Time to review Tony Flannery’s case

Second Reading

Second Reading
Fr Kevin Hegarty

ONE hundred and fifty years ago, an ecclesiastical conflict was raging in Callan in Co Kilkenny. Fr Robert O’Keefe was the parish priest. His desire to provide comprehensive education for the poor of his community led him into conflict with the Bishop of Ossory.
It was a complicated affair, and it led to protracted civil and ecclesiastical litigation. There were faults on both sides. The dispute ended in 1879 when O’Keefe submitted to his bishop. He died two years later, a broken man. Thomas Kilroy has written a fine novel ‘The Big Chapel’ about the conflict.
Has the Catholic Church improved its capacity to deal sensitively with division in its ranks? Not much if one considers the case of Fr Tony Flannery. In 2012, the Vatican suspended him from public ministry because of his liberal views. He remains suspended.
Tony is a prophetic voice in Irish catholicism. (I must declare an interest here. We are friends, and I was privileged to write the foreword for his latest book ‘From the Outside: Rethinking Church Doctrine’.) Born in 1947, when Catholic ecclesiastical pomp was at its zenith in Ireland, he grew up in a church wilting under the challenge of societal cultural transformation, and he has ministered in a broken one.
The Second Vatican Council (1962-65) has been the guiding star of his ministry. It envisaged a church willing to dialogue with modernity, an institution open to engaging with the insights of the secular world.
Ordained in 1974, most of his ministry has been as a preacher of Redemptorist missions, mainly in Ireland. He avoided the fire-and-brimstone style once characteristic of his order. Involved in this ministry for over four decades, from Malin to Mizen Head, he got a sense of contemporary Irish Catholicism, its strengths and weaknesses, its hopes and aspirations, its hungers and its hurts.
He was an engaging speaker and an imaginative liturgist. On two occasions he gave missions in the community where I live. He left a positive impression. His sermons were always thought provoking, often inspiring and usually leavened with humour. He gave fresh heart to those disturbed by anguish and haunted by sorrow in their lives. His articles in Reality magazine were stimulating and devoid of pious cliché.
In 2010, Tony was one of the founders of the Associations of Catholic Priests. Its purpose was to provide an independent forum where Irish priests could freely articulate their views. Its constitution placed strong emphasis on the ‘primacy of individual conscience’ and the need to redesign ministry in the Church ‘to incorporate the gifts, wisdom and expertise of the entire faith community, male and female’.
His pastoral ministry coincided with several decades of retrenchment in the Catholic Church. The ‘glad confident morning’ of the Second Vatican gave way to a long and dismal journey into the night.
During the papacies of John Paul II and Benedict XVI, there was a retreat from the insights of Vatican II that had exhilarated many Catholics. For Catholics whose lives had been shaped by the ideals of democracy, free speech and academic freedom, the Church became an inhospitable place.
Liberal clerics were silenced. A climate of fear enveloped theologians. In the words of the English novelist, AN Wilson, the Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith has ‘ways of making you not talk’.
Given the atmosphere of these pontificates it is not surprising that Tony got into trouble. As a result of articles in Reality questioning Church teaching on compulsory clerical celibacy, women’s ordination and homosexuality, he experienced the heavy breath of Vatican disapproval. In the spring of 2012 he was banned from public ministry.
Pope Francis has often stressed the importance of dialogue in the Church. I find it incredible, however, that in his nine-year pontificate, Tony remains excluded from ministry. Rather pathetically, two years ago he was offered restoration if he withdrew the views that led to his suspension.
Sometimes the Vatican resorts to the smart-aleck defence that it is his own religious congregation that suspended him. The truth is that the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith ordered the Redemptorists to do so. Its leaders felt unable to defy this diktat. Such tawdry casuistry may thrive when clerical male misogynists meet. For normal people it is as welcome as a burger van at a vegan festival.
Recently Tony called for an independent review of his case. It is the least that he deserves.