Redemptorist priest Fr. Tony Flannery in Ireland, co-founder of the Association of Catholic Priests, is in trouble with the Roman authorities. He was silenced a year ago for his writings, and he complied. He has been threatened with excommunication and ordered to sign a statement that women can never be ordained Catholic priests and the he agrees with church teachings on homosexuality and contraception. Now he is breaking his silence: he writes in the Irish Times that silence is “too high a price” when obeying his conscience is at stake.
There are people who will say I should leave the Catholic Church and join another Christian church – one more suitable to my stance. Being a Catholic is central to my personal identity. I have tried to preach the gospel. No matter what sanctions the Vatican imposes on me I will continue, in whatever way I can, to try to bring about reform in the church and to make it again a place where all who want to follow Christ will be welcome. He made friends with the outcasts of society, and I will do whatever I can in my own small way to oppose the current Vatican trend of creating a church of condemnation rather than one of compassion.
The statement of the Irish Redemptorists is here. It says in part:
It is of immense regret that some structures or processes of dialogue have not yet been found in the Church which have a greater capacity to engage with challenging voices from among God’s people, while respecting the key responsibility and central role of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith.
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This is what bothers me, and I think should bother anyone, whatever their position on disputed Church teachings: one person is punished for saying what lots of others also think.
We all know that many, many priests would be open to the ordination of women and don’t believe that the Church has no authority to ordain women. We all know that many theologians, perhaps most among those with earned doctorates, would dispute that Jesus explicitly instituted an ordained priesthood and that this was the understanding of the first generations of the Church, as there is no indication of this in the New Testament or the earliest patristic sources. We all know that many priests, many or most theologians, and most laypeople by far reject the official teaching on artificial contraception.
It seems that the authorities, knowing full well of this diversity of views among priests, theologians, and laypeople, are willing to single out one person as a way of pressuring the others to remain silent. It seems that the authorities are willing to make lots of people take oaths they obviously don’t fully believe in, and thus be complicit in pressuring them to violate their conscience, as a way of making people say what they don’t believe or not say what they do believe. The Church becomes, then, a place where one cannot be honest. This is a problem.
My point here is not that women should be ordained or homosexual relations should be approved or the teaching on contraception should be changed. I didn’t say that, though I expect some commenters will assume I did. My point is that, even if one agrees with official teachings in these areas, the actions of church authorities are highly problematic in disrespecting conscience and forcing dishonesty.
I suppose some will say that no one is forced to be a Catholic or a priest. Those who disagree should have the integrity to leave. Really? Does anyone really want every layperson who disagrees on contraception to leave? Does anyone really want every priest and theologian who disagrees on one issue or the other to leave? This is absurd and unrealistic idealism of a cheap sort.
Here’s the reality: the Catholic Church is divided about many issues. Authorities are working mightily to impose from above positions not held by many priests, theologians, and lay people. It will be interesting to observe how this works for the authorities. It will be interesting to observe what form resistance will take. Expect many skirmishes ahead.
What would be a better way forward? I honestly don’t know. I don’t see the hierarchy changing its position, and I don’t see the dissenting priests and theologians and laypeople going away. In such circumstances, it’s hard to imagine how the Church could arrive at consensus and become united.
I suppose the best one could hope for is a gentler hand from the hierarchy, a bit more humility about its positions, and a bit more loving respect for people it considers to be mistaken. History shows that Church authorities have a rather mixed track record the last couple centuries when it comes to responding to issues raised by a changing world– think of mistaken or unfortunate statements on slavery, or religious liberty, or separation of Church and state, or the legitimacy of democratically elected government, or Mosaic authorship of the Pentateuch, or use of the vernacular in the liturgy. Church authorities would have good reason to show more humility and more respect for others’ views.
That’s what I’m praying for. But as I say, expect more skirmishes ahead.