17Sep Vatican shows ‘a deep-rooted hostility to collegiality’

The treatment by the Vatican of the Irish Redemptorist priest Fr Tony Flannery is disgraceful, and the scant regard shown by Rome for due process procedures is more in keeping with the modus operandi of Stalinist regimes than a Church supposedly wedded to the gospel of Jesus Christ.

This is a Church that preaches justice and purports to defend the dignity of human beings and individual human rights. Yet when it comes to one of its own, all of these norms are violated. The point is well made by our former president, Mary McAleese, in a foreword to a book Fr Flannery has written about his case.

She quotes a passage from a homily by Pope Francis at a Mass in Rome in April in which he said the Church was not a bureaucratic organisation but a mother. “The imagery is beautiful and heartening,” writes Ms McAleese. “But I ask myself what mother treats a son as Tony Flannery has been treated?”

Equally distressing is the evasiveness of the Irish Catholic Bishops on the whole matter, hiding behind the very thin excuse that Fr Flannery’s predicament is not an issue for them as he is a member of a religious order and not a diocesan priest.

While Fr Flannery, a founder member of the Association of Catholic Priests, has been treated as a “non-person” (his own description), the Irish bishops have stood idly by — bearing out, again, the truth embedded in the title of the 1994 book by the late Fr Joseph Dunn — No Lions in the Hierarchy.

He learned in Feb 2012 that the Vatican watchdog, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith — the old office of the Inquisition — was not at all pleased about some articles he had written in Reality, the magazine published by the Irish Redemptorists.

Summoned to Rome by Fr Michael Brehl, the superior general of the order, he was shown two A4 pages, the first of which contained four extracts from articles in Reality. Writing about the structures of the institutional Church, Fr Flannery had said: “Whatever Jesus intended, I don’t think anyone can credibly claim that he intended the type of system we now have in the Church.”

He also questioned the abandonment of collegiality (the sharing out of decision-making in the Church), and the increasing tendency to centralise everything in Rome. In other articles, he suggested that the Church should take seriously debates about the need for compulsory celibacy as a condition for priesthood, and the absence of a voice for women in decision-making at all levels in the Church, especially at the episcopal and Vatican level. He also said that Catholic teaching on sexuality needed updating.

The upshot of all of this was that he was told to withdraw from public ministry and not to publish any further articles or give any interviews to the press. He was also instructed to withdraw from his leadership role in the Association of Catholic Priests. The superior general was told: “You are to seek to impress upon Fr Flannery the gravity of his situation.”

Later, the CDF made further demands, including a statement that he accepted all the moral teachings of the Church and that women could never be ordained priests.

“The document made me extremely angry,” said Fr Flannery. “I was in my mid-sixties and had spent almost 50 years in religious life, 40 of them preaching the Gospel and working for the Church. I wondered who these faceless people were who had produced this document, on an A4 page with no heading or signature, containing these diktats that were to be imposed on me.”

He was in the process of finding out that one of the big difficulties for a priest in dealing with the authorities of the Catholic Church is the “enormous emphasis they put on secrecy” as an essential component of the whole exercise. In a world in which freedom of speech is such a cherished right, the CDF’s blatant disregard for this is disconcerting.

And he rightly rejects that CDF’s “explanation”, that the imposition of secrecy is in order to protect a priest’s reputation. Accordingly, later on, the CDF got “extremely angry” when Fr Flannery’s case was made public.

“I believe that their concern is not likely to have anything to do with the good name of the priest but rather with their obsession with keeping their own archaic and unjust practices from being aired in public,” he said.

He is surely right in believing it was “my involvement in the founding and leadership of the Association of Catholic Priests that changed the attitude of the Vatican towards me”.

There is now in the Vatican (and this goes back to 1978 and the beginning of the long pontificate of Pope John Paul II) a deep-rooted hostility to collegiality, and to any local or national expressions of collegiality.

