Laying down the law
Five months after he was silenced by Rome in March 2010, Fr Seán Fagan, a Dublin-based Marist priest, wrote to a friend. “At last I have got down to the practicalities of waiting for death,” was how the former secretary general of his order began his letter.
Fagan wrote that, aged 82, blind in one eye, diabetic and having chronic ligament pain after being knocked down by a car in Dublin that year, he would like death “to come sooner rather than later”. What most occupied the internationally published theologian was a fear that journalists would find out that he had been ordered never again to express an opinion in public.
“It has been made quite clear that, if news of the curia’s disciplinary measures in my regard become known to the media, I will be blamed and immediately stripped of my priesthood. For the sake of my family and friends, I will keep my silence,” he wrote. “For all practical purposes, I am officially dead.”
Nobody knows how many Irish priests are in purdahs imposed on the orders of the Holy See. There are at least three.
Fr Tony Flannery, a Galway Redemptorist, is in a monastery where, on the advice of Rome, he must “pray and reflect” on the liberal views he has articulated in his now-defunct monthly column in Reality magazine, and on his role as one of the founders of the Association of Catholic Priests (ACP). Fr Gerard Moloney, the magazine’s editor, has been instructed not to write on certain subjects.
Last week, other prominent priests, including Fr Peter McVerry, a Jesuit working with young homeless men, and Fr Gabriel Daly, an Augustinian theologian, publicly deplored the Vatican’s gagging of Flannery. Daly wrote in Doctrine and Life magazine about an “ominous division” in the Roman Catholic church. “One party is now in control and is presenting its views as ‘the teaching of the church’,” he wrote.
Some observers speculate that Rome has decided to make an example of Ireland in its attempt to turn the tide of what Pope Benedict XVI calls relativism in North America and Europe.
IN BROAD terms, what unites the rebels against the ruling traditionalists is that the former believe the progressive spirit of the Second Vatican Council has been abandoned, copperfastened by Humanae Vitae, a papal encyclical banning the use of manufactured contraceptives.
A new translation of the missal, imposed universally last year, is regarded by the dissenters as inaccessible and sexist and representing a further retrenchment by Benedict’s Vatican.
In this respect, Austria and Ireland have made international headlines in recent weeks. In the Vatican on Holy Thursday, Benedict warned that clerical disobedience would not be tolerated. His message was interpreted as a direct response to a group of Austrian priests calling themselves Preachers’ Initiative, who have challenged the church’s teaching on such issues as contraception, celibacy and women’s ordination. The 370-strong group has described the Vatican as an “absolutist monarchy”.
Last month, the Vatican reprimanded what it regards as Ireland’s rebel priests. A summary report of the apostolic visitation to Ireland announced in March 2010 (the month Fagan was silenced), prompted by the fallout from the Cloyne report on the mishandling of child sexual-abuse complaints, warned that dissent from fundamental teaching was unacceptable.
The report said the Vatican-appointed visitors had “encountered a certain tendency, not dominant but nevertheless fairly widespread among priests, religious and laity, to hold theological opinions at variance with the teachings of the magisterium”. It urged for seminarians to be isolated from lay university students to strengthen their “identity”.
Asked if he thought the Pope was worried about Ireland, Fr Vincent Twomey, once a student of the former Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, and author of The End of Irish Catholicism?, said: “Reading his letter to Irish Catholics, you can see how concerned he is. You can see how much attention he’s given to Ireland: calling the bishops over; appointing several apostolic visitations. I think that must be unique.
“I think talk of a schism is overstatement, but I do think there is an alarming parochialism going under the guise of a nation church. With regard to the [new] liturgy, there is an attitude that we should do it our own way.”
Jon O’Brien, the president of Catholics For Choice, a Washington-based lay lobby, said: “In recent days, there’s been something different about what’s been happening in Ireland and Austria. I think there’s a worry within the Vatican that the cumulative effect of the sex-abuse crisis is that rank-and-file members, who may include priests and nuns, are disillusioned with the way the church is being managed.
“Ireland was once the jewel in the crown that sent so many missionaries around the world and put up the great struggle in penal times. It has a special place in Catholicism globally.”
