarmuid Martin called it, would be conducted in a way that echoed the respect for the individual at the very heart of that Council.
Have we learned nothing from the past three decades? Is there anyone in Ireland who believes anymore that binding people to secrecy is not just unacceptable but problematic, as Cardinal Seán Brady knows to his cost. Is there anyone who believes that it makes any sense at all to threaten or bully people into a position where they are expected to deny the primacy of their own conscience, a fundamental of our Catholic faith. And surely it does not take any dramatic insight into the future to predict that when the pendulum swings away from its present extremity people like Tony Flannery will be apologised to for the way they have been treated.
At the beginning of this piece I talked about the sense of humiliation and shame I felt returning from the Dublin press conference. What was wrong with our Church, I wondered, that it felt compelled to humiliate this good man by forcing him to publicly stand by his conscience at the price of his reputation, his integrity, his identity, his priesthood, his income and possibly his home?
Which is where my sense of shame comes from. I can say it no other way. There have been times in my life – many times I have to say – when I’ve felt embarrassed, frustrated, angry with my Church. But reflecting on the lonely figure Tony Flannery cast in Buswell’s Hotel on that Sunday afternoon I think for the very first time in my life, I felt ashamed of my Church. How could it all have come to this?
On the ACP website, where this issue is being debated, someone recalled the quotation of Patrick Pearse at the grave of O’Donovon Rossa in 1915: ‘They think that they have pacified Ireland. They think that they have purchased half of us and intimidated the other half’. It’s what institutions often attempt to do. It never works, of course. And it won’t now. I expect much more from my Church.