A Sentence of Silence: Tony Flannery Tried by the Vatican
Tony Flannery’s A Question of Conscience is a riveting description of what it is like to be put on trial by the Vatican. Flannery’s case is one that provokes strong feelings from both sympathizers and critics. Fr. Adrian Egan, the head of Flannery’s order in Limerick, told the Irish Central website that the Vatican’s behavior evoked “the Hoover days in America,” when minor allegations could get passed all the way up the chain of command and result in punitive measures. Cardinal William Levada, one of those prosecuting Flannery’s case, described the accused as “formally in heresy.” In addition to being a courtroom drama set in little-trafficked Vatican chambers, the book measures the damage to a human life exacted by some elements of the Vatican system.
The drama began in 2012 with the accused, Tony Flannery, an Irish Redemptorist priest in his late sixties who came under scrutiny from the Vatican. He had joined the order in 1964 at the age of 17, and over more than four decades became “one of the best known and most valued spiritual leaders in the country among ordinary Catholics,” according to historian Dermot Keogh.
But Flannery did not seem to get points for good behavior, the positive regard of his peers or his half century of faithful, generous service.
None of this made a difference to the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF), an office of the Roman Curia that frequently deals with questions of doctrine. The Congregation identifies writings that potentially conflict with Catholic teaching, and then acts as both prosecutor and judge against the author.
The content of the criminal accusation against Flannery came down to three issues. The first involved theological differences on the Eucharist and the priesthood. Any variation on these topics was deemed heretical, even though Flannery’s positions are part of existing public debate among Catholic theologians. One flash point could have been his views on the ordained clergy. On the one hand, Flannery was open to women being ordained to the priesthood. It is also known that the Vatican took particular exception to a 2010 article in which Flannery stated that the priesthood was not established by Jesus, but rather “some time after Jesus” by “a privileged group within the community.”
Secondly, Flannery allegedly failed to comply fully with the moral directives of Rome, especially those dealing with sexual ethics and, particularly, the official teaching on contraception. As Flannery told BBC News in early 2013: “I have been on record for a long time saying that I thought Humanae Vitae … was a big mistake.” Flannery viewed contraception in light of the Catholic teaching that conscience is the final moral arbiter, above any church policies like the ban on modern birth control, which has been in existence for less than a century.
Finally, the CDF questioned Flannery’s role in the organization and leadership of Ireland’s Association of Catholic Priests (ACP). This association defined its own agenda, spoke in public forums and, on occasion, took exception to some church policies, such as obligatory celibacy for priests and hierarchical control of the church.
Of these three issues, the last seems to have upset the Vatican the most. The ACP had the attention of the media as well as an escalating number of Irish Catholics. A major Eucharistic Congress, which would include the pope, was scheduled for 2012 in Dublin. The Vatican was likely eager to silence the ACP or end its influence before the pope’s arrival. In any case, the accusation against Flannery and the subsequent trial followed dynamics alien to contemporary principles of fairness and justice.
In cases where doctrinal orthodoxy is in question, the accused is not addressed by the Vatican directly, but rather through his or her major superior or bishop—this began in Flannery’s case in January 2012. Fr. Michael Brehl, superior general of the Redemptorists, summoned Tony Flannery to Rome on three occasions, telling him little more than that the accusations against him were grave. Flannery described this revelation as “a shock, a bolt from the blue,” but after that point, he was stuck in a Kafkaesque limbo mandated by Vatican protocol, which dictates that the accused is told to keep the proceedings in complete secrecy. One is advised that sharing information with anyone could worsen an already grave situation. When Flannery asked for further specifics about his case, he was told that he would hear details about the charges when he arrived in Rome.
In February 2012, while surrounded by Redemptorist officials in Rome, Tony Flannery was handed two sheets of paper with no heading or signature listing the charges against him. He was asked to respond immediately as to whether, how and when he would comply with the Vatican’s demands, which included that he publicly retract his erroneous statements and agree to resign from the leadership of the Association of Catholic Priests. During a period of enforced reflection he was removed from public ministry and forbidden to give interviews.
Flannery was aware that some of the concerns raised by the Vatican might be justified and was willing to negotiate a settlement satisfactory to all. He was not, however, granted the opportunity. He had gathered by then that the CDF had no interest in hearing what he had to say. Indeed, the Congregation did not respond to correspondence from him. He felt as though he was a person of no consequence—that it was his behavior and ultimate submission, not his character, motives or justifications, that were of interest to the CDF. Flannery was always addressed in the third person, as one would an object, a case or a nuisance. He later told the National Catholic Reporter that the Vatican’s actions against him felt “frightening, disproportionate and reminiscent of the Inquisition.”
The priest was forced to decide what price he was willing to pay in order to continue functioning as an active priest. The book is a testimony to the measure of loss or damage to a human life exacted by the Vatican’s procedures against members of its own flock in the name of orthodoxy. The accused moved from bewilderment and incomprehension to anger and fear. In the book, however, he maintains his balance: his anger is stated, but not on display.
As the author tells his tale, however, certain terrors are visible just beneath the surface: a loss of control, fears for his health and concerns about his financial future are all very real worries for a man in his sixties. But there is also the question of whether a priest of nearly five decades can be happy again if kept from ministering as a priest to the people he loves. How will he find respect in the eyes of others? If he is censured by the church indefinitely, does that mean spending his days waiting for the CDF to decide when he can live again?
As the title indicates, perhaps the most difficult issue is that of conscience: if Flannery’s conscience sees certain church teachings could benefit from better theological grounding and open debate, affirming that they represent immutable Catholic teaching would require him to trespass on deeply held beliefs. Furthermore, Flannery is one of many Catholics who claim the freedom to find God and proclaim the God they see in the community, rather than serving a God of clerical systems and canonical limits.
None of the above is stated by Flannery in the words I have used, but all of these questions are there within his words, as they would be for all of us in a similar situation. It is a dreadful thing to see a life of service and beauty subjected to such suffering and humiliation.
SILENCE AND SPEECH
In April 2012, the CDF instructed him to stop writing his regular column for the Irish Redemptorist publication Reality. After his period of reflection had ended in early summer, Flannery then received what he called a “very angry letter” from the CDF that led to new disciplinary action in September. At this point, Flannery was informed that whether he complied or not, he must spend an indefinite period of time outside his native Ireland in a retreat house, in order to reflect on the harm and scandal he had brought upon the People of God. The CDF would determine when the exile was to be lifted. His situation would, of course, improve if he complied in all instances and publicly retracted his statements.
Flannery refused to sign any pledge or to cease his relations with the ACP. In January 2013, he broke his silence, first with an interview published in the New York Times, and soon after, with a press conference in Dublin in which he discussed the threat of excommunication and his continued support for open dialogue on women’s ordination—among other doctrinal matters sincerely questioned by the faithful.
Fr. Brehl, the superior general of the Redemptorist Fathers, released a statement saying that he “deeply regret[ted]” Flannery’s decision not to comply with the Vatican’s order of silence. The superior general of the Redemptorists had been amiable during the CDF proceedings, but the pleasantries he shared with the member of his order were not all he could have given. The Redemptorist leader could have adopted the position employed by other religious communities in similar circumstances and told the Vatican that an unjust punishment of a brother or sister would be resisted by fellow members of the community—publicly if need be. In such instances, the record shows, the Vatican will cease and desist. It requires compliant officials to enforce its will.
Though Vatican dealings typically lack transparency, the case of Tony Flannery is a prism through which we can see larger issues about the way the church leadership deals with doctrine and individual conscience. What may need to be put on trial is the Vatican system itself.
A Question of Conscience
(Londubh Books, 2013, 192 pp)