AN OUTSPOKEN cleric is facing excommunication for suggesting women might become priests in the future.
Fr Tony Flannery, who also writes on religious matters, said he is being forced to choose between Rome and his conscience, and is taking legal advice under canon and civil law.
The 66-year-old, who joined the Redemptorists in 1964, said he has been told by the Vatican that if he wants to remain in the church and in his congregation he must end his involvement with the liberal Association of Catholic Priests (ACP).
He added that the ban on him ministering, which was imposed by the Vatican's Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF), will continue until he fulfils the terms laid down by Rome.
This includes publishing an article that has been pre-approved by the CDF and accepting that the Catholic Church can never ordain women. He says he must also accept the church's stance on contraception and homosexuality and its refusal of the sacraments to people in second relationships.
Despite being ordered not to engage with the media, Fr Flannery said: "I have served the church, the Redemptorists and the people of God for two-thirds of my life.
"I have in good conscience raised issues I believed important for the future of the church in books and essays largely read by practising Catholics, rather than raising them in mainstream media.
"I'm hardly a major and subversive figure within the church deserving excommunication."
He has now decided to step down from the leadership of the ACP, which numbers more than 1,000 Irish priests, saying he does not want to have his circumstances blurred with the association's agenda.
Fr Flannery was silenced last year after a complaint about his views on the church's ban on artificial birth control and support for the ordination of women made its way to the "Vatican civil service".
The ACP said in a statement that it believed the "targeting of Fr Flannery" is not about church teaching but part of a worldwide effort to negate the influence of independent priests' associations.
Fr Helmut Schuller, the leader of the Austrian Priests' Initiative, a reform-minded group similar to the ACP, described Fr Flannery's treatment as "a scandal".
Formerly a monsignor, he was demoted following his group's "call for disobedience" on issues such as married priests and female priests.
A statement from the Irish Redemptorist Community said: "Although not all Redemptorists would accept Fr Flannery's views, we understand and support his efforts to listen carefully to and at times to articulate the views of people he encounters in the course of his ministry."