Bishops must shun the dark to follow the leader
On the plane to Italy recently for a short break I finished reading Tony Flannery’s harrowing account of how the Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF) tried to silence him and ultimately barred him from functioning as a priest. In the telling Flannery exposed for all to see the unjust and cruel ‘modus operandi’ of the CDF. Defying the strictest injunction not to reveal a word to anyone, he shone a bright light on a process that has been applied in secret to several other Irish priests. The Gospels have hard things to say about those who prefer to operate in the dark and shun the daylight . Then last week Pope Francis in his dramatic interview with a group of Jesuit journals, reprimanded the CDF for its “inappropriate behaviour” in the censoring of priests.
This interview, covered extensively in the media, is one of a series of public statements by the Pope of his intention to shift the whole orientation of the Church away from a focus on rigid compliance with the finer points of doctrine and unquestioning obedience to Church directives, under the threat of sanctions for non-compliance, and towards a Church that is open to engaging in mutually respectful dialogue with anyone who thinks differently.
While in Italy I picked up a copy of the daily newspaper, La Republica, known for its left-wing leanings and antipathy towards the Catholic Church, and was startled to find extensive coverage of a discussion between a former editor, Eugenio Scalfari and Pope Francis. For a week it was front page news, plus 4-5 pages inside devoted to the Pope’s lenghty reponse to Scalfari’s earlier open letters to the Pope, in which he described himself as a non-believer and raised a series of questions about fundamental Catholic beliefs.
It was by any yardstick sensational stuff and it attracted massive, largely favourable comment, precisely because the Pope signalled in the clearest possible terms a radical departure from the dictatorial, conceited, secretive and threatening style of the CDF and other Vatican agencies in how he intends to engage with people who don’t share his views. Recalling the objectives of Vatican II, dear to the heart of Tony Flannery and countless other Catholics, Pope Francis describes as necessary and precious the need for dialogue between those who believe in Jesus Christ and those who don’t. The Church has been a source of light throughout the centuries but also a repository of superstitions, he says, so dialogue with modern culture, and the consequent questioning of our inherited beliefs, is not merely a secondary accessory to the life of believers but an intimate and indispensible expresson of that life. Faith and reason are complementary cornerstones of the spiritual life.
Several commentators have seized on the Pope’s recent statements to suggest, as Dr. McQuaid did on returning from Vatican II, that we mustn’t get carried away with any idea that the new Pope is about to depart from established Church teaching . The Pope remains a Catholic, but one who wants to show more understanding and compassion to those who are outside the fold, so to speak. He goes much further, however, than simply advocating Christian kindness towards non-believers, liberals and dissenters and in doing so he poses unsetttling challenges to those who see themselves as custodians of definitive truths and as defenders of the faith against those who would dare to challenge established orthodoxies.
In his response to Scalfari the Pope underlined for him a quotation from the encyclical which says that because the Christian faith is essentially about love, “..the faith is not intransigent… but flourishes in living together with others in mutual respect. The faith is not arrogant; on the contrary, the truth makes one humble…..The certainty (or sense of security) in ones faith comes from the journey involving dialogue with everyone… The truth is not absolute, we do not possess it, it is the truth that embraces us.” He says to Scalfari that this is “a journey we must make hand-in-hand together (“in sieme”), believers and non-believers.” This is not the stance of someone who believes he already has the truth and must be compassionate towards those who don’t.
The impact of the Pope’s statement was to trigger in Scalfari, his Director and all his colleagues “una grande emozione”. It was more important than a mere “scoop”; it was a signal that the time had come to reopen the doors on a dialogue, first initiated by Vatican II, for a serious and fruitful engagement, without pre-conditions (“senza pre-concetti”). Wider reaction from thousands of La Republica readers was tinged with a sense of relief that the great advances of Vatican II, obstructed for nearly 50 years by the likes of Archbishop Mcquaid, had been re-asserted, with apparent conviction, by the Pope, particularly his strong endorsement of the primacy of the individual conscience.
Most Irish bishops, the Papal Nuncio and those spokespersons for the Catholic Church who see themselves as bastions of a smaller Church, loyal and obedient to the “Holy Father”, would do well to tune in to this seminal message from the Pope and, among other matters, reflect on how they have treated the likes of Fr. Flannery and countless other Catholics who had the temerity to question the Church’s teaching over the past 4-5 decades in particular.
If the Pope’s encyclical and ground-breaking exchanges published in La Republica are to mean anything then the sanctions imposed on Tony Flannery, Sean Fagan and other priests should be lifted immediately and respectful engagement with them initiated, a common decency denied them by the CDF . Similarly , the Irish bishops now have the clearest possible prompt to begin the journey, ‘senza pre-concetti’, of engaging in the never-ending search for truth ‘in sieme’ with the Association of Catholic Priests, groups like ‘We the Church’ and wider society. They might also persuade Veritas, the Catholic bookstore, to change its decision not to sell Flannery’s book, A Question of Conscience.
Eddie Molloy Ph. D is a management consultant. He is a graduate in philosophy and theology and has worked for numerous religious orders and other faith-based organisations over a period of 40 years.