It’s depressing to see the Irish Times continuing to spin a line about the Redemptorist priest Tony Flannery that is less about simple facts than about perpetuating a narrative that the Catholic hierarchy, whether at home or in Rome, is out of step with Irish society and the modern world.
Today’s editorial, for instance, says that Tony Flannery and some of his colleagues are “under threat due to their insistence on the importance of personal conscience”. This could hardly be less true, not least because the Church is pretty big on conscience; Peter Kreeft puts it well, paraphrasing St Thomas Aquinas:
“if a Catholic comes to believe the Church is in error in some essential, officially defined doctrine, it is a mortal sin against conscience, a sin of hypocrisy, for him to remain in the Church and call himself a Catholic, but only a venial sin against knowledge for him to leave the Church in honest but partly culpable error.”
Tony Flannery can say what he likes; what he can’t do is say what he likes as a Catholic priest, giving the impression that it’s within the bounds of Catholicism. And as the head of Tony’s order stated today, Flannery’s comments involved “fundamental areas of Catholic doctrine, including the priesthood, the nature of the Church, and the Eucharist.”
Tony Flannery was one of a handful of priests who hit the headlines last year after being disciplined by Rome; Brian Darcy, whose ‘silencing’ was clearly nothing of the sort, was the most famous of this batch, but Tony Flannery, as one of the founders and leaders of the Association of Catholic Priests, may be even more important.
One of his brothers, Frank Flannery, is a close confidante and adviser of Enda Kenny; it’s been speculated that Enda’s line on Cloyne may have ultimately derived – perhaps by an indirect route – from Tony Flannery. Certainly, Tony Flannery welcomed the speech; I’m not quite sure why, given his own opposition to mandatory reporting of abuse allegations, which led Ian Elliott, the Irish Church’s chief child protection officer, to criticise him for what Elliott described as “an attempt at minimising the serious nature of clerical child abuse”.
This weekend, in the aftermath of the big Dublin pro-life vigil, the New York Times reported that Tony Flannery intended to break his silence about what he regards as an inquistition-style campaign against him by Rome because of his line on certain aspects of Church teaching.
The story seems to have broken at a rather inconvenient time for the Irish Church, just after having its new primate-to-be announced and fresh from helping rally 25,000 people onto the streets of Dublin in the biggest counter-government demonstration since Enda Kenny became Taoiseach. And isn’t that handy, given that Tony Flannery is brother to one of Enda Kenny’s right-hand men?
The dog that used to bark...
Anyway, the Irish Times ran a column similar to the New York Times one on their website on Sunday morning, it having come from the Press Association; shortly after running the piece, however, they redacted what was probably the most important part of it.
The redacted paragraphs were substantively identical to these three from the New York Times piece:
“In the letter, the Vatican objected in particular to an article published in 2010 in Reality, an Irish religious magazine. In the article, Father Flannery, a Redemptorist priest, wrote that he no longer believed that ‘the priesthood as we currently have it in the church originated with Jesus’ or that he designated ‘a special group of his followers as priests.’
Instead, he wrote, ‘It is more likely that some time after Jesus, a select and privileged group within the community who had abrogated power and authority to themselves, interpreted the occasion of the Last Supper in a manner that suited their own agenda.’
Father Flannery said the Vatican wanted him specifically to recant the statement, and affirm that Christ instituted the church with a permanent hierarchical structure and that bishops are divinely established successors to the apostles.”
With these removed, the Irish Times gives the impression that Tony Flannery got into trouble because of his openness to women priests and married priests, and his line on homosexuality, contraception, and communion for married divorcees. The reaction to this narrative has been utterly predictable, given how, as the Irish Times says, in connection with lastyear’s misconceived ACP survey, “Fr Flannery is correct when he speaks of a disconnect between the Irish laity and Rome.”
Don’t get me wrong: I’m sure Rome’s not happy about any of that either, not least because there’s a duty on priests to try to bridge such disconnects, but that’s not what's caused this.
