By Michael J. Bayly
We’re at a moment in time when reform-minded Catholics must let their voices be heard.
This was one of a number of messages that both inspired and challenged the 300+ Catholics who gathered at St. Frances Cabrini Catholic Church in Minneapolis on the evening of Wednesday, November 5, 2014. It was a message delivered by Irish priest Tony Flannery.
Catholic Tipping Point Coalition, which offers the following explanation for the hierarchy’s inhospitable attitude.
Fr. Tony has been ordered to remain silent and forbidden to minister as a priest because of his refusal to sign a document that violates his conscience: namely that women cannot be priests and that he accepts all Church stances on contraception, homosexuality, and refusal of the sacraments to people in second relationships. After a year during which he attempted to come to some accommodation with the Vatican without success, he has decided to take a public stance on the need for reform in the Church. . . . Rather than remain silent, Fr. Tony and all people of conscience are ready to dialogue.
In Minneapolis, Flannery’s talk and the dialogue it facilitated took place on official church property due to St. Frances Cabrini pastor Mike Tegeder's decision to defy a directive from Archbishop Nienstedt. (Tegeder has a long history of criticizing and defying the archbishop. See, for example, here, here, here, and here.)
Responding to Nienstedt's concerns about Flannery's presence on Catholic property, Tegeder had the following message posted on the podium.
Tonight's speaker, Tony Flannery, is not to be perceived in any way as being sponsored by the Catholic Church. This announcement comes from Archbishop John C. Nienstedt, Chief Catechist of the Archdiocese of St. Paul & Minneapolis.
Of course, the first part of this statement is only true if one reduces "the Catholic Church" to its clerical leadership. Large segments of the local church, representative of the church as the people of God, clearly have no problem with supporting, welcoming, and, yes, sponsoring, a speaker like Tony Flannery.
Implementing Vatican II
Flannery first came to the attention of many outside his native Galway when, in response to the Irish bishops' “total lack of leadership” in dealing with the clergy sex abuse scandal, he co-founded the Association of Catholic Priests in 2009.
The association works toward the “full implementation of the vision and teaching of the Second Vatican Council,” with special emphasis on the primacy of the individual conscience, the status and active participation of all the baptized, and the task of establishing a Church where all believers are treated as equal.
Such work corresponds with the activities of Catholic reform groups around the globe, as do the specific objections of the Association of Catholic Priests, which include:
• A redesigning of ministry in the Church in order to incorporate the gifts, wisdom, and expertise of the entire faith community, male and female.
• A re-structuring of the governing system of the Church, basing it on service rather than on power, and encouraging at every level a culture of consultation and transparency, particularly in the appointment of Church leaders.
• A culture in which the local bishop and the priests relate to each other in a spirit of trust, support and generosity.
• A re-evaluation of Catholic sexual teaching and practice that recognizes the profound mystery of human sexuality and the experience and wisdom of God’s people.
• Promotion of peace, justice and the protection of God’s creation locally, nationally and globally.
• Recognition that Church and State are separate and that while the Church must preach the message of the Gospel and try to live it authentically, the State has the task of enacting laws for all its citizens.
• Liturgical celebrations that use rituals and language that are easily understood, inclusive and accessible to all.
According to the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, Flannery’s (and by extension the Association of Catholic Priests’) views on ordination, contraception, and homosexuality could be construed as "heresy" under church law. During his talk in Minneapolis on November 5, Flannery noted that the Vatican had been particularly alarmed by two views he had expressed in his writings for the Association: that the priesthood as we have it now is not of the mind of Jesus, and that the hierarchical, monarchical structure of the church as it exists today is not what Jesus intended. As a result of these statements, Flannery has been threatened with "canonical penalties," including excommunication, if he does not change his views.
In his recent book, A Question of Conscience, Flannery recounts his treatment by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith.
Two central issues
Flannery believes that as Catholics we are living through extraordinary times with the papacy of Francis. In 100 years time, he says, historians will be writing volumes on this pivotal moment in the history of the church. The bulk of Flannery's November 5 talk was focused on what he identifies as two central issues facing the church at this important time.
The first of these issues is the Magisterium, the teaching authority of the church. Flannery says that there is currently a conflict between two notions of the Magisterium – a narrow notion and a broad one. The narrow notion sees the Magisterium as being composed solely of the bishops (including the pope as Bishop of Rome). The broader version recognizes that the church’s teaching authority depends on recognition of and dialogue among three groups: the bishops, Catholic theologians, and the collective wisdom of the Catholic people (the sensus fidelium).
Flannery contends that Pope Francis is doing the best he can to move the church from the narrow view of teaching authority to the broader view. Francis, says Flannery, wants to hear the voice of the sensus fidelium, and to embed in the structures of the church the broader view of the Magisterium.
Flannery was quick to point out that he’s not an academic, yet his grasp on theology, says Eugene Cullen Kennedy of Chicago’s Loyola University, is better than those in the hierarchy who have attempted to silence him.
Flannery’s condemnation by the Vatican, writes Kennedy in his January 25, 2013 National Catholic Reporter column, should be “recognized as a harbinger of the kind of problem that sure-of-their-infallibility Vatican authorities will encounter in their relationships with the rising generation of theological scholars, most of whom are laymen and women who will not accept condemnations such as that now imposed on Father Flannery.”
Even well-educated Catholics know as much or more theology than these veiled Roman enforcers. That also goes for the American bishops, who are wonderful men in general but who are unprepared for theological conversations with their people. One of the reasons the bishops have difficulty in communicating effectively with ordinary Catholics arises from their discomfort and/or inability to discuss theological issues with them. . . . Flannery's condemnation is an augury of the deepening estrangement that will take place if the Vatican does not respect the growing theological understanding of its members. The bishops are sincere in wanting to establish better channels of communication with their people. The best thing they can do to achieve that is to master the language of modern theological and scriptural studies that so many Catholics understand better than they do right now.
