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


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).

  • poetcomic1

    Who was it who said “The devil can feign every virtue except obedience.”

  • Adam__Baum

    Is this guy Hombre111?

  • John O’Neill

    My mother and father emigrated from Catholic Ireland and brought a great loyalty and reverence for holy mother church with them and taught their six children to cherish the church and the sacraments. I do not recognize modern Ireland as a Catholic country or culture; it has been absorbed into the secular European Union and most of the Catholics are now former Catholics who harbor a deep hatred for the Catholic Church in their hearts. When I talk with my Irish cousins and hear them speaking in worshipful tones of Barack Obama and the American government and its great strides in bringing abortion on demand and homosexual marriage to the world I am not quite sure if we have anything in common anymore. I am no longer proud of being Irish and I am 100% of Irish ancestry. I used to travel back and forth from Ireland quite frequently to keep in touch with my cousins; I have very few cousins in the American State; I even spent a few summers in school in Ireland studying Irish literature et al. Now I find James Joyce and the other pretentious Irish writers to be big boors although I still enjoy and read Seamus Heaney a lot. Ireland has now become just like America in so many negative ways.

    • slainte

      “To be Irish is to know that in the end the world will break your heart.”
      ― Daniel Patrick Moynihan

    • Cormac_mac_Airt

      My parents from the Connemara Gaeltacht were (and mother still is) disgusted by the surrender of the majority in Ireland to a deracinated secularism. The wedding of Irish nationalism and Roman Catholicism has proven to be a dead end. This spiritually lost cleric’s non-vocation is the result of a false nationalistic prestige, reflected off the institutional Roman Catholic Church in Ireland. The same engine of reflected nationalism fueled a dark and dangerous clericalism in Ireland that was about worldly power and prestige and lording it over the masses. Of course, this is not the only heritage of Irish Catholicism, and (I pray) not the main one. Regardless, it is now a spent force and the living Faith can now be made visible. The scourge of empty secularism is now the Cross that Ireland must bear and overcome.

      I’d commend to you the poetry of Patrick Kavanagh, a much more spiritually fruitful Irish poet.

      • John O’Neill

        Cormac, thank you for your input and I do realize that I left out the repressive clericalism that dominated Ireland for so many years, where whatever the priest said was absolutely right and everyone had to kowtow to the clergy in all matters. The Faith of our fathers did not run very deep in those days and I realize when a people are living under oppression and the only authority you can trust is the Church, you will submit to this severe clericalism. There are many sins in the past that the Irish Church needs to reconcile but all that being said; it is sad to see a culture where once the family gathered at night to recite the rosary and are now to be found before the TV oohing and aahing at Lady Gaga and Miley Cyrus videos. O tempora O mores.

        • WSquared

          John and Cormac are both right.

          What we don’t seem to be getting that we have to be aware of is that the spiritual worldliness of which Pope Francis speaks often cuts in different directions simultaneously.

          We should not make the mistake that it comes only from certain people at a certain end of the political spectrum.

          The clericalism of which Cormac speaks was also present in the Church in the United States– something that Russell Shaw’s American Church discusses to some degree. This is not to say that all clergy and the hierarchy are bad and are intensely clerical, since there’s a difference between what Cormac and Shaw discuss and the likes of St. John Neumann. But extreme adversity can in fact harden that clericalism.

          I also take his point about the effects of nationalism. This is true of the United States, also. We don’t have a nationalism in which Catholicism played an integral part, as in Ireland, but we have a nationalism that many Catholic immigrants have sought and seek to join as a sign of having “made it” in America. It tends to take subtle forms like the American Dream, even though it can take more overt, related forms such as American exceptionalism and progressivism. Old tropes also find new uses. One of the things that really struck me about reading a report on Ex Corde Ecclesiae was that the report cited a dissenter who said something about “freedom from monarchy”– a theme that goes back to the imperial crisis just before the American Revolution.

          As for a shallow understanding of the Faith of our Fathers, this extends also to a surface devotionalism and religiosity in any age. That’s not a reason for saying that devotions, religiosity, and certainly the Rosary, are bad, or that faith does not require routine and discipline; but one has to learn to relate to them in the right way– when we pray the Rosary, or have a devotion, we think with it, also. They can change our lives if we let them, but we have to be receptive. Moreover, asking the long-standing question of whether one can be a good Catholic and a good American is not an easy one to answer, but I suspect that it’s neither about heading back to the ghetto or assimilating.

    • uncle max

      Try Michael O’Brien. Start with ‘Father Elijah an Apocalypse’

  • robert chacon

    Iam really tired of these renegade priests and nuns who after taking a vow of obedience think they are wiser than 2000 years of Revelation and thus the Church needs to conform to their “insight” . The mature, ethical moral thing is to simply leave the priesthood if you cant be obedient and then complain all you want. But dont remain a priest pretending to be a Catholic and pretending to speak for the Church. That only reveals a real lack of integrity, and perhaps even maturity.

