Eddie Molloy: Bishops must shun dark to follow leader
The sanctions imposed on Tony Flannery and other priests should be lifted immediately
ON the plane to Italy recently for a short break, I finished reading Tony Flannery's harrowing account of how the Vatican's Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF) tried to silence him and ultimately barred him from functioning as a priest.
In the telling, Flannery exposed the unjust and cruel "modus operandi" of the CDF. Defying the strictest injunction not to reveal a word to anyone, he shone a bright light on a process that has been applied in secret to several other Irish priests. The Gospels have hard things to say about those who prefer to operate in the dark and shun the daylight. Then last week, Pope Francis in his dramatic interview with a group of Jesuit journals reprimanded the CDF for its "inappropriate behaviour" in the censuring of priests.
This interview is one of a series of public statements by the Pope of his intention to shift the whole orientation of the Church away from a focus on rigid compliance with the finer points of doctrine and unquestioning obedience to Church directives, under the threat of sanctions for non-compliance.
While in Italy, I picked up a copy of the daily newspaper, La Repubblica, known for its left-wing leanings and antipathy towards the Catholic Church, and was startled to find extensive coverage of a discussion between a former editor, Eugenio Scalfari, and Pope Francis. For a week it was front-page news, plus four to five pages inside devoted to the Pope's lengthy response to Scalfari's earlier open letters, in which he described himself as a non-believer and raised a series of questions about fundamental Catholic beliefs.
It was by any yardstick sensational stuff and attracted massive, largely favourable comment, precisely because the Pope signalled in the clearest possible terms a radical departure from the dictatorial, conceited, secretive and threatening style of the CDF and other Vatican agencies in how he intends to engage with people who don't share his views. Recalling the objectives of Vatican II, dear to the heart of Tony Flannery and countless other Catholics, Pope Francis describes as "necessary and precious" the need for dialogue between those who believe in Jesus Christ and those who don't.
The Pope remains a Catholic, but one who wants to show more understanding and compassion to those who are outside the fold, so to speak. He goes much further, however, than simply advocating Christian kindness towards non-believers, liberals and dissenters.
In his response to Scalfari, the Pope underlined a quotation from the encyclical which says that because the Christian faith is essentially about love, ". . . the faith is not intransigent . . . but flourishes in living with others in mutual respect. The faith is not arrogant; on the contrary, the truth makes one humble . . . The certainty (or sense of security) in one's faith comes from the journey involving dialogue with everyone . . . The truth is not absolute, we do not possess it, it is the truth that embraces us." He says to Scalfari that this is "a journey we must make hand-in-hand together ("in sieme"), believers and non-believers." This is not the stance of someone who believes he already has the truth and must be compassionate towards those who don't.
Scalfari's response to the Pope's statement was to say that it was a signal that the moment had come to reopen the doors on a dialogue, first initiated by Vatican II, without pre-conditions ("senza pre-concetti"), for a serious and fruitful engagement. Wider reaction from thousands of La Repubblica readers was tinged with a sense of relief that after nearly 50 years, the great advances of Vatican II had been re-asserted, with apparent conviction, by the Pope, particularly his strong endorsement of the primacy of the individual conscience.
Most Irish bishops, the Papal Nuncio and those spokespersons for the Catholic Church who see themselves as bastions of a smaller church, loyal and obedient to the "Holy Father", would do well to tune in to Lumen Fidei, the personal exchanges in La Repubblica and the Pope's interview with the Jesuits and reflect on how they have treated the likes of Fr Flannery and countless other Catholics who had the temerity to question the church's teaching over the past four to five decades in particular.
If the Pope's encyclical and ground-breaking exchanges with La Repubblica are to mean anything, then the sanctions imposed on Tony Flannery, Sean Fagan and other priests should be lifted immediately and respectful engagement with them initiated, a common decency denied them by the CDF. Similarly, the Irish bishops now have the clearest possible prompt to begin the journey, "senza pre-concetti", of engaging in the never-ending search for truth "in sieme" with the Association of Catholic Priests, groups such as We The Church and wider society. They might also persuade Veritas, the Catholic bookstore, to change its decision not to sell Tony Flannery's book, A Question of Conscience.