The Irish Redemptorist Fr. Tony Flannery refuses to meet the Vatican demand that he affirm, among other things, that "Christ instituted the church with a permanent hierarchical structure and that bishops are divinely appointed successors to the apostles."
Flannery, a popular preacher and writer, told The New York Times
he has been "writing thought-provoking articles and books for decades
without hindrance" and that the campaign against him "is being
orchestrated by a secretive body that refuses to meet me. Surely I
should at least be allowed to explain my views to my accusers."
Flannery also organized the Association of Catholic Priests in 2009
to articulate the views of rank-and-file members of the clergy, the Times
reports. Flannery may have gotten himself investigated as much for
giving Irish priests a voice as for using his own in challenging
old-fashioned formulations with his well-informed knowledge of theology
If Father Flannery is being asked to endorse the notion that Jesus
established the hierarchical church and that the bishops are the
divinely appointed successors of the apostles, one might be more
concerned about how firm a grasp his accusers have on modern theology.
This incident is an early 21st-century reprise of the early
20th-century Roman worldwide crackdown on priests who were keeping up
with the new advances in theological and scriptural studies. All priests
were forced to take the Oath Against Modernism, the vague catch-all phrase that supposedly summarized the heresies rampant in the new learning.
In the United States, as historian Michael Gannon has shown in his
work on the American priesthood before and after the modernist
condemnation, committees of vigilance were set up to monitor and report
on what priests were reading.
The first American theological journal,
the New York Review, was suppressed in 1909, and another did not appear until Theological Studies in 1940. The chaplain of the police department replaced the progressive rector of New York's St. Joseph's Seminary.
The situation is much different now, and while the Flannery
condemnation is remarkable enough in itself, it should be recognized as a
harbinger of the kind of problem that sure-of-their-infallibility
Vatican authorities will encounter in their relationships with the
rising generation of theological scholars, most of whom are laymen and
women who will not accept condemnations such as that now imposed on
Even well-educated Catholics know as much or more theology than these
veiled Roman enforcers. That also goes for the American bishops, who
are wonderful men in general but who are unprepared for theological
conversations with their people. One of the reasons the bishops have
difficulty in communicating effectively with ordinary Catholics arises
from their discomfort and/or inability to discuss theological issues
Consider just two of those that Flannery is being forced to sign off
on if he wants to continue his work: Christ's having established the
church in hierarchical form and the assertion, employed constantly by
bishops to legitimate their authority, that they are the direct
descendants of the apostles.
If anything, Christ called together a college of apostles, and the
collegiality to which Vatican II returned is a far better image than the
hierarchical form that was adopted from the hierarchical cosmological
view of the universe and expressed in secular kingdoms, including the
Roman Empire, whose provinces and proconsuls provided the model for
laying out the governance of the church.
How many bishops have studied the work of one of America's foremost
sacramental theologians, Franciscan Fr. Kenan Osborne, who writes in his
book Priesthood: A History of Ordained Ministry in the Roman Catholic Church (Paulist Press)
that "the college of bishops is not simply the sum of individual
bishops ... It is fundamentally the college of bishops which is the
successor of the 'College of the Apostles.' "
In other words, the succession is a function of the collegiality that
Pope John Paul II so energetically suppressed with the help of the
present pope when he was head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of
the Faith. It is not related to the hierarchical form the pope is trying
to revive throughout the church.
Flannery's condemnation is an augury of the deepening estrangement
that will take place if the Vatican does not respect the growing
theological understanding of its members. The bishops are sincere in
wanting to establish better channels of communication with their people.
The best thing they can do to achieve that is to master the language of
modern theological and scriptural studies that so many Catholics
understand better than they do right now.
[Eugene Cullen Kennedy is emeritus professor of psychology at Loyola University, Chicago]