09Sep 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.

24 Responses

  1. Mary O Vallely

    Hear, hear, Brendan Hoban! I just finished Tony’s book last night and my heart goes out to him as he seems to be in a kind of limbo, a prison not of his own making. This account I found very emotional. I felt anger on Tony’s behalf and yet great pride in knowing that he was being true to his own well-formed conscience and you cannot help loving the man for that, his sheer honesty and his love for God and God’s people. Never having witnessed Tony in full preaching mode (my loss) I accept that this is possibly a phase of his life which may be over. However, his gifts are still needed by us all and I know I speak for so many when I say we are all behind him, we support his stance and we will remember him daily in prayer. Keep the hearts up, boys (well, no girls as yet among ye for the present). All WILL be well and all manner of things will be well. We stand united!

  2. Ned Quinn

    I was shocked and saddened by this book. What shines through it is Tony Flannery’s integrity. This is in stark contrast to the secretive and duplicitous ways of the CDF. And it begs the question: Why is this good priest still out of ministry?

  3. Brendan Cafferty

    Indeed it is a sad and pathetic affair the way a good priest like Tony Flannery has been dealt with. I happened to live in two parishes in which he gave retreats (or missions then,with stalls outside church selling religious objects) He was nothing but kindness and goodness long way removed from the old days of fire and brimstone sometimes associated with his order. No heretic he and at a time when there is a growing scarcity of priests this man had many years left for priesthood.I dont think the powers that be reckoned with him when they took him on,and I regard it as a test of the good Pope Francis in how this and similar cases are dealt with. No good talking the talk if you do not walk the walk ! And to think the Papal Nuncio will not meet with the ACP which has about a thousand members is hard to credit in this day and age. What are they afraid of, so many of those priests have given their lives and energy to their church and have brought nothing only credit to it.

    I am about the same age as Tony and it is not a nice thing for him facing into an uncertain future.To the Vatican I would say as Reagan told Gorbachev in Berlin in the 1980s, “Come here,open this (Brandenburg) gate, Tear down this wall”

  4. iggy o donovan

    Beautifully expressed Brendan.

  5. Soline Humbert

    “Secrecy is the code and loyalty to the institution is the coin of the realm. A member violates either with great personal peril” (in the words of a recent article by Thomas Doyle OP et al). There is a forthcoming event which may be of interest to people facing questions of conscience as Tony Flannery is having to face, at great cost to himself (this means a lot of us, if we are being honest!).
    AISGA , the All Ireland Spiritual Guides Association, is holding its Autum Conference on the theme of “LOYAL DISSENT AND DISCERNING THE VOICE OF THE SPIRIT”. The main speaker is Dr Denis Robinson. It will be held in Milltown Park, Dublin 6, on Friday 18th October 10AM-4PM.

  6. Bernard Kennedy

    In Civil Law, the accuser is necessarily named, and in Canon Law? This is justice and not stasi tactics. Hoban writes well and this book a clarion call to honesty. Our Church loses direction when the Sensus Fidelium is ignored as Fr. Tony mentioned on radio this morning. Through whom does God speak? In Scripture & Spiritual theology it was never in the direction of the weather vane.

  7. John

    Well done Brendan in standing shoulder to shoulder with Tony.
    I wish more of us priests had your and his courage but in truth we haven’t.
    Maybe you’d say it’s just because we are ‘careerists’.
    For myself I believe it’s because I’m afraid.
    I couldn’t take the risk of being put out of priesthood now after 35 yrs.
    The uncertainty of what I’d do or where I’d go or how I’d survive would just be to much to deal with at this stage of my life.
    Yes I’m ashamed of my church.
    Yes I so wish we dealt with problems in a different way – dare I say a more Christian way – but in truth I believe the church does not deal with its issues any other way. Have we learned anything following all the anise ?
    No. The same rules apply. Just keep the abuse of power hidden.
    I just pray Tony can deal with all these realities – long after his name has gone from the public arena.
    From a fellow clergyman – a last word.
    Thanks.

