Monday, January 28, 2013

David Quinn: Fr Flannery has cast doubt upon the core nature of Christ's church

YOU may have read or heard in the last few days that the Vatican is threatening to excommunicate a priest – Fr Tony Flannery – because he believes in women priests.

Yes, he does believe in women priests, but no, he won't be excommunicated for that. 

And according to the 'Irish Catholic', he isn't going to be excommunicated for anything else either.

In fact, no priest or theologian that I can think of has ever been excommunicated for believing in women priests.

The only two priests I can think of who have been excommunicated in recent years are Tissa Balasuriya and Roy Bourgeois.

Balasuriya, a Sri Lankan priest, seemed to deny the divinity of Christ. Bourgeois took part in an 'ordination' ceremony for a member of 'Roman Catholic women priests'. He is now out of the priesthood.

(Ed Note: for the benefit of Mr Quinn, Fr Balasuryia died recently and was not out of the priesthood as you so unkindly put it and indeed was reconciled with Rome within a year of being excommunicated. This happened in January 1998. It may be beneficial for you Mr Quinn to be correct in your facts as opposed to your own story and spin.)

Fr Flannery might not be under real threat of excommunication (unless he goes as far as Bourgeois) but he is most definitely in trouble with the Vatican. The main reason is not his stance on women priests, contraception or homosexuality.

No, it has to do with his apparent denial that Jesus founded a priesthood, a hierarchical church and an Apostolic Succession in the way the Catholic Church understands these things.

The article that really drew him to the Vatican's attention was written for the Redemptorist magazine 'Reality' in 2010.

In that article, he said in unmistakable terms that he no longer believed "the priesthood as we currently have it in the church originated with Jesus" or that Jesus designated "a special group of his followers as priests".

It was more likely, he wrote, 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".

According to the 'New York Times', "Fr Flannery said the Vatican wanted him specifically to recant the statement (made in 'Reality') and affirm that Christ instituted the church with a permanent hierarchical structure and that bishops are divinely established successors to the apostles."

If he feels that he cannot do this, then it is no wonder he is in trouble with the church. In fact, the wonder is that he was not in trouble at the time with the bishops and with his own Redemptorist order.

On the website of the Association of Catholic Priests the other day, Fr Flannery revealed a bit more of his correspondence with the Vatican.

In a letter to the Vatican's Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (the Vatican's doctrinal watchdog) he explained his views on the Eucharist and the priesthood. However, what he wrote could be signed by many Protestant ministers.

He did not say whether he believes that the bread and wine become the body and blood of Christ at the moment of conse-cration or if Jesus founded the Apostolic Succession or whether he believes in a hierarchical church.

On this point, Fr Flannery would also be at odds with the Church of Ireland, were he an Anglican priest, because Anglicans, like Catholics, believe in the Apostolic Succession and a hierarchal church. They have bishops after all – unlike, say, the Presbyterians.

Fr Flannery fancies that he is a man of the Second Vatican Council. In fact, he has set his face against a very important part of the work of that council.

One of the council's key documents was 'Lumen Gentium', which deals with the nature of the church. This reasserts in emphatic terms the belief that Jesus intended a hierarchical church.

HOW could it believe anything else? After all, it is abundantly clear that Jesus put the apostles in charge of the church and that their successors are the bishops.

The Association of Catholic Priests (ACP), of which Fr Flannery is a founder member, has given him its full support. Has it no reservations whatever about his stance? Is any and all dissent permissible? Ordinary Catholics, as well as the ACP's members, have a right to the answers.

The ACP has difficulty with what it regards as the bullying way in which the Vatican deals with priests like Tony Flannery. That is one thing. 

But it can attack the Vatican over its procedures while also making perfectly clear that the ACP itself believes and accepts what the Second Vatican Council – which it is always invoking – has to say about the nature of the church and of the priesthood.

The ACP is always calling for debate, but it is extremely unclear whether or not it believes there is any limit to what can be debated and whether or not it believes there are any settled and irrevocable doctrines whatever in the church.

If it has no visible qualms about a member who is casting such doubt on the very nature of the church, ordinary Catholics, never mind the Vatican, can be forgiven for thinking it believes everything is up for grabs.

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