The heart of the matter...
Rather, the main issue here is that Tony Flannery rejected the very idea of a sacramental priesthood as founded by Christ. Leaving aside how this would have put him in a position as paradoxical as it would be untenable, it was clearly something that Rome couldn’t let go.
Rome didn’t have much choice in this. Its hands were tied. Indeed, if Father Flannery’s in danger of excommunication – and seemingly, despite his claims, he was never threatened with this, which the Irish Times could surely have discovered if it had bothered – it’s because he pretty much put himself out of communion by denying the sacramental reality of Holy Orders. That’s the way excommunication works: in practice you excommunicate yourself, and the Church only tells you what you’ve done.
I’d even wonder whether by claiming that the Last Supper has historically been misrepresented by the Church he implicitly cast doubt on the sacramental reality of the Eucharist, and indeed almost all the sacraments and the basic authority of the Church. I think that may be what the head of the Irish Redemptorists meant when he spoke of Tony Flannery being ambiguous on this point.
The CDF’s dealings with Tony Flannery will have been designed to help him realise the seriousness and implications of what he’s said so he can figure out in conscience where he stands, ideally with a view to him coming afresh to an acceptance of Church teaching
Now that's not quite true, is it, Tony?
Monday morning’s paper saw the misleading effect that the redacted article conveyed being heavily pushed. Despite being about a central, fundamental, and essentially internal Catholic issue, the entire story was presented as yet another piece in the long-running Irish Times storyline I call ‘Catholic Hierarchy out of step with modern life’.
Tony Flannery sulks in Monday’s paper that the CDF has never approached him directly, describing how he’d been summoned to Rome to answer to the head of his order. He shouldn’t have seen anything sinister in that, the Church being best understood not as a neat pyramid but as a loose network of largely autonomous organisations; a Redemptorist priest who’d taken a vow of obedience, Tony Flannery is subject to a line management system, for want of a better phrase, which Rome was respecting.
On meeting the head of his order, he was faced with a choice he said he found impossible:
“Either I sign a statement, for publication, stating that I accepted teachings that I could not accept, or I would remain permanently banned from priestly ministry, and maybe face more serious sanctions. It is important to state clearly that these issues were not matters of fundamental teaching, but rather of church governance.”
Of course, this is rather at odds with today’s statement from the head of the Irish Redemptorists, and it’s telling that Tony Flannery glosses over how he denied the very basis of the priesthood; this cannot be dismissed as a mere matter of Church governance, being quite clearly a matter of fundamental teaching.
Feed my lambs... tend my sheep... feed my sheep...
Remember: Tony Flannery had denied the sacramental nature of the priesthood, saying that he no longer believed it had been instituted by Christ, and that it was, in effect, the creation of an elite who usurped power in the Church. I have no idea what he means when he says the Creed and says he believes in an ‘apostolic Church’.
It is quite possible to argue this, of course: it’s a commonplace of Protestant theology, for instance, with Protestants generally rejecting the notion of a sacramental priesthood instituted by Christ, and tending to believe only in the broader ‘priesthood of all believers’. But that’s the thing: that’s a Protestant view, and one completely incompatible with Catholicism.
“Catholic doctrine and discipline may be walls,” wrote G.K. Chesterton in 1908, “but they are the walls of a playground.” Shepherds are meant to protect their sheep, and it’s the job of the Church to step in when one of its priests teaches something that is utterly contrary to Catholic teaching. It’s not hasty about doing so, either: Tony Flannery’s spent years away from the Catholic mainstream, but in denying the sacramental basis of the priesthood he clearly went too far.
The Irish Times is putting forward a profoundly misleading narrative of what’s happened here, and sadly, where the Irish Times misleads, others tend to follow,. It may simply be that they think their readers wouldn’t care about issues of ecclesiology, but the fact remains that by stripping the story of its most important element they distort the story profoundly. So much for the ‘Story of Why?’.