    • Elat

      I so agree. They are totally free to leave the church if they disagree so much with it. Just go…

    • fredx2

      I think it is telling that their biggest fans are the media. The media needs conflict, it needs radical views to jumpstart the news. So, we have priests such as this gentleman primping in front of the cameras.
      I think it was George Weigel who noted that several dissenting Catholic theologians got great gobs of press attention. Then, they did the honorable thing and became Protestants. The adoration of the media stopped. After all, they just differed like millions of others now. So the rest of the dissenting theologians learned their lesson – stay in the church and the media will fawn over you. Leave it and you become just another Protestant.

  • cestusdei

    If he is honest he will leave of his own accord.

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  • publiusnj

    I thoroughly endorse John O’Neill’s view of contemporary Ireland. Ireland would have been crushed by its English overlords but for the spiritual power Catholicism gave it during the long dark night of oppression that lasted from 1534 to 1922 (with some but not all relief beginning in 1829). When I was a boy in the choir of a very Irish-American parish , we used to sing a song on St. Patrick’s Day that recalls the great succor Ireland received from Holy Mother the Church:

    “All hail to St. Patrick who brought to our island the gift of God’s faith, the true light of His love. For hundreds of years in smiles and in tears, our saint has been with us, our shield and our stay. All else may have gone, St. Patrick alone. Oh he drives the false faiths from Erin’s fine shores, like the reptiles which fled his curse in dismay.”

    May God bless and preserve Ireland.

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  • Deacon Ed Peitler

    #1 Tony will likely find himself a babe from the “Nuns on the Bus” crowd and ride off into the sunset singing Kumbaya together.
    #2 As for apostate Ireland, my guess is that the England will see a resurgence of the Catholic faith that will take hold more strongly than ever and the English will evangelize the pagans in Ireland. Let’s now invoke the name of St. Patrick and pray.

    • Marc L

      Yes! He we English before being kidnapped away to the Emerald Isle, wasn’t he? Great connection!

  • Katharina

    I get so upset reading this; as a convert to the wonderful CC it is incomprehensible that especially a priest could openly, for many years, demonstrate his DISOBEDIENCE to the teachings of the Church and to the pope . OBEDIENCE is absolutely non negotiable. I couldn´t have imagined, before becoming catholic, that there were so many heretics in the Church, openly challenging even the pope(s) and their teachings, the tradition etc.
    They must be very narcissistic to think that they even know better than such a genius like Benedict XVI and now pope Francis. I am grateful beyond Words to hear that this priest is no longer considered a priest “in good standing”.
    At the same time, I feel sorry for this priest; how utterly deceived he has allowed himself to become. After so many years of being treated with great respect as a priest, he now ends his career, if I may say so, in disgrace. There is the risk of much bitterness.
    Also, how many young priests have become desillusioned in the Irish seminaries during the past half century? To say the least.
    After the horrendous homosexual scandals in the Irish Church, “this filth” in the Church, as Benedict XVI so rightly called it, although he did not explicitly say that it was and is essentially linked with homosexual clergy (and others) already in 2005 (I think) , disobedient and openly heretical priests are definitely not what the Irish catholic Church needs.

    • WSquared

      They must be very narcissistic to think that they even know better than such a genius like Benedict XVI and now pope Francis.

      Actually, just listen to what many dissenting Catholics will tell you as an excuse for their dissent, and it’ll tell you a lot. It often goes something like this: “I was born and raised Catholic. I come from a long line of Catholic families. My devout Catholic grandmother said her Rosary every night. I had twelve years of Catholic school, and all my Sacraments. I’ve had years of… ‘religion class’ (because that’s what the serious study of theology amounts to, yanno; “religion class”), and I go to Mass every Sunday. …so how dare some old, celibate, white man in the Vatican tell ME what to do?!”

      Little wonder that whenever anyone introduces themselves as a “devout Catholic,” it’s usually not hard for me to predict for what’s likely to come next. The point being that anyone who has ever read any of the spiritual exercises by St. Francis de Sales or St. Ignatius of Loyola knows that the truly devout are acutely aware how much they stink at being devout, and that it’s a desire to keep going, to get closer to the Lord, that drives them. Devotion is something that develops with care and patience. It’s not something that one brags about in a facile manner, especially not while using it as an excuse or a prop for specious thinking.

    • WSquared

      Don’t get too upset, Katharina. Remember that the gates of Hell will not prevail against the Church, the Body of Christ. …we don’t know what that’ll look like, because that’s for Him to know, not us. But this He promises us.

