Monday, February 06, 2017

Vatican cannot lift disciplinary measures against Fr Flannery (Opinion)

It has now been confirmed that Enda Kenny did indeed intervene with Pope Francis when he visited him recently on behalf of a number of priests disciplined by the Vatican, including Fr Tony Flannery. 

This raises an obvious question: why did the Taoiseach feel this was any of this business? 

He was meeting the Pope as Taoiseach. He was only there because he is the Taoiseach. 

Why, then, did he believe it was appropriate to raise with the Pope something that is an internal matter of the Catholic Church?

If the Pope had asked Enda Kenny when and if he would be standing down as Taoiseach that, clearly, would be no business of the Pope. 

If Francis had raised the matter of Fine Gael effectively excommunicating the seven Fine Gael TDs and Senators who voted against the abortion bill of 2013, he would also have been told to mind his own business even though the seven in question are all Catholics. 


Perhaps it might be argued that Enda Kenny was intervening with the Pope in his capacity as a Catholic, but as he himself has said with great conviction, he might be a Catholic, but he’s not a Catholic Taoiseach. He can’t have it both ways. 

At a minimum, if he was within his rights to raise the cases of Fr Tony Flannery, Fr Brian D’Arcy et al, then the Pope would have been within his rights to raise the case of the Catholics TDs and Senators who were thrown out of the parliamentary party (‘excommunicated’) because of their opposition to abortion.

Kenny says he told Pope Francis that “dealing with these cases would certainly improve the environment for his visit [to the World Meeting of Families] in 2018”.

What Enda Kenny means is that the Pope should lift the order that prevents Fr Tony Flannery from saying Mass in public – an order he recently defied, and the order that prevents Fr Brian D’Arcy from writing about certain issues (women priests for instance) without prior approval.

The Fr Flannery case is the most serious of all the disciplinary cases because the degree of Fr Flannery’s dissent from certain Church teachings goes furthest. Let’s remind ourselves of how far he has gone.

The whole affair began in 2010 with an article he wrote for Reality magazine in which he brought into question the Catholic understanding of the priesthood.

As an article in The New York Times reported: “In the [Reality magazine] article, Fr Flannery, a Redemptorist priest, wrote that he no longer believed that ‘the priesthood as we currently have it in the Church originated with Jesus’ or that he designated ‘a special group of his followers as priests’.

“Instead, he wrote: ‘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.’”

In other words, the priesthood as we have it is, to a large extent, a man-made invention, the invention of an arrogant elite that is perpetuated to this day.

This is what drew the attention of the Vatican, not his views on women priests and contraception.

Fr Flannery wrote back to the Vatican defending himself, but all he did was dig himself even deeper in the hole.

For example, with regard to his views on the priesthood (and the Eucharist) he wrote: “I believe and accept that the origins of the Eucharist and the priesthood can be found in the Last Supper, where, as Sacred Scripture tell us, Jesus gave the command to the Apostles gathered around the table to ‘Do this in memory of Me’.”


With all due respect to Fr Flannery, that is emphatically not the same as saying he no longer believes 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”.

In his correspondence with the Vatican, Fr Flannery also said: “I believe and accept that the Eucharist was given to us by Christ Himself; that in the Eucharist we receive ‘the Bread of Life’, which is ‘the food of Eternal Life’.”

However, a Baptist pastor could have written that. What Fr Flannery does not address is whether or not he believes that at the moment of the consecration, the bread and wine are turned into the actual Body and Blood of Christ.

Fr Flannery, in defiance of the Vatican’s instruction, has recently added insult to injury by saying Mass in public to celebrate his birthday. At that Mass, he invited everyone, “as long as they had any sense of the Divine in their life and in this gathering, to come to communion”.

This invitation was effectively extended to non-Christians as well as to Christians. Very few Protestant Churches would go this far. Some Protestants Churches allow all baptised Christians to share Communion with them. 

But only the most liberal ones (and none that I can think of offhand) would extend Communion to non-Christians. What is the meaning of the word ‘communion’ when people who are clearly not in the Christian community are nonetheless invited to share in the highest Sacrament of the Church, the very symbol of unity and communion?

If the Pope rescinded the disciplinary measures against Fr Flannery as Enda Kenny wants, it would be effectively saying that a priest in good standing can break the Church’s rules on who can receive Communion, call into question the Catholic understanding of the priesthood and cast doubt on the nature of the Eucharist.

The repercussions of the Pope doing this would extend far beyond Ireland. It would be effectively carte blanche for priests to believe and preach practically anything, no matter how much at variance with core Catholic beliefs. 

Finally, we must consider the fact that the Association of Catholic Priests continually champions Fr Flannery. 

Does it share Fr Flannery’s beliefs? 

Does it believe there is any limit at all to dissent? 

Catholics have a right to know.

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