In his 2013 column, Kennedy also examines two of the issues that Flannery “is being forced to sign off on if he wants to continue his work: Christ's having established the church in hierarchical form and the assertion, employed constantly by bishops to legitimate their authority, that they are the direct descendants of the apostles.”
“If anything,” writes Kennedy “Christ called together a college of apostles, and the collegiality to which Vatican II returned is a far better image than the hierarchical form that was adopted from the hierarchical cosmological view of the universe and expressed in secular kingdoms, including the Roman Empire, whose provinces and proconsuls provided the model for laying out the governance of the church.”
In should be noted that Kennedy highlights an interesting discrepancy in the rhetoric of those who unquestioningly assert that the current structure of church governance is somehow ordained by God and has thus always been. The Vatican’s doctrinal chief Cardinal Gerhard Müller, for example, recently declared that Pope Francis’ Synod on the Family, which for Flannery is a prime example of the pope’s efforts to move the church from a narrow understanding of authority to a broader one, is evidence that the bishops are being “blinded by secularism.” Yet as many Catholics now recognize, the feudal and monarchical structure of the church is itself based on a secular structure from a specific historical era. If the church could adopt an organizing and leadership structure from secular society at one point in its history, why can it not adopt another, namely democracy, from a more current time? And as Robert McClory has compellingly documented, modern democracy actually is more aligned with the democratic impulse and egalitarian spirit of the early Christian church than the Vatican’s model of leadership, fashioned as it is around Roman imperial power of the fifth century.
Decision-making in the church was the second central issue highlighted by Flannery in his November 5 talk in Minneapolis. As with the issue of authority, two understandings of decision-making are currently in conflict – decision-making through authoritarian, top-down edicts vs. decision-making through discernment by the whole community through a process that honors conscience.
Flannery acknowledges that decision-making through discernment can initially cause confusion. But he is adamant that, over time, truth is discerned, “the Spirit’s voice heard.”
“Not a time for reform people to sit back”
Despite his obvious affinity for the group he co-founded, Flannery acknowledges that with the steady decline in the number of priests the true hope for future reform of the church lies with lay reform movements and groups, and with the growing number of intentional Eucharistic communities.
Flannery said he is impressed by the number and vitality of Catholic reform groups in the U.S., but cautioned that, despite the hopeful signs from Francis’ papacy, it is “not a time for reform people to sit back.” We need to do everything we can to ensure our vision of church is heard at the highest levels of church leadership. “Bishops should not only hear from conservative Catholics,” Flannery said, especially in over the next year in the lead-up to Synod on the Family 2015.
Catholic Coalition for Church Reform (CCCR). Through this process local members of the clergy are being nominated for the next archbishop of St. Paul-Minneapolis. CCCR leadership notes that the lay people of Chicago spoke out about the kind of leadership they needed and that many believe they were heard, as evidenced by the appointment of their new archbishop, the moderate Blase Cupich.
After voting concludes on November 15, CCCR will announce the top three names in the polling. Local Catholics will then be encouraged to write to the U.S. papal nuncio, Archbishop Carlo Maria Viganò, to let him know their thoughts about the kind of leadership needed in the St. Paul/Minneapolis Archdiocese. The goal is that when next there’s an opening for bishop/archbishop in the archdiocese, Archbishop Viganò will not only know that lay Catholics here are paying attention, but will also be aware of the names of men that Catholics have confidence in. (Note: In order to be eligible to vote in CCCR’s Bishop Selection Campaign, registration with the group’s Lay Catholic Network is necessary. You can register here.)
It is activities like CCCR's Bishop Selection Campaign – proactive and voice-raising – that encourage Tony Flannery and many others. Such activities are time-consuming, unglamorous, and more-often-than-not slow to yield results. Yet they are vital for reform-minded Catholics to engage in and spread the word about.
We truly are at a time when our voices need to be heard!
Recommended Resources for Letting Our Voices Be Heard:
The Lay Network in the Archdiocese of St. Paul-Minneapolis – The Catholic Coalition for Church Reform.
Where Do We Go from Here? – Writing to Our Bishops – New Ways Ministry.
Recommended Off-site Links:
Controversial Priest's Visit Exposes Rift in Catholic Church – Jon Tevlin (Star Tribune, November 4, 2014).
Silenced Irish Priest Tony Flannery Touring U.S. – Dennis Coday (National Catholic Reporter, October 21, 2014).
A Review of Tony Flannery's A Question of Conscience – Dermot Keogh (The Independent, September 15, 2013).
Fr. Flannery's Grasp of Theology Better Than That of His Silencers – Eugene Cullen Kennedy (National Catholic Reporter, January 25, 2013).
Irish Priest Receives Support from Near and Far in His Vatican Struggle – Francis DeBernardo (Bondings 2.0, January 23, 2013).
Vatican's Demand for Silence is Too High a Price – Tony Flannery (The Irish Times, January 21, 2013).
Dissident Irish Priest Fears Excommunication Over Views on Women Priests – Patrick Counihan (IrishCentral.com, January 21, 2013).
Irish Redemptorist Father Tony Flannery Gets the Ray Bourgeios Treatment from the CDF – Colleen Kochivar-Baker (Enlightened Catholicism, January 20, 2013).
Priest Is Planning to Defy the Vatican’s Orders to Stay Quiet – Douglas Dalby (The New York Times, January 19, 2013).
See also the previous PCV posts:
• "Our Voices Are Growing"
• Creating a Liberating Church
• Let Our Voices Be Heard
Images: Michael J. Bayly.