  8. Dr Rosemary Eileen McHugh

    As a Catholic lay person, I take my hat off and have great praise for Fr Brendan Hoban, Fr Tony Flannery, and all of the members of the Association of Catholic Priests in Ireland for having the courage to stand up for truth and justice in the Roman Catholic Church, and for challenging the Gestapo-like tactics of the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith and of Pope Benedict. I look forward to reading Fr Tony Flannery’s book. Thankyou to all of you men for being a beacon of hope, so that the church can start to focus on what Jesus would want it to be, rather than the church always focusing on itself.
    Sincerely, Dr Rosemary Eileen McHugh, Chicago

  9. Jim

    Who is surprised by this story?

    The procedures of the CDF have not changed substantially since the days of the Inquisition – only the penalties have been moderated by more moderate communal attitudes today.

    The injustices and indignities inflicted on Fr Tony are very similar to those suffered by Fr Michael Morwood in Australia some years ago. The church is poorer, we are poorer for tolerating these abuses of power.

  10. Paddy Ferry

    An excellent piece, Brendan. I haven’t yet read Tony’s book but I am looking forward to it. I concur absolutely with everything said in the posts (@1–7) above and , John, my heart goes out to you.
    Sadly, that is the reality of our Church today.

  11. Joe O'Leary

    I think most people can see that this sort of skullduggery is the entrenched Vatican practice. It is not rational and has nothing to do with orthodoxy. The nervous nellies clutching their fetishes and listening avidly to the delations of the like-minded seem to have hijacked the Vatican, and so far Pope Francis has done nothing to change this and to create a wholesome church of adult debate. The title of Tony’s book is the same as Charles Davis’s 1968 book, which seemed uncannily up to date when I read it in 1993; and is even more so today. It portrays a church of fear.

  12. Laura Kuntz

    Thank God for you, Brendan, and you, Tony.

  13. Nuala O"Driscoll

    John @7.
    Stop being afraid John. The man whom you profess to follow, Jesus of Nazareth, was an ‘a la carte’ Jew with no place to lay his head. He had no problem breaking the Law when a situation called for it. He hung out with all kinds of unclean undesirables on the margins of society. He followed his heart and his conscience and at some stage he must have seen the writing on the wall, reached the point of no return. Was he afraid? Of course. He was human. To Tony Flannery I would say (for what its worth) look to the Nazarene. And if ever you or any other priest who has been discharged of his duties needs a place to lay their heads, you can come here (i’m sure my husband wont mind) for a while, the wild west coast of Connamara is one place to get your life into perspective.

  14. Soline Humbert

    ” the way we are living,
    timorous or bold,
    will have been our life”
    (Elegy by Seamus Heaney)
    “Noli Timere”….Let us ask the Holy Spirit to give us that great gift of Parrhesia: This is how Jesus preached the kingdom. The apostles had it, saints like Therese of Lisieux hads it: fearless boldness of speech based on limitless confidence in God’s love. Parrhesia: The gift of free women and men,

  15. John

    Abuse of power! Is it true that the nuncio stated in an interview that the banning of Fr Flannery was not the doing of the CDF at all but was was done by his own superiors? If so that would be lies and misinformation.
    Magisterium: People who use this expression seem to have already conceded that there should be an all-powerful centre, making decisions and deciding what can be though and said. Not the spirit of the Gospels I think. How about substituting the word “Presidium”, which is what the Soviets had, and which determined “the line” to be taken on what was “correct”, the Communist institution that legalised thought control.

  16. Wanderer

    Integrity indeed. I wish I had a modicum of that patience too.

    They say prophets are never honoured in their own country, Tony. You follow a long tradition. You might not see the harvest – but the seeds you plant will yield in their season.

    Not much consolation I know.

    Rejoice in hope, be patient in tribulation, be constant in prayer.

    God bless you

  17. Elizabeth Byrnes

    I’m only starting to read Tony’s book but, Tony, I admire you for your courage and integrity in writing it to expose the secrecy and methods of the CDF, and, Brendan, well done for your comments and for standing behind him, as we all do. It must be a lonely place for Tony to be and, like Mary, my heart goes out to him but, Tony, I can assure you that there are many people who admire and support you in all of this. Well done Brendan and everyone for your comments and, John, well done to you, too, for stating your truth, I can sympathise with you but fair play to you for naming your fear and that of many, many priests, it’s so sad. Oh that Pope Francis could elude his minders and bring about real change…..a wishful thought!!!

