Silencing of ACP members by Rome was an attempt to crush the association
An important question: what have we learned in the Catholic Church over the last few decades about the way we do our business? One, that dealing with problems behind closed doors can cause more problems than it solves. A cult of secrecy has served the Church very badly. Two, respect is fundamental to the Christian enterprise. Without is we lose our bearings without it the institution becomes more important than the person, sometimes more important than the message.
In church matters, it is unarguable that those two defining principles transparency and respect are fundamental to Christian discourse. Unfortunately, as we know, as a Church we have often failed to practice what we preach, to the detriment of the Gospel of Jesus Christ and the reputation of our Church.
Tony Flannery has written a book A Question of Conscience about his experiences at the hands of the Vatican Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF) and it offers compelling evidence as a case study (quite apart from its devastating implications for his life and priesthood) in how not to conduct our business.
A bit of background. Three years ago Tony Flannery and a few others (myself included) founded the Association of Catholic Priests (ACP), to give a voice to priests and to encourage church reform along the lines of the Second Vatican Council. Soon it emerged that we had touched a nerve as more than 1,000 priests joined. Similar associations around the world emerged at the same time and the word was that Rome was uncomfortable with associations that were (i) independent and (ii) prepared to name some awkward truths. That message quickly percolated to Ireland and the ACP felt the brunt of official unease as the Papal Nuncio and the Irish bishops refused to meet us and a whispering campaign attempted to designate us as raving radicals out to destroy the Church rather than a group of priests who had given up years of service to a Church we love.
Official opposition to the ACP took a dispiriting turn when it emerged that five of our members had been ‘silenced’ by Rome among them one of our leaders, Tony Flannery. Flannery is convinced that the reason he was targetted was an attempt to dismantle the ACP and, on the evidence of this book, it’s difficult to question that conclusion: ‘If they could sideline the current leadership, they would frighten off any others who might take our place, and in this way crush the whole movement’.
The presenting problem was a number of articles Flannery had written for Reality magazine. An anonymous individual had photocopied and sent to Rome extracts from the articles. Reality is a popular magazine written in a popular style for a wide audience. It doesn’t do theological treatises with a mass of footnotes to cover every single possible interpretation. A bit like the Western People. And Flannery’s columns were like my columns, where extracts taken out of context could give a different interpretation, depending on the mind of the person reading it.
The CDF contacted the Redemptorist superior general in Rome who summoned Flannery to Rome where two A4 pages were handed to him, with no heading or signature to indicate where they came from (though it was clear that they were from the CDF). The first contained extracts from the Reality articles and the second drew attention to the ‘gravity’ of Flannery’s position and detailed instructions about his withdrawal from public ministry and the imposition of ‘a period of spiritual and theological reflection at a location far removed from his ordinary place of residence’.
For Flannery, up to that point, a conductor of parish missions and retreats for over 40 years, it was a strange and often surreal experience with the Redemptorist authorities in Rome carrying out the instructions of the CDF but the CDF refusing to deal directly with him. (Or even tell him who made the anonymous accusations against him.)
As the situation developed it was clear that, even though the evidence against Flannery was very thin, and even though the then head of the CDF indicated that the situation could be amicably resolved, his successor added a number of extra conditions (not at issue up to that point), a humiliation that Flannery was not prepared to condone.
Eventually Flannery came to believe that he wouldn’t be allowed minister as a priest again and that ‘the best way I could continue to serve the Church was by bringing into the light of day the arcane and unjust processes of the CDF’. Later he held a press conference in Dublin at which he placed on public record the documents he had received and he resisted all efforts to force him to cut off his ties with the ACP. The twists and turns of the controversy, including the documentation involved, are laid out very clearly and, I suggest, very fairly in this important book.
A Question of Conscience is a compelling and often rivetting account of one priest’s efforts to defend his reputation and his priesthood and the price he is willing to pay to speak the truth. I couldn’t recommend it too highly because I believe that in years to come when (hopefully) we will look back on a reformed Vatican this book will represent one of those key moments when the gathering unease about the way our institution operates found compelling evidence of the need for radical reform in the Church we love.
The CDF won’t like it, of course, but I suspect Pope Francis will be happy with it, though he won’t pretend to have read it, if his minders get their way. Kick up a fuss, he encouraged three million young people in Rio de Janeiro recently, and I suspect that he will be more than happy with Flannery’s ‘fuss’ if it helps to drag the CDF kicking and screaming into the twenty-first century.
At a time when clerical careerists all over the Church (including in Ireland) are holding up a wet finger to see which way the wind is blowing, Flannery at huge cost to himself is offering a deeper and a wider truth to the Church he has served so well for so long.
I take off my hat to his conscience and his courage. We are all in his debt.