When the “silenced” Irish Redemptorist Father Tony Flannery set out in January on a speaking tour of his homeland, he said he would be “deliberately staying away from Church premises, so as not to cause embarrassment to anyone.”
As recent events in Minneapolis have shown, it seems this was a prudent decision. Father Flannery’s sole engagement on Church property in his current 18-city speaking tour of the United States led to his host, Father Michael Tegeder, being personally asked by Archbishop John Nienstedt to change the location of Wednesday’s talk so as “not to cause scandal.”
After Father Tegeder refused to comply, the archbishop wrote to him, stating that Father Flannery, keynote speaker at this weekend’s Call to Action National Conference in Memphis, Tennessee, “attacks the teaching of the Church.” Pointing out how he had stipulated that Father Flannery “not be permitted to speak on any Catholic premises in the archdiocese,” he asked that it be made clear that Father Flannery’s visit was not supported by the Church. Father Tegeder agreed "to announce this publicly."
Born in County Galway in 1948, Father Flannery entered the Redemptorists’ minor seminary in Limerick when he was 12 years old, going to the major seminary at 17 and being ordained in 1974. The author of several books, in September 2010 he and a handful of others founded Ireland’s Association of Catholic Priests (ACP), which now boasts more than 1,000 members.
A December 2010 column in the Irish Redemptorist magazine Reality, in which Father Flannery opposed mandatory reporting by Church authorities of child sexual abuse, was rejected by Ian Elliott, the then-head of the Irish Church’s child protection agency, as “an attempt at minimizing the serious nature of clerical child abuse,” but other Reality columns from 2010 would bring Father Flannery far greater notoriety.
In February 2012 he was summoned to meet Father Michael Brehl, the Redemptorist superior general, in Rome, where he was given two pages that he was told had come from the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. One page directed Father Flannery’s Redemptorist superiors to “seek to impress upon Father Flannery the gravity of his situation,” while the other contained extracts from articles he had written, including ones challenging the nature of the priesthood.
“I no longer believe that the priesthood, as we currently have it in the Church, originated with Jesus,” Father Flannery had written, as 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 continued, speculating that, “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.”
After paraphrasing a passage by Pope Benedict XVI as saying that, “it is the priest alone who possesses the power to celebrate the Eucharist,” he said that “there was probably a time” when he too had believed that. Now, though, he said he believed instead that “the sacraments belong to, and are already within, the whole community, the Church, rather than the priest alone.”
That Father Flannery would deny the sacramental reality of the priesthood and then found an association of priests might seem a paradox to rival that of a man engaged in speaking tours describing himself as “silenced,” but it was not the irony of the situation that alarmed the CDF.
Interviewed by the Irish Catholic in November 2013, Cardinal William Levada, the first CDF head to deal with Father Flannery, explained that priests and others who speak with the authority of the Church cannot “simply come out and say ‘I don’t accept this’ or ‘I don’t like this.’” Cardinal Levada said that such priests have a duty to refrain from fostering the sort of “confusion” that can be caused when people “hear them preaching from the pulpit or read what they write about something that’s contrary to the faith.”
Contrary to reports suggesting that Father Flannery had been investigated because of his views on married priests, Cardinal Levada said the investigation began because Father Flannery “wrote two articles in Reality magazine in which he questioned, undermined, the teaching of the Church on the Eucharist and on the priesthood.” Those who hold such views are formally in heresy, from the viewpoint of the Church, Cardinal Levada said, recalling how, “for Martin Luther, or the Protestant reformers, they were key issues and they denied these doctrines of the Church.”
In response to the CDF intervention, Father Flannery was denied permission to write publicly or to give newspaper interviews, and was directed to engage in a period of spiritual and theological reflection coupled with a withdrawal from public ministry and his leadership role in the ACP.
His situation became public knowledge in April 2012, and the following January he gave a press conference in which he said the CDF had threatened him with excommunication because of his liberal views on women priests, contraception and homosexuality. Father Brehl said, however, that Father Flannery’s writings had been “ambiguous” on such “fundamental areas of Catholic doctrine” as “the priesthood, the nature of the Church, and the Eucharist.” The Irish Catholic quoted senior Vatican sources as saying that there was “no question” of Father Flannery having been threatened with excommunication. Father Flannery responded by saying, “I have the threat in writing.”
The Irish Times subsequently cited a CDF document from June 11, 2012 which accused Father Flannery of having expressed “heretical or heterodox statements about central Church doctrines of the Catholic Christian faith” in several of his Reality columns, noting how canon 1364 says “a heretic incurs a latae sententiae excommunication.” A latae sententiae excommunication is a situation wherein a Catholic cuts himself or herself off from the Church; the CDF was not threatening Father Flannery with excommunication, but was warning that he was in danger of excommunicating himself.
Contesting Father Brehl’s claims, Father Flannery claimed the controversy over his views on the priesthood and the Eucharist had been “put to bed” when the CDF had accepted a statement he had submitted in June 2012. Things changed, he said, after Archbishop — now Cardinal — Gerhard Müller became head of the CDF on July 2, 2012. In September Archbishop Müller said four additions should be incorporated into the clarifying statement Father Flannery intended to publish in Reality.
Father Flannery responded to the CDF, saying he submitted in faith to the Pope’s “infallible Magisterium,” but making clear that he could not in conscience accept “the whole teaching of the Church” on certain issues of sexual morality, or the reality that “the Church recognizes herself to be bound” by Jesus’ choice to appoint only men as apostles.
Having in his original statement accepted that “the origins of the Eucharist and the Priesthood can be found in the Last Supper,” he baulked at requests that he specifically acknowledge “that Christ instituted the priesthood at the Last Supper,” and “that the Eucharist is a sacrifice because it re-presents (makes present) the sacrifice of the cross.” Claiming instead that Christian priesthood had developed gradually, he said Christian priests had taken to offering sacrifice to the Father simply because Jewish ones had done so, adding that he was not suggesting this “development of priesthood in the early Church” was contrary to “the mind of Christ.”
Perhaps most dramatically, when asked to clarify that he believed “in the Eucharist, under the forms of bread and wine, the whole Christ is truly, really and substantially contained,” he replied only with the generic statement, one that could be made by any number of Protestants, that he had no difficulty in believing “that Jesus is really and truly present when we celebrate the Eucharist.”
The CDF did not accept this, and Father Flannery was directed to engage in a further extended period of reflection in a retreat house outside Ireland and end his involvement with the ACP. When he refused to detach himself from the ACP, the Redemptorist superior general imposed a formal “precept of obedience” on him, obliging him to obey or risk dismissal from the order.
Although Father Flannery has since left the ACP, to this day he has not retracted the statements that originally alarmed the CDF. Having published his version of his dealings with the CDF in his 2013 book, A Question of Conscience, he remains suspended from ministry, and does not expect to be reinstated.
His speaking tour continues until November 19.
Greg Dalycovers the U.K. and Ireland for Aleteia.