Tuesday, November 4, 2014

Controversial Priest's Visit Exposes Rift in Catholic Church

By Jon Tevlin

Note: This commentary was first published November 4, 2014, by the Star Tribune.

A south Minneapolis church plans to bring in controversial Irish Redemptorist priest Tony Flannery to speak on Wednesday, despite warnings from Archbishop John Nienstedt. And the church’s pastor is using the words of a powerful church leader to justify it: Pope Francis.

Father Mike Tegeder, pastor of St. Frances Cabrini Church, has been intent on bringing in Flannery, who is on a speaking tour of the country. But the Cabrini visit will be the only time he speaks on Catholic Church property.

Flannery, author of several books on religion, holds controversial positions on birth control, homosexuality and the ordination of women. He was silenced by the Vatican in 2012 and told he would be allowed to return to ministry only if he signed a statement denouncing beliefs that don’t agree with current church doctrine. He has refused.

Tegeder, long an outspoken priest who has repeatedly tangled with Nienstedt, met with him late last week to discuss the issue.

“We didn’t have a meeting of the minds,” said Tegeder. “He listened to me, and I’m thankful for that. But I pounded the table, as I’m prone to do, and said this is non-negotiable. I told him, ‘you could throw my ass right out of here, but I’m throwing myself in your mercy.’ ”

In a letter to the archdiocese, Tegeder referenced Pope Francis in defending the speaker.

“Thank God for Pope Francis, who in a speech at the closing of the recent Synod on the Family, said, ‘Personally I would have been very worried and saddened if there hadn’t been these . . . animated discussions . . . or if everyone had been in agreement or silent in a false and acquiescent peace,’ ” Tegeder wrote. He added that Francis said he “wanted a mess in our dioceses.”

Tegeder has certainly been willing to accommodate that wish. He has repeatedly fought church hierarchy, most recently over gay marriage.

In their meeting, Tegeder asked why it was fine for church bishops and cardinals to discuss controversial issues, “and you don’t approve of those, so why can’t this little church in Minneapolis talk about them,” Tegeder said.

Even though the diocese has much bigger issues at hand, such as the relentless news accounts of child abuse, Tegeder said he’s not surprised that the issue of someone speaking at his church has gotten the attention of church leadership.

“It’s a minor thing in my opinion, but this is what these guys live for — hierarchical control,” Tegeder said.

“He doesn’t make a cogent argument about why we shouldn’t do this,” Tegeder added. “Enough of this crazy control of people.”

Tegeder said his congregation is excited to hear from Flannery, a founding member of the Association of Catholic Priests in Ireland. Flannery has a recent book out, A Question of Conscience, which recounts his treatment by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, then led by Josef Ratzinger.

Flannery “is trying to reform the church,” said Tegeder. “He said listening to women in confession talk about sexual issues and birth control, it’s transformed him.”

Tegeder said that while very few American priests openly call for change, about one-third of those in Ireland are pushing hard for reforms.

Initially, Nienstedt asked Tegeder to change the venue of the speech, something the priest called “progress.”

Then on Friday, a worker at Cabrini called Tegeder to tell him a registered letter had arrived, and wanted to know if they should open it.

“Hoping that I won some kind of jackpot, I said of course,” Tegeder wrote in response to the archbishop.

As it turned out, it was an official request that Flannery’s visit not be perceived in any way as being sponsored by the Catholic Church.”

In the letter, Nienstedt said that “Flannery attacks the teaching of the Church” on important issues.

“In light of this record, I request that he not be perceived in any way as being sponsored by the Catholic Church,” Nienstedt wrote. “To that end, I stipulated that he not be permitted to speak on any Catholic premises in the Archdiocese. Notice please that I have not cut off dialogue here, which would, by the way, be my personal preference.”

Tegeder responded: “I will indeed announce this publicly and will even have a sign up at the lectern to that effect noting that it comes from you, the Chief Catechist of our Archdiocese.”

So, unless there are further communications, Flannery’s talk will happen Wednesday, November 5 at 7 p.m., with the support of the Cabrini community.

“I’ve got a lot of love behind me,” Tegeder said.

Jon Tevlin can be contacted at jtevlin@startribune.com or 612-673-1702. Follow Jon on Twitter: @jontevlin

Related Off-site Links:
Silenced Irish Priest Tony Flannery Touring U.S. – Dennis Coday (National Catholic Reporter, October 21, 2013).
A Review of Tony Flannery's A Question of Conscience – Dermot Keogh (The Independent, September 15, 2013).

See also the previous PCV posts:
Fr. Tony Flannery: "Vatican's Demand for Silence is Too High a Price"
A Call for Dialogue in the Catholic Church

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