Tony Flannery’s book is courageous and important
I have just finished Tony Flannery’s book, “A Question of Conscience”. I enjoyed it and at times it read like a thriller! An image comes to mind:
Imagine people standing in a circle facing inwards towards each other. They can see each other and draw support from one another. They can also be controlled by anyone who is in the centre of their circle. Then, if they turn and face outwards, they can no longer see each other; the mutual support is no longer as strong and they face a strange world in which they have to find their place.
I think Tony Flannery’s book is an account of his journey from inward facing security to maturity in shedding its security and control; and then facing a real world looking outward.
I found Tony Flannery’s book real and inspiring. Real because it reflected the machinations and dishonesty of a church we all know, alas. Particularly disturbing was his description of the way the CDF used silence to control him. Silence as well was enforced by his vow of obedience. However, the purpose of silence all through the book was to protect the powerful and to cover the shame of their actions from public inspection.
I only wish that Diarmaid MacCulloch’s book on “Silence: A Christian History” could have been written twelve months later. He could have included this sad scandal in chapter 8 On things not Remembered. The CDF’s use of unsigned and untraceable pages of accusations, their use of the head of the Redemptorist order as their puppet – all this could have come from a Kafka novel. However, simply put, the Vatican authorities imposed silence to cover their tracks. I particularly enjoyed his reflective asides – such as his recognition that titles such as ‘Your Eminence’ are used to dominate and stifle us ‘nobodies’ (the arrogant words of the Apostolic Nuncio to the ACP leader: “You are nobody, representing nobodies.”).
These attempts to strangle questions and sideline diversity of opinion belong to the tactics of a 16th century Inquisition. What is worrying is that Levada, Muller and their lackeys seem to consider that their actions are above the law – any law. In their hands Canon law is not to be trusted. It is a tool for enforcing authority but not for protecting the human rights of the individual faithful. They do not want to be called before the civil courts of Ireland or the European Community, because their petty and high handed ways would be open to proper ridicule. They are cowards because they do not want to be publically accountable for their unjust actions. I can only presume that they justify their actions because they are ‘protecting revealed truth’ or ‘acting on behalf of the Church’. How can this 20th century Inquisition get away with it? They remind me of nothing so much as the little cabal of cronies around Sepp Blatter who run world football as if it were their own fiefdom above the law.
It was inspiring in describing his own reluctant path to personal integrity and honesty. Many religious will recognise the strain and stress of being censured by authority and the painful dilemma of choosing between obedience to their institution and faithfulness to their own truth. Tony Flannery describes his journey with remarkable objectivity. I enjoyed especially his struggle with the temptation to a false humility. It is humble to submit to authority and pride to stick to your own view. Fortunately he chose the latter.
The last quarter of the book is more of a reflection on and reassessment of his own journey through religious life. He is brave and honest in looking at the process of formation, at community life and its future. He pictures a dying institution, rather like the poor, dementing old priests whom he is left to care for. His views on women in the church and in priesthood, on clerical celibacy and its link to abuse, on authority and obedience are all worth reading but deserve a fuller development when he has the time. It is here that I have my only serious criticism of the book. By the end I think he sweeps away too much while reassessing his own past and trying to envisage his future ‘facing outwards’. Perhaps if he were to have written these pages after a few years, when he has had time and space to achieve his customary objectivity.
He must know that some of his friends and brothers in religious life and ministry may be upset by his views. It is therefore courageous and important to say the truth even at this time. He writes well and his gift is of putting the issues that concern the real church out there in accessible language.
I write this on the same weekend that I have struggled to respond to the Vatican’s questionnaire on marriage. It is unintelligible to ordinary folk and expressed in church jargon. It is the inward facing circle talking to itself again. Whereas when I read Tony Flannery, I hear the voice of a man saying something we need to hear in common language – though of course the Vatican is not well known for listening. At the same time there is a survey of Catholic attitudes carried out by Professor Lynda Woodhead. These are real church attitudes, not pious flannel. I think the outward facing Tony Flannery would recognise the attitudes and views expressed by the majority of Catholics in this country. Welcome to the real church!