      Moreover, those who know that obedience to the Pope is non-negotiable for a Catholic also know that the Pope is someone who himself obeys the Magisterium of the Church (read Pope Benedict on this), and know that those who don’t obey the Pope will simply obey something else. The far more interesting and pertinent question that a lot of people who “question authority” don’t ask is whom or what. Likely because they don’t want to know the answer. In addition, someone can talk about their “private conscience” all they want; the more important question is what that conscience is formed by (you can “obey your conscience” all you want, but what if it’s formed by Oprah, your political party, advertising, your stuff, your libido, convenience, entertainment, and utilitarianism?) For that reason, questioning authority in humility is a good thing: if God is Who He Is, then He can not only take our questions, but He loves our questions.

  • Anne Marie

    Dear John O´Neill, I agree; I am not Irish but have noticed the very same thing you describe as “cow towing” to whatever the priest says. Maybe especially from many Irish. One example to illustrate more vividvly: one priest in a parish made it no secret that he strongly disliked anybody with any special gift/talent. One parishioner, a lady, a professional violinist and an organist, an unusually warm hearted and outreaching lady, was often asked by the previous priest there to play at Mass and the parishioners were absolutely delighted and very grateful. But with the coming of the new priest all of that rapidly changed and nobody, not even this lady, understood, at first, what he had in mind. It all began with him asking her to play at Mass; as soon as she turned up, he immediately told her that “sorry, you won´t play today”, I am in a hurry, Mass can´t take long today”. Well, one time is no big deal. Then, he asked her to prepare sth very advanced by some composer for next Sunday. Again, he told her, before even greeting, (he hardly ever greeted anybody, avoided all Contact) that “you won´t play today”, then just turned away. Then, the third time, he asked her to play sth very advanced on the a Festivity Day. Arriving well in advance, he told her that “you won´t play today, nu use, since there are probably not so many people turning up.” This time, the lady was, and rightly so (she is Dutch) very sad but also very upset about his conduct, telling him that she had spent many hours preparing and that to her id did not matter if there would be 15 or 150 people coming, she would just love to play to God´s honour. He refused to say anything further, just went into a room. The last time she played; somebody else had asked her. The same priest, after she had read the Prayer of the Faithful, came Close to her and, in the way he moved, forced her to take a step back, not to loose her balance. Afterwards, several parishioners came forward to her, some very upset, saying that they were “chocked” at what they had witnessed. The lady, who has always been very nice and polite with everybody and never looked for any “position” in any way, told the other parish priest there what had happened. He listened politely, looking down, mumbling sth and then, of course, nothing happened. The lady never returned to Mass in this Church again. She is not resentful but she knows it would be impossible to have any trust or respect, whatsoever, for that priest after this. Moreover; we gradually came to understand that all of this was carefully panned, in advance; this was simply his way of getting rid of people he felt were “competitors”(!!) to the admiration(!!) he thought he was exclusively entitled to. It took some time before I could admit this sad truth to myself.
    He wanted to be the very center himself and saw everybody with any great talent as a threat to him(!) and his “Power”. Once, he told me that “as soon as we get what we need, I will get rid of her”) This referred to Another lady, Irish, who hade dedicated all her Life to the Church, being in the parish every day doing all kinds of work for the priests. Why? He simply despised pople who were very kind and warm hearted. His attitude to her and oters like her was such that it showed a contempt for kindness, as being a weakness. The only people he allowed to get Close to him, were two people, Irish, who had a very low education. he felt comfortable with them. No “threat”, no “competition” (!!!!) and, yes, it was incredibly embarrassing to see how utterly submissive they were to him, to the point of one feeling sick. CROW TOW is the Word! Note, that these two were NOT all smiles in their attitude towards more talented people.
    This poor Irish lady, the one always working in the parish, had a mistaken view on humility and service. Also, I noticed that when trying to address the shameful manner in which the priest treated her, was repulsive, she completely just closed herself in, so to speak, refused to say one word. I did not ask her to speak “bad” about the priest, but to express her feelings. Obviously, she has perceived a perverted understanding of what it means to be obedient. One has no obligation to accept being treated as
    a subhuman person. Respect must come from not only the parishioners but also from priests.
    I could never have imagined before that such priests existed. In my imagination they were all loving and caring fathers. To all parishioners. I didn´t grow up in a catholic countr, had not known any catholics and had an image of the CC and priests being like they were presented in old films, Latin being sung in churches, gregorian chant, Beautiful vestments, above all, holiness, reverence. In all churces. Everywhere, more or less. It is possible to find such churches, yes, but one really has to search for them, at least where we live.
    I wish to point out that we do know very nice, very good priests. But after what we witnessed from that priest we, too, left that parish, although we are still in touch with some there.
    It took some time before I managed to bring myself to pray for a profound and thorough conversion for this priest but now I do and I have piece in my heart.