Under John Paul II and his successor, Benedict XVI, the Vatican has assiduously set out to undermine the status and authority of National Episcopal Conferences and to marginalise all national associations of priests. The great fear among the powerful elite in the Vatican is the emergence of a strong national Church which would insist on a far greater degree of autonomy in conducting its affairs, including local control over the appointment of bishops.

Fr Flannery’s decision to write a book now about his case, A Question of Conscience (a book that includes details of the correspondence with the CDF), is a courageous one, and should give solace to other priests coming under the CDF spotlight.

“While it is my personal story it is not really about me,” he said. “It is about the Vatican and how its constituent bodies deal with people who challenge any of their views, who question official Church positions. Any questions raised about the exercise of Church authority, or the Church’s teaching on sexuality are closely scrutinised and dissent is simply not tolerated.

“During the later years of the papacy of Pope John Paul II and again in that of Benedict XVI, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith assumed more and more control over the whole Church and instead of being a servant of the decision-makers, actually became a decision maker itself. It was an unhealthy development.

“The hopes arising from the Second Vatican Council, of a new style of governance based on collegiality, were trampled upon; instead we seemed to be heading back to a 19th century model of the Church. Meanwhile, in Ireland we had bishops who, while good and sincere in themselves, seemed to possess no real leadership ability, never venturing in public an opinion that in any way challenged the diktat of Rome.”

These bishops, of course, were appointed either by John Paul II or his successor, both of whom were hostile to collegiality. Hence the emasculation of the World Synod of Bishops that followed. Indeed, in a recent review of a book on Pope Francis, Hugh O’Shaughnessy described John Paul II as “the artificer of the long and tenacious campaign to push John XXIII’s thrilling and much needed reforms of the Second Vatican Council into history”. A new and critical reappraisal of the long pontificate of Karol Wojtyla — the most authoritarian and autocratic of popes since Pius IX (1846-1878) — is badly needed.

*A Question of Conscience by Fr Tony Flannery is published by Londubh Books at €14.99

12 Responses

  1. Mary Garvey

    I have written to the pope and encourage others to as well. There is so much slimy behavior that we all have to endure, some more than others. The worm is beginning to turn but we have to admit that the church does attract its share of sociopaths and dysfunctional people and some are or thankfully were on the fast track. I hope to meet some of you in Dingle this November if I make it and anyone is near there.

  2. Pól Ó Duibhir

    I have bought a copy of Tony Flannery’s book through this site. If anyone has difficulty getting a copy in the shops I suggest they do likewise. Delivery is free and very fast. I can’t wait to start reading it, though I know my blood will start to boil and that is not good for my physical or spiritual health.
    Out of curiosity, I got out “What happened to sin?” by Seán Fagan from the library and have just finished reading it. A truly inspirational book. I have done a short post on it:
    I also intend doing one on Tony Flannery’s book, when I have read it, and calmed down sufficiently to express myself in a coherent manner.
    It is very good that this site posts the like of Bill O’Herlihy’s script on the launch of “Question of Conscience” and reposts the like of TP O’Mahony’s review. Apart from making these accessible to regular readers here, it provides a handy point to link to when drawing the attention of others to these important contributions to the (pace CDF) ongoing debate.
    Rath ar an obair.

  3. Nuala O"Driscoll

    The Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith is digging a very big hole for itself. The secrecy with which it protects itself and its power, cannot continue indefinitely. In this era of the world wide web, Amazon, Wikipedia, it will be very hard to maintain its culture of secrecy. In a bygone time Tony Flannery’s book would have gone on the List of Forbidden Books, which is now obsolete, although Veritas doesn’t know this and the faithful would have been instructed not to read it. This ACP website demonstrates that the control is slipping away from the CDF, this is what makes the ACP potentially dangerous. While the CDF can silence clergy it cannot silence lay people. Many lay people left the Church at a critical point in their personal lives because of the intransigence of the Church’s moral law. Did the shepherds go looking for them? The silence of the Irish Bishop’s is deafening.

