Thursday, April 12, 2012

We Shouldn't Celebrate Father Tony Flannery's "Silencing"

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.


  1. I just lost a novel length whine there so hopefully this will go through.

    Firstly, I am tired of being isolated, feeling like I'm on a small island on this island when I have to say, "well, actually..." and defend basic teachings of the Church to poorly catechised Catholics. I am relieved that finally, after years of silence the Vatican is doing something. At least it feels like someone tangible is on our side.

    Secondly, the ACP did a fine thing in supporting Fr. Reynolds. All that energy could be harnessed to catechise themselves first and then us, bolster the prolife movement, preach skin-blistering sermons and inspire us all to return to the sacraments. Do they really have all this time to waste?

    Thirdly, I feel empathy for the men who perhaps followed the wrong the vocation. Good men who should have married and become social workers, doctors, counsellors chose the priesthood instead. Nevertheless, the Church isn't going to conform to their desires and to think it will is verging from delusion to scandal. Perhaps the C of I would suit some of them better and I'm not being sarcastic at all.

    Finally, this morning on BBC Ulster radio one of them spoke at length about how there is no theological reason for unmarried clergy. This is a movement for change according to him, based on reason. Not once did he mention contraception and female clergy having no theological basis. That sort of PR yammering is devious and I don't like it. Perhaps some priests don't know why, in which case they need to open a book. My concern is that apart from a small cohort who are looking for a row there are some lonely, confused priests who are on the sidelines and joining the ACP. When was the last time you invited your priest to lunch with your family? I wonder how many of the 800 priests in the ACP simply want to be viewed with respect again and accepted as part of Ireland. The ACP is giving them a sense of belonging and "respect" that we the laity have taken away. The leaders of the ACP are trying to break an already fractured faith in this country, I find it hard to forgive them for that. I am sure there are members who are just looking for a place to call home. Perhaps the Vatican stepping in finally will show them where the real Rock is. We really do have to pray for our priests.

  2. I often think about the challenges a priest must face. They get paid very little, for a start. The Irish Catholic this week reported that Dublin priests have had their salary reduced by a quarter in two years. And doubtless a good deal of that goes on charity and social occasions. How can a priest say no when someone asks him for a few quid, and how many people will try it on?

    They have to be upbeat and cheerful all the time. They have to be moral examplars. They have to remember that every wedding, funeral and baptism they celebrate is a once-in-a-lifetime occasion to those involved, even though it must become like taking a shower to them.

    As priests grow fewer in number, and a bigger and bigger majority of Irish priests are elderly, not only the administering of sacraments but the administration of parishes takes up more and more of their time.

    They are called to evangelize, as well as to minister to their existing flock, and everyone looks to them for (what sometimes seems like) the Mission Impossible of "engaging the youth". Oh, and all this while they are under constant suspicion of being paedophiles, and probably in terror of opportunistic accusations.

    Half of their flock is analysing their homilies for evidence of wishy-washy liberalism, the other half for evidence of sexism and homophobia and general reactionary awfulness.

    And-- even though I fully support the requirement of priestly celibacy-- none of this is done with the support and love of a wife or household. For all the affection that friends and family and fellow priests can supply, there must be an essential loneliness there.

    I totally understand why priests would turn to a professional association for support. I must admit I have never invited my priest to lunch (I've rarely invited anyone for lunch), but I do my best to show my appreciation to them.

    I agree about how it is "verging on the deluded" to believe the Pope would really meddle with the deposit of faith. I have often thought about that myself. Surely their knowledge of theology and ecclesiastical history should tell them it is impossible? I understand somebody with no knowledge of Catholicism believing this will happen, but a priest? It's weird.

  3. I used to work with a woman who regularly invited nuns to lunch with her and priests for dinner with her and her husband. Who even does that now? They spend their lives not forgetting those who forget them regularly, kind of like God. There is an essential loneliness there and I think it's important to welcome them into your life if you can. Our priests walk to the exit of the church after Sunday Mass to shake our hands as we leave. Do we ever reciprocate that?

    Don't be too surprised by the ignorance of priests, often through kindness. I once had a priest tell me a mortal sin wasn't mortal in confession and I had to point out that it was serious, and done with my knowledge and consent. He was gracious and surprised. I have also been taught moral theology by a lecturer (not a priest) who asked where exactly in the bible it says homosexuality is a sin. These are the people teaching Catholics today, so who taught them? I don't think the leaders of the ACP or their supporters reject Church teaching per se, I wonder if they were ever taught it in the first place. Imagine it as a sin of ommission if you will. They've been eating the intellectual equivalent of McDonalds for years, of course they'll throw a tantrum when confronted with a brussel sprout.

    “There are not one hundred people in the United States who hate The Catholic Church, but there are millions who hate what they wrongly perceive the Catholic Church to be.”
    ― Fulton J. Sheen

    By the way, Strumpet City deals with the isolation of a priest very well.