  • Ciara

    “Oh Tony Flannery, isn’t he the lovely priest who was persecuted and tormented by that awful Pope Benedict and those Nazis over in Rome? Yeah . . Even President McAleese likes him, and sure isn’t she a canon lawyer, and wasn’t she a great President, she must be right! Wasn’t it awful the way that they treated him, all he wanted to do was speak his mind. Those Catholics must be a terrible mess if they’re fighting among themselves like that . .oh do I go to Mass? Well, no, I don’t think that it’s about the institution of it all, especially one as messy as that . .I pray to God myself, isn’t that enough?”

    -said about 70% of the Irish Catholic population about Tony Flannery.

    I’m a 22 year old female student (in UCG too as it happens. I believe I’m receiving an “education” that is not too dissimilar from what the young Fr Flannery was given) and everything you’ve said is absolutely spot on. However, the growing numbers of young, orthodox Catholics that you mentioned can also be seen, I would hope! I think I speak for all of us when I say that our hearts break when we see the confusion and scandal that the actions of Flannery and the ACP are causing.
    People need Christ in Ireland, but when they look to the Church, this is what they see – clergy muted by the sex abuse scandals, afraid of offending everyone, fighting amongst themselves over doctrines that nobody really understands, and one of the most beloved Presidents we ever had saying that the ACP are misunderstood and need support. It is not at all surprising that Mass attendance is getting lower every year and vocations are in the toilet, if you’ll forgive the use of a very Irish expression. We are desperately in need of prayers.
    Thank you for articulating the situation so well, Professor McCarthy, God bless you.

    • slainte

      Ciara, your hope and pride in Ireland’s priests will be restored when you learn more about Monsignor Hugh O’Flaherty from Killarney, Co. Kerry ( who saved countless of innocent Jews and other victims of Nazi atrocities during WWII and then caused the Nazi commander occupying Italy to convert to Catholicism. “The Monsignor’s extraordinary activities were immortalized in the film The Scarlet and the Black (1983)”.
      Father Patrick Peyton from Attymass, Ballina, Co. Mayo is another extraordinary priest who illuminated the world with his teaching “the Family the prays together stays together”. He is known as the Rosary Priest and is beloved and respected in Ireland and America.
      These Irish priests carried the faith throughout the world and iluminated it during times of great trial. Both never lost their love for Ireland despite its troubles and heart aches. Would that Fr. Flannery might recall whose shoes he occupies.

  • WSquared

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

    This is indicative of younger, more orthodox Catholics anywhere: they ultimately find out that the “Catholicism” they grew up with isn’t what the Church actually teaches.

    This sort of thing can cut in two directions simultaneously: there’s a lot that’s valuable about what Pope Francis has been saying, but if it’s anything that truly hits home, it’s that the inability to read Vatican II correctly leaning either “liberal” or “conservative” produces both the Prodigal Son and his elder brother. “Pray, pay, and obey,” after all, begs the question of to Whom one prays, and Who one therefore obeys. A lot of people didn’t ask themselves that question as much as they should have.

    Experiencing strict legalism, usually from people who memorized but didn’t think with what they were taught in their “twelve years of Catholic school” or whatever, who make it more about not coloring outside the lines than anything else, and then getting kumbaaya catechesis from the “Beyond Jesus” sort, who have no sense that “always moving forward” doesn’t preclude stepping off the nearest cliff, is a pretty darn terrible place to have been. Because love is absent. And by “love,” I mean Caritas.

    …but it does put you in a good place to discover a love of the theology of Joseph Ratzinger. And to love Evelyn Waugh, G.K. Chesterton, Robert Hugh Benson, Fr. Robert Barron, Fr. James V. Schall, etc. Moreover, faith deepens when we question God in humility: questioning isn’t the problem. Self-centered impatience that is not conducive to waiting for answers often is. Perhaps Fr. James Schall, SJ, put it best: “an education is often about whether someone has his or her soul in order. A person whose soul is not in order will not see great things.”

    Catholicism takes brains. Not that everyone needs a university degree in theology, but rather that either Catholicism addresses the fullness of the truth of the whole human person, or it doesn’t. And it clearly does. But that much is something that anyone with a simple faith– well-educated or not– does notice because of their receptivity. It’s not about whether Catholics think or don’t think, or that Catholicism is all about the intellect, but what we think with. This is why the Church can keep intellectual heavyweights like Edith Stein and Thomas Aquinas going, and even less-educated members are capable of great understanding and profundity, because it’s about friendship with– and being in the loop with– the Logos. A remarkably high degree of intelligence, after all, can be misused without proper formation and direction. …which is what a lot of people who keep snidely calling the CDF “the Inquisition” don’t seem to realize: shouldn’t someone calling him or herself a Catholic theologian be thinking with the Church, whereby obedience to the Magisterium is not unthinking obedience, but letting God have His say?