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Trials of a recalcitrant priest


Cover image of Tony Flannery's book 'A question of conscience'Let us talk about Catholic priests. Consider especially those who are now in their 60s, after a life of service to their church. They were seminarians in the heady days of Vatican II when everything seemed possible. They managed to survive the aftermath of was Humanae Vitae and continued to preach and counsel, to lead the sacred rites and to be faithful leaders of their flocks.

Some have directed retreats or preached parish missions; others have ministered to the young in schools and youth clubs; all have lived by the dictum that service to the least — the poor and mentally ill, the prisoners and prostitutes, the homeless and the addicted — is service to their god. But while their life has been exemplary, they cannot help being stained by association with those who have disgraced their calling.

In addition to this many priests see themselves as being under siege from an old guard in the Vatican. As this is written, six Irish priests have been silenced so that they cannot hear confessions or officiate at baptisms, weddings or funerals. There is some official term like 'had their faculties removed' but that sounds too painful. Two are Redemptorists; the others are a Passionist, an Augustinian, a Capuchin and a Marist — all order men. Tony Flannery, one of the Redemptorists thus silenced, has written of his experience.

In the aftermath of one of the reports on clerical sexual abuse in Ireland, he speculated on how difficult it would soon be to find priests for ordinary parish work. In that context, he said he did not believe 'the priesthood, as we currently have it in the church, originated with Jesus'.

He suggested that some time after Jesus 'a select and privileged group who had abrogated power and authority to themselves' claimed that priesthood had been instituted at the Last Supper. His view was that it is not the priest alone who has the power to celebrate the Eucharist but that this belongs to the whole community.

His writings brought him to the notice of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF), the curial body responsible for defending orthodoxy. He was duly summoned to Rome to answer to them, through the Canadian Superior General of his order. They provided two A4 pages for the meeting, one detailing the charges and one telling his superior what he was to require the recalcitrant one to do. Both pages were unsigned and un-headed.

Interestingly, the final sentence on the second page, read, 'You are to instruct Fr Flannery to withdraw from his leadership role in the Association of Catholic Priests.' Flannery speculates that this was as much a problem as his perceived doctrinal errors.

The ACP, founded only two years earlier in 2010, had a membership of more than 800 and was seen as inimical to the concept of obedience to authority. As well as its obvious function as a fraternal organisation, it also assumed a legal role: 'One of the things we quickly learned to do was to advise priests never to go to meet their bishop or superior without knowing the purpose of the meeting.' A simple and wise precaution, but it is easy to imagine how it would be interpreted as bolshie talk that would scare the establishment.

In time, Flannery found a theologian who was able to compose a form of words on the priesthood that would satisfy the CDF while not changing much that he had written. Unfortunately, they now found other things in his writings — about clerical celibacy, the role of women in the church, human sexuality, sexual orientation — to which they objected.

He did not have as much wriggle room in these matters and decided that he did not want to play the game any longer. Instead, he wrote a document explaining his position on all of these issues, ending with 'I cannot do otherwise than follow my conscience. This is where I stand.'

Some of Flannery's supporters hope that Pope Francis will reinstate him and the five other Irish priests who have been silenced. It would be some admission that their lives of service had value. Vatican II must seem a long time ago for them.

Frank O'Shea headshotFrank O'Shea is a Canberra writer.

Topic tags: Frank O'Shea, priests, Tony Flannery, Ireland



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Existing comments

I hope for his reinstatement, too: once he recants, and begins to inform his conscience as, any Catholic should, according to the mind of the Church.

HH | 18 March 2014  

Did Jesus ever say it was going to be easy?.. nop, don't think He did...St Pio was accused of infractions against all three of his monastic vows: poverty, chastity and obedience. Dosen't to follow Christ Jesus also mean to carry His Cross while being scored by others? We all have our dark nights, priests, and laypeople alike. “Stay with me, Lord, for it is getting late: the day is ending, life is passing; death, judgment, eternity are coming soon … I have great need of you on this journey. It is getting late and death is approaching. Darkness, temptations, crosses and troubles beset me in this night of exile.” (Excerpt, St Pio’s prayer after Communion).