If Rome hopes the eruptions of dissent are flash-fires that can be extinguished easily, it may need to think again. In Dublin last Thursday, the leaders of the ACP — minus Flannery — released the results of an opinion poll which backed an à la carte Catholicism: one in two respondents preferred the old missal; three in five disagreed with the church on homosexuality; three in four said the teachings on sexuality were irrelevant to them.
Of priest respondents, 24% said their voices were not being heard in the Vatican.
What will perturb Rome is that the ACP, which has 815 members (about one-fifth of all priests in Ireland), is sharing its research with like-minded priests in America, Australia, Hong Kong, the Philippines, the UK, Italy and Austria. Fr Helmut Schuller, the parish priest in Lower Austria who leads the Preachers’ Initiative and who has predicted “2012 will be the year of internationalisation”, attended the ACP’s annual meeting in Ireland last year.
Flannery’s fellow ACP leaders are inviting all the country’s bishops (half-a-dozen vacancies remain unfilled by Rome), superiors of religious orders and Archbishop Charles Brown, the new papal nuncio, to a mass assembly at the Regency Hotel in Dublin on May 7. They deny leading a breakaway from the church.
“We love the church,” said Fr Brendan Hoban, a parish priest in Ballina, Co Mayo. “We want to be in the church but, like a family, you don’t put somebody outside the door for mentioning there’s an elephant in the room.”
Twomey said that some priests’ defiance in administering the eucharist to divorced Catholics in second relationships “is a huge problem” and that this is where the bishops should be exercising control.
Asked what he thought of Flannery’s censure, Twomey said it was “very regrettable that a priest has to be disciplined in this way. There’s been a lot of criticism of the Vatican in the media but it’s within the right of the church to discipline those it considers are spreading ideas not in harmony with its teaching”.
Similar methods were used to silence Fagan and Flannery. Action was taken against them at the behest of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF), led by Cardinal William Levada, a former archbishop of San Francisco. The heads of both their orders were summoned to the Vatican and told to discipline them. Neither Fagan nor Flannery were told what complaint had been made against them, nor who had made it.
“Somebody obviously reported [Flannery],” said Fr Seán McDonagh, a Columban sociologist and missionary. “Not everybody goes to bed reading Reality every night.”
PJ Madden, his fellow ACP leader, said: “One of our biggest concerns is the way unidentified sources make their way into the Vatican with complaints that are acted upon, and no information is given about who reported it. There’s a rump of people who think they are more Catholic than the rest of us.”
Declining to answer questions about the disciplining of Irish priests, Monsignor Ciro Benedettini, deputy director of the Holy See press office, said: “I have no comment. Diocesan priests and members of religious institutes are accountable to their superiors and the Holy See press office does not intend to interfere.”
Flannery and Fagan have collaborated in the past, most recently on a collection of essays responding to the Ryan report on child abuse in church-run residential institutions. After his silencing, Fagan declined an invitation to contribute to a book on moral theology, edited by Vincent MacNamara, a priest of the Society of St Patrick, and Enda McDonagh, a former professor of moral theology at Maynooth seminary.
In their introduction to An Irish Reader in Moral Theology, McDonagh and MacNamara wrote that “due to circumstances outside our control, it was not possible to include any contribution from Seán Fagan SM, one of the most notable and readable moral theologians writing in this field. The result was an injustice perpetrated against the readers since it left them deprived of some of the most pastorally helpful writing”.
Charles Curran is considered a leading dissenting Catholic theologian. A professor at the Southern Methodist University in Dallas, he was blacklisted as a teacher in 1986 when the CDF was led by Ratzinger.
“I believe we’re moving towards a remnant church,” said the 78-year-old. “The [Vatican’s] attitude is: the world is opposed to us, we have to defend ourselves, and we will be a small remnant fighting the world. Let’s be realistic: nobody wants to start a new organisation today. People either drift away or go to other churches.
“These people who are under the gun now are of a certain age. Younger priests are much more conservative and unlikely to voice dissent.”
While the theological power struggle goes on, priests like Fagan and Flannery may be afraid to voice their opinions as they fear for the future of the Catholic church itself.
In his 2010 letter, Fagan wrote: “The Vatican itself is the biggest obstacle to Catholic faith, forcing thousands to leave the church. A good part of my ministry for years has been helping them to stay, even if only by the skin of their teeth.”
This article was originally published in the Sunday Times.