The Story of a Dissenting Irish Priest

Father Tony Flannery has written several books on religious subjects, was a columnist for the monthly journal of the Redemptorist order, and a founder of the Association of Catholic Priests in Ireland (ACP).

In early 2012 the Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF) complained about his writings.

He was instructed to undergo a period of spiritual guidance and reflection and abstain from public ministry as a priest, from public writing, media contact, and involvement with the ACP.

Afterwards he was expected to submit a statement of clarification of his views on certain theological points.

 

The CDF was disturbed by implications in his writings that the current institutions of the church and the priesthood were not necessarily what Christ had intended and that the Church, especially on issues of the liturgy, particularly the revised missal, and decentralization of authority, had backtracked from the expectations of Vatican II.

Before the year was out, he submitted the requested statement.

Acknowledging that it scarcely reflected his more complex views on the origins of the Church and the priesthood, he thought “it was best to keep things simple” if it would satisfy the CDF and get it off his back.

However, the CDF was not satisfied and demanded specific additions to his statement regarding the hierarchical nature of the Church, the institution of the priesthood, and the Eucharist, as well as insisting on his non-involvement with the ACP.

In November 2012, against the orders of his Redemptorist superiors, he attended the General Meeting of the ACP. Last January he went public with his refusal to comply with the demands of the CDF.

Presently he remains in a limbo state of not publicly ministering as a priest.

Not surprisingly, The Irish Times on September 10, 2013 ran, as an op-ed column, excerpts from his recently published book, A Question of Conscience. The book has a laudatory foreword by the former Irish president, Mary McAleese.

The central message of the book is his complaint about disciplinary procedures within the Church. He appears to assume, as do many of his allies, especially those outside the Church, that the Church’s internal discipline should be subject to the same procedures as civil law.

For instance, he insists that the order of the superior general of the Redemptorists that he not attend the November 10, 2012 meeting of the Association of Catholic Priests was “in direct contradiction of the rights that I have as an Irish citizen under the constitution of the Irish Republic.”

His point might be valid if his disobedience was followed by his incarceration. But it was nothing of the sort. Although suspended from public ministry as a priest he continues to be treated (and I presume fed and housed) very gingerly by his order.

Using his logic it could be argued that the cracking of the party whip against Fine Gael dissenters from the recent legislation allowing abortion in Ireland was a contradiction of their rights as Irish citizens and as elected officials.

His thinking reflects the common statist liberal view of the political process as the final be all and end all of moral questions, the very position criticized in Cardinal Ratzinger’s writings, which Taoiseach Enda Kenny misconstrued.

Flannery did take a vow of obedience. Surely a determination of whether or not he complied with it is not a question of civil procedure. The worst his disobedience would incur would be expulsion from his order.

His disobedience prompts one to wonder about his original vocation.

There is no doubt, as Mary McAleese insists, that he had been “a deeply emphatic and listening pastor, a preacher and teacher par excellence.”

On the other hand, based on his own words, one wonders if his vocation, like unfortunately so many in mid-twentieth century Ireland, might have had mixed motives.

He attended a Redemptorist boarding school in Limerick that was regarding as a minor seminary, that is, the teenage boys attending were assumed to be giving some thought to becoming priests.

Many, especially those from poorer families, attended to get a free education.

He went on to join the Redemptorists after doing his Leaving Cert, but wonders “why I did it,” although following his two brothers was “undoubtedly a big factor.” He has no idea how to answer the question as whether or not he had a vocation.

In hindsight he believed it “hard to imagine that I had anything like the maturity needed” to take his first temporary vows after a year in the novitiate.

His later years in the seminary coincided with Vatican II, and involved three years studying for an Arts Degree at UCG. There the ability to think for himself “knocked out” in the novitiate was restored by a mixture of J. D. Salinger, the Beatles, and the prolific writings of modern theologians of the post Vatican II era.

No doubt Flannery will meet with considerable applause in contemporary Ireland, especially from those who want an open Church in which bishops are chosen for leadership ability rather than orthodoxy on a married priesthood, homosexuality, or contraception.

Significantly he notes that most of the laity attending an Assembly of the Irish Church in May 2012, who had “graying or balding heads,” “shared a sense of unhappiness about the way the Church was being governed.” But a “small number of younger people present” were “of a different mindset.”

That suggests the reforming party in the Church in Ireland reflects older, or at least middle-aged, Catholics who came of age in the 1960’s and 70’s. They wish that Ireland remain overwhelmingly Catholic; but to gain that they are willing to capitulate to prevailing religious indifference.

But the younger and more orthodox Irish Catholics are more indicative of a future were Catholicism might be a minority movement in an overwhelming secular society, but with more devout adherents.

Editor’s note: This column originally appeared in The Irish Echo, September 25, 2013 and is reprinted with permission.

John P. McCarthy

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John P. McCarthy is Professor Emeritus of History and former director of the Institute of Irish Studies at Fordham University. He is the author of Hilaire Belloc: Edwardian Radical (1978); Kevin O’Higgins: Builder of the Irish State (2006); and Twenty-first Century Ireland: A View from America (2012).

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