Annoying Orange | 18 March 2014  

Hey Frank as a 70 year old priest I have ministered in parishes and parish missions,retreats,postgrad studies 0/S. Yes studied in the crazy sems of sixties[demonstrating at Soviet Embassy in '68 re invasion of Czechoslovakia]. My priestly years were characterised by liberal bureaucrat's harassment, ostracisation.sidelining exile,.church house arrest for unflinching loyalty to magisterium and Pope.

Father John George | 18 March 2014  

Opinion and preference can often be sincerely mistaken for conscience.

Skye | 18 March 2014  

Frank, In my days as Peritus to Archbishop Leonard Raymond at Vatican 11 Secretriat for Promoting Christian Unity under Augustus Cardinal Bea SJ the discussion in preparing the document on the Church in the Modern world, was that the community has power to lay hands on a chosen member to Preside at the Eucharist be it for an occasion or a month or year or whatever. Like Ivan Illich we concurred 8 years theology and seminary training may have been ok in a monastic tradition, but was a long way from the practice in the early apostolic church. I live in hope that Pope Frank will bring his theology into line with his lateral thinking about the poor. I weep with Jesus for the six Irish priests silenced. But there is life beyond the parish for them like Paul Collins, Michael Morwood and Hans Kung; but the parishes are left without their shaperd. Force Mike Parer

Michael Parer | 18 March 2014  

The process of change within churches can be tortuous. The issues of clerical celibacy, the role of women in the church, human sexuality and sexual orientation in the Catholic Church seem to have strict understandings and there seems to be unequivocal commitment to traditional teachings, at least with those who hold the reins of doctrinal power. If a priest reaches a point where conscience dictates change, then he is right to follow his conscience. Given to us by God, conscience is the individual's sense of right and wrong and sometimes doesn't 'fit' a regimented structure.

Pam | 18 March 2014  

Frank O'Shea:(quoting) " it is not the priest alone who has the power to celebrate the Eucharist but that this belongs to the whole community. "............ Fr. Flannery seems to have "Acts" on his side. "Acts" (2:42 -47) portrays the first Community as a Jewish Sect, showing no intention or even desire to break from Judaism, but while worshipping in the Temple, they "met in their houses for the breaking of bread". But after the stoning of Stephen,(Acts 8:1) when the Jewish Establishment began a bitter persecution of them, "everyone except the apostles fled to the countryside." The exception of the apostles shows that they were not yet a part of this early Community, though ;(Acts 8:14,15) they joined them later.

Robert Liddy | 18 March 2014  

Frank: this is a fine précis of Fr Flannery's little book and an accurate account of what happened to him and to the five others who were singled out for punishment. What they did was to echo the sentiments of millions of Catholics across the Church. The Magisterium lost moral credibility in 1968 with the publication of Humanae Vitae. 98% of Catholics did not receive it as a teaching from God nor binding on their consciences. Anyone who would accuse this crystal clear reflection of the Sensus Fidelium of not having a formed conscience does not understand the Catholic Tradition. HH patronisingly bleats that he hopes Flannery will recant and inform his conscience. According to what standard, HH, Thomas Aquinas' standard which has been at the core of Catholic teaching for centuries, supported by Cardinal Ratzinger, or do you follow the Pell model? Have a look at http://www.v2catholic.com/backgorund/2012/2012-1-28conscience.htm As for women's ordination. the recently deceased Cardinal Policarpo, Patriarch of Lisbon, announced a few years ago that it would happen some time in the future, The emeritus Bishop of Townsville +Ray Benjamin has gone on the record in the Good Oil, a couple of years years' back that half of the world bishops believe there is no real obstacle to women;s ordination to the priesthood. Work it out boys.....

David Timbs | 18 March 2014  

Perhaps, David, the views of the elderly emeritus bishop of Townsville and the deceased Portugese cardinal should be measured against the fact that the bishops of the Church voted by a vast majority in favour of the Vatican II documents on priesthood.

john frawley | 18 March 2014  

John Frawley: Have you contemplated why +Bill Morris and six Irish priests were subjected to Vatican sanctions where as the now deceased Patriarch of Lisbon and the still extant emeritus Bishop of Townsville were not? As for the Bishops at Vatican II and their approval of its documents, half, it seems, of their successors appear to have changed direction on women's ordination. Furthermore, John, only a very few things are formally revealed by God. The Creed is central. Bans on women's ordination is not part of the depositum of Faith no matter how loud the Romans bellow. Central to Magisterium's loss of credibility is that it has trivialized and domesticated God. God will not be constrained by any of this. The People of God know this. The Roman Curia doesn't! And John, what about the 98% of adult Catholics refusing to receive Humanae Vitae as coming from God? If you ponder that maybe you'll get some perspective on what's really going on in the Church today.

