Colum Kenny: Might of Rome descends on an unlikely heretic priest
When Fr Tony Flannery uses the word church, he does not just mean the bishops or the pope
Tony Flannery is an unlikely heretic. An Irish Redemptorist priest, he is now being threatened with excommunication from his own church.
So who cares? According to some media reports last week, a new survey of Irish public opinion ranks religion last among 119 priorities. But the survey and the reports about it were misleading.
Rome has let Flannery know that his opinions on the priesthood, and on the role of the laity, "are clearly contrary to the defined teaching of the Church" (as Rome sees it). He was stripped of his column in the Redemptorists' Reality magazine, forbidden to administer the sacraments and now has one last chance to recant before being excluded from the institution to which he has given his life.
Some have linked his predicament to Enda Kenny's criticism of the Vatican. Flannery's brother Frank has long been a leading light in Fine Gael. Rome was not happy with the Taoiseach's criticisms, and it was whispered by some that Fr Flannery had a hand in Kenny's controversial speech of 2011. When Fr Flannery first heard that whisper, he thought it was a joke. He says: "I had absolutely nothing to do with the speech. I keep well away from politics in my profession."
Whispers are not his only problem. He has received from senior church sources a list of complaints against him, with demands for him to recant. These have been relayed from Rome without any official heading on the documents, but he was told that they came from the powerful Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith.
Last week, "senior Vatican sources" reportedly denied that Flannery faces excommunication. But documents seen by the Sunday Independent suggest otherwise. The Vatican has complained that he expressed heretical or heterodox statements, and points out that "a priest who has committed the delict [act] of heresy" incurs a "latae sententiae [automatic] excommunication". Rome's Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF) wants Flannery to bend his knee and to accept publicly that "the Roman Pontiff has full, supreme and universal power over the Church". The CDF also demands that Flannery state that "only a validly ordained priest can validly celebrate the Eucharist", and that "the ordination of women is not possible." But he believes that women can be priests.
The CDF bases its case partly on the fact that "the Lord Jesus chose men to form the college of the 12 apostles, and that the apostles did the same when they chose collaborators to succeed them in their ministry".
The fact that neither Jesus nor the apostles chose any Germans, such as CDF Prefect Archbishop Gerhard Muller, has not prevented Germans from becoming priests, cardinals and even pope.
The CDF claims that it has been misunderstood and "maliciously" misinterpreted by some priests and media. In the absence of effective channels for open communic-ation within the church, it is easy for senior bishops to convince themselves that this is so. Flannery is frustrated that the CDF will not deal with him in a transparent fashion.
For some Irish Catholics, the Vatican's position makes sense. It is a club and, if you do not like the rules, you should leave it. For other Catholics, including some who are theologically informed, religion is not a club. It is precisely in its ability to create alternative views of the world that spirituality liberates us from it.
Fr Flannery, for example, rejects the notion that the priesthood originated with Jesus exactly as we have it now. He wrote in 2010, in an article that particularly irked Rome, that Jesus "did not designate a special group of his followers as priests. To say that at the Last Supper, Jesus instituted the priesthood as we have it is stretching the reality of what happened."
He added: "It is more likely that some time after Jesus, a select and privileged group within the community who had abrogated power and authority to themselves, interpreted the occasion of the Last Supper in a manner that suited their own agenda".
Like many other Irish priests who have supported him through the Irish Association of Catholic Priests, Flannery now believes that "the Word of God and the sacraments belong to the whole Christian community, the Church, rather than the priest alone". When he uses the word "church", he does not just mean the bishops or pope.
This kind of thinking, grounded on debates that arose around the time of the 1962 Vatican Council, sounds to some conservative Catholics like Protestantism. And the man now heading up the Vatican's response to Flannery is well aware of the strength of Protestant convictions.
Younger than Pope Benedict, who was a member of the Nazi youth movement, Muller himself was born two years after World War II ended and grew up in a traditional Catholic milieu disinclined to tolerate unorthodox thinking. The two Germans work closely together in Rome.
For the declining number of people who go to church, these disputes are depressing. But headlines that suggested Irish people rank religion and spirituality last among 119 priorities were misleading. For one thing, the Community Foundation for Ireland survey was conducted online and not with a typical cross-section of the population. For another, it asked only one vague question about religion. And even still, most respondents actually ranked religion and spirituality as being more important than not.
The Vatican is insisting that Fr Flannery "should state that he accepts the whole teaching of the Church, also in regard to moral issues". As ever, he says, "moral issues" is code for a narrow range of matters such as contraception.
And, as ever when it comes to power, the Vatican's concept of "the Church" tends to identify that concept with the curia or the hierarchy, rather than with the broad community of believers to whom religion and spirituality matter.