So the Vatican has finally moved against the flagrantly heterodox views of the Association of Catholic Priests, and its founder Father Tony Flannery has been told to stop writing his monthly column in Reality magazine.
The reaction falls into two easily predictable categories. On one side there are comparisons of the Vatican to the USSR, claims that Catholics are leaving the Church because of a stifling authoritarianism, and contrasts between Jesus's simple life and all-embracing love and the supposed ostentation and exclusivity of the Vatican.
On the other side, there is something close to rejoicing. The Irish Catholic this week prints reactions on its Facebook page (here I am, on a blog, discussing comments posted on a Facebook page and then printed in a newspaper-- how multimedia!)
One reaction is, "Thanks be to god! The sooner action against the ACP is taken the better the Church will be!" Another says, "Le cúnamh Dé, more of them will be disciplined."
To be fair, many of those criticising the ACP have been careful to call for prayers for them, and to acknowledge the great devotion and sacrifice all priests undergo on behalf of their flocks. I might even say that the anti-Rome comments were rather less measured and magnanimous.
Even still, I think there might be something to what one pro-ACP letter writer claims: "I'll admit to being a bit fearful myself when I see a kind of smug triumphalism and schadenfreude emanating from certain ardent Catholics over the silencing of TF."
Anyone who has read two or three posts of this blog will know where I stand. I am not a fan of the Association of Catholic Priests. I think their entire attitude is unhealthy and injurious to the Church in Ireland, and that their constant dissent from orthodoxy dishonours their priestly vows.
And yet, I feel only trepidation and anxiety over this controversy. The ACP represents more than 800 priests, the media tells me, and goodness alone knows how many pew-filling Catholics sympathise with them. For all I know, there may be more liberal Catholics than orthodox Catholics in this country. At a time when parishes are under such strain, and the media is buffeting the Church from every corner, can we afford a schism?
Whatever we think about the open dissent of liberal priests, they remain valid celebrants of Mass and dispensers of the sacraments. We need them.
I feel that we-- and by we I mean orthodox Irish Catholics-- should strenously avoid the spirit of faction, or anything that could be mistaken for triumphalism, and pray ardently that the Catholic communion in Ireland is healed of these breaches.
I happened to finish Newman's Apologia Pro Vita Sua today, and I came across this passage, which (of course) struck me especially in the light of the Fr. Flannery affair:
And then again all through Church history from the first, how slow is authority in interfering! Perhaps a local teacher, or a doctor in some local school, hazards a proposition, and a controversy ensues. It smoulders or burns in one place, no one interposing; Rome simply lets it alone. Then it comes before a Bishop; or some priest, or some professor in some other seat of learning takes it up; and then there is a second stage of it. Then it comes before a University, and it may be condemned by the theological faculty. So the controversy proceeds year after year, and Rome is still silent. An appeal perhaps is next made to a seat of authority inferior to Rome; and then at last after a long while it comes before the supreme power. Meanwhile, the question has been ventilated and turned over and over again, and viewed on every side of it, and authority is called upon to pronounce a decision, which has already been arrived at by reason. But even then, perhaps the supreme authority hesitates to do so, and nothing is determined on the point for years; or so generally and vaguely, that the whole controversy has to be gone through again, before it is ultimately determined. It is manifest how a mode of proceeding, such as this, tends not only to the liberty, but to the courage, of the individual theologian or controversialist. Many a man has ideas, which he hopes are true, and useful for his day, but he is not confident about them, and wishes to have them discussed. He is willing or rather would be thankful to give them up, if they can be proved to be erroneous or dangerous, and by means of controversy he obtains his end. He is answered, and he yields; or on the contrary he finds that he is considered safe. He would not dare to do this, if he knew an authority, which was supreme and final, was watching every word he said, and made signs of assent or dissent to each sentence, as he uttered it. Then indeed he would be fighting, as the Persian soldiers, under the lash, and the freedom of his intellect might truly be said to be beaten out of him. But this has not been so:—I do not mean to say that, when controversies run high, in schools or even in small portions of the Church, an interposition may not rightly take place; and again, questions may be of that urgent nature, that an appeal must, as a matter of duty, be made at once to the highest authority in the Church; but, if we look into the history of controversy, we shall find, I think, the general run of things to be such as I have represented it. Zosimus treated Pelagius and Cœlestius with extreme forbearance; St. Gregory VII. was equally indulgent with Berengarius; by reason of the very power of the Popes they have commonly been slow and moderate in their use of it.
As I say, I couldn't help being struck by this passage. But the passage that struck me even more, and that saddened me more than I can say (considering its contrast with our own time and country) was this one:
And next, I was struck, when I had more opportunity of judging of the Priests, by the simple faith in the Catholic Creed and system of which they always gave evidence, and which they never seemed to feel, in any sense at all, to be a burden. And now that I have been in the Church nineteen years, I cannot recollect hearing of a single instance in England of an infidel priest. Of course there are men from time to time, who leave the Catholic Church for another religion, but I am speaking of cases, when a man keeps a fair outside to the world and is a hollow hypocrite in his heart.