David Timbs | 19 March 2014  

HH "I hope for his reinstatement, too: once he recants,......." It is evident that God has determined that everything is to evolve The Church evolved from a people-based Jewish sect known as Followers of the Way. When they were persecuted they turned to the Greeks, who took their ways and stories and adapted them to their culture. When they conquered Rome, they embraced the ways of Rome, especially the idea of Authority. Before that the emphasis was on Love. At each stage of evolution new traditions evolved, usually flattering the latest community. Old traditions are usually suited to old conditions and are unsuited to the new. "Right-wing" opinions are usually ego-centric, formed around the belief:"Me, or my group are the only ones in step, and everyone else should accept our opinions." It is this attitude that causes all the problems between religions. God allows different responses from different people or groups.

Robert Liddy | 19 March 2014  

Why did Eureka Street published Frank O'Shea's article? Is it to praise dissident priests and promote dissension in the Church. Pope Francis is loyal to Jesus, to Mary Our Blessed Mother, the papacy and the Magisterium.

Ron Cini | 19 March 2014  

While HH tells us that any Catholic should 'inform his conscience ... according to the mind of the Church', Skye cautions us that 'Opinion and preference can often be sincerely mistaken for conscience.' HH is repeating what the Church has taught for generations, probably for centuries, and I agree fully with Skye. But how to react to that Church teaching and how to manage the doubts about our decisions made in sincere conscience? Given that moral and ethical concerns are central to Christianity, it is fitting that we apply the parable of the three servants given responsibility of the master's money to developing the conscience - our faculty of moral and ethical judgement. If I inform my conscience by conforming it to the mind of the Church, I am like the servant who buried the money for which he was responsible - safe but unable to grow. Only he was criticised by his master - criticised because he lacked the drive and the courage to take action to grow the master's money. Quoting the prayer of St Pio, Annoying Orange has provided us with the response to Skye's valid caution, while reminding us not to expect approval from the Church.

Ian Fraser | 19 March 2014  

I feel that my queries below touch on the select, indeed exclusive, role of the presbyter, given that the Eucharist is pivotal to the nature of ministry (and bypassing any biblical notion of a "priesthood of all believers"). Thus: 1. How can it be that the Cross and Easter are universal in their reach, but the Eucharist - being the other side of the same, unitary and fundamental coin of Salvation - is now reserved only to the Christian elect? 2. I understand that a strong theme in performing the familial Passover Seder is that the stranger is to be made welcome at Table. Was Jesus so at odds with Judaism that He dispensed us from upholding exactly this inclusivist spirit?

Fred Green | 19 March 2014  

I am sick if avant garde clerics who think they can spout whatever heretical nonsense occurs to them without consequences. They are free to believe what they like but not free to hold out whatever they like as orthodox. Clerical faculties inevitably carry an implied representation of orthodoxy.

Adrian | 20 March 2014  

Ian, we don’t need to worry about mistakes made on the basis of a sincere conscience. No-one goes to hell simply because of a mistake made with a sincere conscience. Going AGAINST one's sincere conscience (on grave matters) is a mortal sin, EVEN IF that conscience is erroneous. For, if one commits to informing one’s conscience as best one can, and following it sedulously, God will lead that person out of the shadows of darkness to Himself, the One “who rewards those who seek Him”. A Catholic acknowledges that through the Church, Christ Himself speaks as definitively as He did in His earthly mission, so the best light by which one can inform one’s conscience is the doctrine of the Church. Jesus of Nazareth really speaks to us through the teaching authority of His Church, just as Jesus of Nazareth really reaches out, touches us and graces us through the sacraments of His Church. That’s what a Catholic believes. It simply makes no sense, then, for a Catholic to say “The Church says X, but my conscience tells me not X”, since that is to say “Jesus, Son of God, you say X, but my conscience tells me not X”.

HH | 25 March 2014  

These comments are so depressing.

Frank | 26 March 2014  

Yes Frank, I agree - reading some comments here once can't help be confused about whether we're talking about a Church Body made up of human beings, or a mechanical manual describing the inner workings of a car engine.

AURELIUS | 26 March 2014  

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