Tony Flannery is an unlikely heretic.
An Irish Redemptorist priest,
he is now being threatened with excommunication from his own church.
So who cares?
According to some media reports last week, a new survey of
Irish public opinion ranks religion last among 119 priorities.
survey and the reports about it were misleading.
Rome has let Flannery know that his opinions on the priesthood, and on
the role of the laity, "are clearly contrary to the defined teaching of
the Church" (as Rome sees it). He was stripped of his column in the
Redemptorists' Reality magazine, forbidden to administer the sacraments
and now has one last chance to recant before being excluded from the
institution to which he has given his life.
Some have linked his predicament to Enda Kenny's criticism of the
Vatican. Flannery's brother Frank has long been a leading light in Fine
Gael. Rome was not happy with the Taoiseach's criticisms, and it was
whispered by some that Fr Flannery had a hand in Kenny's controversial
speech of 2011. When Fr Flannery first heard that whisper, he thought it
was a joke. He says: "I had absolutely nothing to do with the speech. I
keep well away from politics in my profession."
Whispers are not his only problem. He has received from senior church
sources a list of complaints against him, with demands for him to
recant. These have been relayed from Rome without any official heading
on the documents, but he was told that they came from the powerful
Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith.
Last week, "senior Vatican sources" reportedly denied that Flannery
But documents seen by the Sunday Independent
The Vatican has complained that he expressed
heretical or heterodox statements, and points out that "a priest who has
committed the delict [act] of heresy" incurs a "latae sententiae
Rome's Congregation for the Doctrine of
the Faith (CDF) wants Flannery to bend his knee and to accept publicly
that "the Roman Pontiff has full, supreme and universal power over the
The CDF also demands that Flannery state that "only a validly
ordained priest can validly celebrate the Eucharist", and that "the
ordination of women is not possible."
But he believes that women can be
The CDF bases its case partly on the fact that "the Lord Jesus chose men
to form the college of the 12 apostles, and that the apostles did the
same when they chose collaborators to succeed them in their ministry".
The fact that neither Jesus nor the apostles chose any Germans, such as
CDF Prefect Archbishop Gerhard Muller, has not prevented Germans from
becoming priests, cardinals and even pope.
The CDF claims that it has been misunderstood and "maliciously"
misinterpreted by some priests and media. In the absence of effective
channels for open communic-ation within the church, it is easy for
senior bishops to convince themselves that this is so. Flannery is
frustrated that the CDF will not deal with him in a transparent fashion.
For some Irish Catholics, the Vatican's position makes sense. It is a
club and, if you do not like the rules, you should leave it. For other
Catholics, including some who are theologically informed, religion is
not a club. It is precisely in its ability to create alternative views
of the world that spirituality liberates us from it.
Fr Flannery, for example, rejects the notion that the priesthood
originated with Jesus exactly as we have it now. He wrote in 2010, in an
article that particularly irked Rome, that Jesus "did not designate a
special group of his followers as priests. To say that at the Last
Supper, Jesus instituted the priesthood as we have it is stretching the
reality of what happened."
He added: "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".
Like many other Irish priests who have supported him through the Irish
Association of Catholic Priests, Flannery now believes that "the Word of
God and the sacraments belong to the whole Christian community, the
Church, rather than the priest alone". When he uses the word "church",
he does not just mean the bishops or pope.
This kind of thinking, grounded on debates that arose around the time of
the 1962 Vatican Council, sounds to some conservative Catholics like
Protestantism. And the man now heading up the Vatican's response to
Flannery is well aware of the strength of Protestant convictions.
Younger than Pope Benedict, who was a member of the Nazi youth movement,
Muller himself was born two years after World War II ended and grew up
in a traditional Catholic milieu disinclined to tolerate unorthodox
thinking. The two Germans work closely together in Rome.
For the declining number of people who go to church, these disputes are
depressing. But headlines that suggested Irish people rank religion and
spirituality last among 119 priorities were misleading. For one thing,
the Community Foundation for Ireland survey was conducted online and not
with a typical cross-section of the population. For another, it asked
only one vague question about religion. And even still, most respondents
actually ranked religion and spirituality as being more important than
The Vatican is insisting that Fr Flannery "should state that he accepts
the whole teaching of the Church, also in regard to moral issues". As
ever, he says, "moral issues" is code for a narrow range of matters such
And, as ever when it comes to power, the Vatican's concept of "the
Church" tends to identify that concept with the curia or the hierarchy,
rather than with the broad community of believers to whom religion and