  18. Soline Humbert

    …..Oh that we would elude our minders and bring about real change…..WE are the people, we are the change we are waiting for….

  19. Nuala Kernan

    In my experience the Spirit ensures that eventually ‘Truth does come out’ and thank you to Tony for being the instrument – it is very painful and many may scoff, because either their position or status feels threatened or never having questioned ‘the authorities’ they feel unsafe.
    Tony, your Faith in Jesus Christ and His Message is so much part of you – hold on to your courage and your Faith will see you through – you are very much loved.

  20. tony

    I see Veritas stores have been instructed not to stock Tony Flannery’s book…

  21. Kay Mcginty

    Well done, Brendan. Praying for you all .

  22. Lloyd Allan MacPherson

    “…an attempt to crush the Association…” I really believe the Association feels like it barely occupies the space between the heel and the toe when in all seriousness, it dwarfs the Vatican. What an army you have assembled.

  23. Des Gilroy

    Tony Flannery has been silenced for daring to attempt to open a discussion within the church on issues and structures which his experiences and conscience tell him need renewing. It is interesting that he is doing no more than Pope Francis himself urged on Vatican staff in his homily on July 17th of this year. To quote the Vatican website.
    “ In his homily Pope Francis extended an invitation to the special groups and Vatican staff participating in the Mass to let themselves be renewed by the Holy Spirit and not to fear the new, or renewal.
    Commenting on the Gospel (Mt 9:14-17) the Pope focused on the innovative spirit that motivated Jesus. “For example”, he pointed out, “Jesus said: ‘the law permits us to hate our enemy, you hate your enemy; but I say to you, pray for your enemy, do not hate’”; and he applied this precept to things he did not find so just. For example, as the Gospel passage says, there is the question of fasting. “Jesus” the Pope explained, advised fasting, but with a certain freedom. In fact disciples of John ask: “why do we fast and your disciples do not?”. The fact is that “with Jesus the doctrine of the law is enriched, it is renewed. Jesus makes all things new, he renews things”, as he himself said, as if it were his vocation to renew all things. “This is the kingdom of God which Jesus preached. It is renewal, true renewal. And this renewal begins first of all in our heart”.
    “Christian life is not a collage of things. It is a harmonious totality, the work of the Holy Spirit. “We cannot be Christian in bits and pieces, part-time Christians”, the Pope said. “We must be wholly Christian and full time”.
    “The newness of the Gospel is a newness in the law itself which is inherent in the history of salvation”. It is a newness that goes beyond us and “renews structures. That is why Jesus said new wine needs new skins”. The Church, the Pope continued, has always gone in this direction, letting the Holy Spirit renew structures. And she teaches people “to not be afraid of the newness of the Gospel, of the newness the Holy Spirit works within us”.
    Moreover, the Church is free, the Pope said. She is sustained by the Holy Spirit and Jesus teaches us the freedom we need always to find the newness of the Gospel in our life and in structures. The freedom to choose new skins for this newness. The Christian is a free man or woman, with that freedom of Jesus Christ, and not a slave of habit or of structures”; moreover, it has always been the Holy Spirit who carries this newness ahead.
    The Bishop of Rome ended by inviting those present to ask for “the grace not to be afraid of the newness of the Gospel or of the renewal that the Holy Spirit carries out; and not to be afraid to let go of the short-lived structures that imprison us”.

  24. Soline Humbert

    @23
    “To ask for the grace not to be afraid of the newness of the Gospel or of the renewal that the Holy Spirit carries out; AND NOT TO BE AFRAID TO LET GO OF THE SHORT LIVED STRUCTURES THAT IMPRISON US”
    Amen!… even if these “short-lived” structures have been with us for already far too long!
    Thank you DES for posting this. It seems to me the CDF in its mindset and methods is definitely “old skin” and not fit for the new wine….


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