Sunday 18 March 2018

Man of faith who paid a high price

Fr Seán Fagan, laid to rest this week, suffered at the hands of Vatican officialdom

Rebel: Fr Seán Fagan, seen here with Mary McAleese, was disciplined by the Vatican for views at odds with Church teaching. Photo: Peter Houlihan
Rebel: Fr Seán Fagan, seen here with Mary McAleese, was disciplined by the Vatican for views at odds with Church teaching. Photo: Peter Houlihan

Michael Kelly

The story is told that Pope John XXIII - the man who called the Second Vatican Council in the 1960s in a bid to overhaul and modernise the Church - was once asked by a theologian-friend to recommend the friend's latest tome. The Pope responded with a wry smile, "I'll do better than that - I'll put it on the index" - a reference to the Vatican's list of banned books. The Pontiff evidently knew that making a book taboo would do more to boost sales than a papal endorsement.

The tale came to mind this week at the funeral in Dublin of Fr Seán Fagan, when the preacher recalled how Fr Fagan had been delighted to find one of his banned books selling on the internet for hundreds of dollars.

Fr Seán paid a high price for his beliefs, his friend and colleague Fr Declan Marmion told mourners at the funeral Mass. Fr Fagan was one of a number of priests disciplined by the Vatican in recent years when their theological views were found to be at odds with Church teaching.

The case of Fr Fagan sheds light on the dilemma faced by theologians and Church leaders alike. On the one hand, a theologian's job is to push the envelope to help Catholics come to better understandings of the faith. At the same time, they have sworn oaths to uphold and defend traditional Catholic teaching.

There's always been a tension between Church leaders and theologians, almost even a necessary tension. But, the question is always the same: how far is too far? In other words, how far can Catholic theologians - particularly priests - stray from official Church teaching without censure?

Theologians often say their job is to preach truth to power. But, as Pontius Pilate once infamously asked, "what is truth?"

The Vatican's Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF) - headed by German theologian Cardinal Gerhard Müller - acts as a de facto Chief Whip within the Church. In Fr Fagan's case, amongst other things, he had written that Church teaching in a number of areas, such as artificial birth control, should change as reality changes. He argued passionately that morality must be based on reality. But as far as the Church is concerned, it is people who should change, not morality.

The debate exposes a deeper fault-line within global Catholicism - one that Pope Francis is trying to navigate. Conservative Catholics tend to believe that Church teaching - particularly around sexuality - is poorly understood and poorly followed because it has never been properly explained to people. Liberal Catholics, on the other hand, argue that difficult Church teachings are unrealistic and overly-burdensome on people so should be relaxed.

While Pope Francis has made it clear that there will be no change in core Church teachings, he is pushing for a shift in emphasis. Famously, when asked about homosexuality, he answered that if a gay person sincerely seeks God, "whom am I to judge?"

But much to the chagrin of liberals, the Pope has not moved give theologians a licence to say what they please. He had a chance to replace Gerhard Müller - the doctrinal watchdog he inherited from Pope Benedict - and instead confirmed the cardinal in his position. Nor have theologians who have been disciplined by Rome - including Irish priests like Tony Flannery - been restored.

And, while the mood music has certainly changed under Francis, there's no sense that he is reluctant to play the disciplinarian when he feels he has to.

Just months after his election, the Pontiff dismissed US priest John Dear for what was described as being "obstinately disobedient" to the Church. What made the case more interesting for observers was the fact that Dear had been a member of the Jesuits, the order to which Pope Francis also belongs.

At the same time, however, Francis moved to end a Vatican probe of US nuns who had been suspected of holding views at odds with the Church - something which gave many cause to believe that things are changing in Rome.

But, one could be forgiven for thinking there are mixed messages. Francis recently used a Latin phrase when reminding professional theologians of their role when he told them their job was to 'sentire cum Ecclesia' - think with the mind of the Church.

Ultimately, of course, priests and religious who are theologians are official representatives of the Church and make their living from the Church. And just as no corporation would tolerate an executive dissing company strategy in public, the Church is loath to support a culture where priests feel free to say whatever they like while retaining the safety net of the Church.

Fr Fagan did indeed pay a high price for his beliefs - as rebels often do. But, despite our romantic penchant for rebels, they're not always right and the Church sees itself as being the sole arbitrator on what is and - crucially - what is not Catholic teaching.

Michael Kelly is editor of The Irish Catholic

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