  4. Mary O Vallely

    Thanks Pól @2 for that reminder about Seán Fagan and how much he also has suffered because of a lack of any compassion shown by the authorities. “All that is necessary for evil to triumph is for good men to do nothing.” ‘Evil’ is perhaps too strong a word for what we see in our own Church leaders but ignorance and a LACK OF LOVE shown by leaders of an organisation that professes to follow Christ is shocking behaviour and it is time we all did something about it, men and women. If not, we’re as guilty as those we criticise. We can fume and ‘tut tut’ and shake our heads but really we do need to make some sort of stand as a group, do we not?

  5. Soline Humbert

    @4 “.”The ultimate tragedy is not the oppression and cruelty by the bad people but THE SILENCE OVER THAT BY THE GOOD PEOPLE” Martin Luther King Jr
    Yes Mary I agree totally: More of us need to stand up and be counted and speak out and act.We do not have the excuse “We didn’t know.” We do know!

  6. Joe O'Leary

    Of course I am totally in support of Fr Flannery and the other silenced thinkers, but I think it would be a good idea to broaden our discussions to the pastoral issues that preoccupy most Irish priests. I suggest that a series on the pastoral implications of the papal interview would touch on many topics of concern — including the place of scripture and prayer in the pastoral life.

  7. Eddie Finnegan

    Our Egregious Affairs Correspondent, Tim-Patsy McGroarty-Ó Cúanasa
    Following an Extraordinar(il)y brief midnight meeting of the Irish Bishops’ Conference at Maynooth’s Columba Centre (‘De List’), their spokesman furtively shoved this unanimously agreed press release into the grovellingly grateful paws of Your Correspondent:

  8. Pól Ó Duibhir

    Have now read Tony Flannery’s book and put up a post
    I hope the book gets wide circulation, not just here, but world wide, and is translated into many languages. It is a case study worth reading up on and entering the textbooks in any of the chapters.
    Fr. Flannery is putting a lot of trust and hope in Pope Francis and you can see why. The Pope has chosen to bypass the normal channels to get his message across and he has sacked the Secretary of State, as I understand it, who has now turned on his former peers.
    The ball is now in the Pope’s court, and he hasn’t much time. If he does not quickly garner sufficient support in this manner he will be overwhelmed by a Curia which had no trouble unpicking the outcome of Vatican II.
    I wish him well.

  9. Gene Carr

    I have not yet read this book, but when I do i will apply the following method of evaluation. I will note what Fr Flannery has to say on various issues such as conscience, the nature of the priesthood, or colleageality and issues to do with sexuality, marriage etc. I will then compare his expressed views with the actual teachings on these issues as a contained and explicitly expounded in the Decrees of the Second Vatican Council. I am prepared to be surprised, but my current expectation is that Fr Flannery largely rejects the teachings of that Council.

  10. cathy swift

    Without in any conceivable way wanting to defend secrecy, unsigned accusations or unjustified attacks on hardworking and scrupulously dedicated individuals, human institutions do do that kind of thing sometimes. It wouldn’t be helpful if we fell into the trap of implying this is somehow worse because its happening to priests who’ve dedicated their lives to their work, would it? Or because people doing such things can also be priests? I wouldn’t like to think I was demanding inhuman (and inhumane) standards of people with vocations.

  11. Joe O'Leary

    Let’s hope Gene Carr really does the homework he promises. It’s a rather mechanical and bureaucratic approach to theological texts, but it may prove instructive and at least it’s better than condemning them unread.

  12. Gene Carr

    Joe @ 11: I find it rather amusing that referencing the actual texts of Vatican II should be regarded as ‘rather mechanical and bureaucratic’. Still it not as amusing as the one I heard last year (have lost the source), where those who consulted the texts of Vatican II were called “Vatican II fundamentalists”. I kid you not.