The National Catholic Review


An Irish priest, Tony Flannery, CSsR, has announced that he plans to defy the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith's silencing of him. An article from today's New York Times appears accurate, but since there will probably be a great deal of discussion about this topic, and since the discussion about such matters is often misinformed, here is some context. 

Fr. Tony Flannery is a Redemptorist priest, a popular writer and someone who has also been an outspoken critic of the church's handling of the sex abuse crisis in Ireland. As a member of a religious order, Fr. Flannery took a vow of obedience to his Redemptorist superiors, through whom he believes God will act. (The vow that members of religious orders take is in addition to the normal religious vows of poverty and chastity; and, in the case of a priest, that vow is in addition to his ordination promise of obedience to his local bishop.) When a priest who is a member of a religious order (a "religious priest") says, writes or does something that is judged by church authorities to be outside the bounds of orthodoxy or otherwise impermissible, restrictions on him are often communicated to him from the Vatican, through his superiors.  Usually, those orders is communicated to the order's superior general in Rome, and then to the man's local superiors.  (Sometimes, though, the religious order itself acts on its own accord.)  Here, it seems, the Vatican directed the Redemptorists to remove Fr. Flannery from active ministry; ask him to step down from the leadership of the Association of Catholic Priests; direct him to cease publishing and public speaking; and sign a document stating that he adheres to the church's teaching about women's ordination and homosexuality, among other matters.  

Normally, in these cases the issue begins to turns on obedience. The priest will be called by his religious superiors (who themselves are under the governance of the universal church) to adhere to the vows he made long ago. The conflict for the member of the religious order, then, comes down to a conflict between two sacred matters: one's conscience and one's vows, or, as my moral theology once professor put it, between justice and fidelity. Sometimes (Thomas Merton, OCSO, John Courtney Murray, SJ, Yves Congar, OP) the choice is for fidelity, and the person assents to his or her silencing, because they believe that God will work through their vows of obedience.  Their faith in their promises to God means that they also have faith in God's promise to them.  Or, as Merton said, "out of love of God who is using these things to attain ends which I myself cannot at the moment see or comprehend."  (One difference today is that the Vatican is now requiring formal, written, and often public, statements of compliance and agreement.  Merton, for example, was not asked to make any public statements about his agreement with the reasons behind the silencing.)  In other cases (Roy Bourgeois and many others), the choice is for justice, because they believe that God is calling them through their conscience to speak out.  Often, in cases where the silencing is not adhered to, and thus the vow of obedience is broken, the priest is dismissed from the religious order and, in some rare cases, excommunicated.  Father Flannery fears, he said today, that his situation might lead to his excommunication.  (Here is the statement from the Redemptorists.)

The key in these cases is this: It is never an easy choice. One can say that in a perfect world justice and fidelity would always be one, but we see in some cases they are not: the person's conscience does not allow him (or her) to live out the vow of obedience and so he speaks out; or the person's vow of obedience does not allow him to speak out so he remains silent.  Remember that an informed conscience is the ultimate arbiter in the moral life, and one should never violate one's conscience, where, as the Second Vatican Council taught, we hear the echo of God's voice.  (Clearly Fr. Flannery, an educated and thoughtful priest, knows what a formed conscience is.)  

Let us pray for him, for all those who live in obedience, and for all those who seek justice. 



Mary Keane | 1/29/2013 - 5:51pm

Good thing Fr. Martin is on duty to add sanity to these ever-erupting controversies. Failing his humorous insights, we would all be stuck back on Mrs. Jesus. (Remember that? It was only months ago, but light years in the internet age.)

I suspect that the notions of obedience and refraining from public speech are particularly difficult for the U.S. psyche to grasp, behaving as we do as if the laws were made for us and not us for the laws (not always a bad thing) and believing to the point of inanity in the 'right to speak,' sometimes pointing to the most holy of secular documents, the U.S. Constitution, as the source of that right. (It isn't there. You don't have to be Justice Scalia to notice this.)

Thus the notion that one might quietly obey causes no amount of consternation. After all, we're all about progress. Within the context of hundreds of years of traditions, however, matters must be quite difficult for this Irish priest, torn between his professed obligations and his conscience. He indeed deserves our prayers, for peace of mind, perhaps, no matter the outcome.

G Miller | 1/23/2013 - 10:09pm

The fact that the Pope is coming down so hard on people has more to do with the fact that NOBODY is listening to him any more than it has to do with policy. Sadly, the Pope's brain is stuck reverse. Meanwhile everyone else realizes that issues like pedophilia, women's ordination, openly accepting gays in the church and letting priests come out of the closet are issues that are not going to evaporate. No matter how much the Pope prays for people to change their minds on these issues, they will not. We as the body of Christ cannot play ostrich. We will suffocate in the sand. We have to have open and respectful debate. We are dying as a Church because we are not discussing and debating.

Bob Baker | 1/24/2013 - 7:36pm

Ah, the key words again...the Second Vatican Council.

Funny, isn't it, that all the "issues like pedophilia, women's ordination, openly accepting gays in the church and letting priests come out of the closet" seem to have arisen coincidently in reaction to the Council or by those who became priests around or after that time?

For those who cannot seem to abide by the Magisterium, perhaps the Church of England or Lutheran church might suit you? There are many converts who are more than willing to become Roman Catholic, which does not mean American Catholic, as much as many think they can vote on which issues they agree or disagree with.

ed gleason | 1/29/2013 - 12:20pm

Bob Baker.. Funny? .your call for more exits is funny?

Bob Baker | 1/29/2013 - 12:54pm

No, it isn’t funny – it’s tragic.

It’s tragic that there seems to be so many who either don’t understand what two thousand years of Catholicism is or think everything can either be voted upon or that they have a choice or option in believing this or that and not the other. Demanding that the Church conform to one’s beliefs is not going to work – just look at the many Protestant religions, each slightly different depending on what they “choose” to believe.

I would also suggest that we should view ourselves as Catholic Americans versus American Catholics – what comes first matters, or should.

Anne Chapman | 1/27/2013 - 1:06pm

You have much misinformation, but I will let you seek out the truth by yourself as far as the widely held misinterpretations of any relationship between VII and the various issues you raise. You might start with Fr. John O'Malley's article in the current issue of America. It's free to all. His excellent book on the subject would also be a good education for you and others who have bought into the "it's all the fault of Vatican II" fable.

As far as the other goes, the "many" converts you cite do not begin to make up for the losses. The most recent studies indicate that there is one new convert for every four cradle Catholics who leave. In addition, the number of marriages within the church has plummeted during the last decade, even where the overall marriage rate has been stable or growing. So it is not surprising that infant baptisms have also been falling.

Some see what they want to see. Some have the courage to face reality. So far the hierarchy of the church continues to avoid facing reality. And since they do, people continue to leave, parishes are closed by the hundreds, Catholic schools, especially in the inner cities where they are most needed, are closing, more than 3000 parishes in the country have no resident priest, Gimmicks like "Catholics Come Home" and the "New" Evangelization will cause barely a ripple.

Perhaps when the church "hits bottom" (like alcoholics or addicts), it will finally start looking at reality instead of blaming everyone but themselves for what has happened and continues to happen.

Michael Ward | 1/28/2013 - 7:51pm

One of the real issues of discernment here is always a sensitive one...assertions of "conscience" may or may not be truthful...even to oneself... and sometimes may be hard to tell the difference between a genuine assertion of conscience and a sophisticatedly self-rationalized ego-projection (not to put too fine a point on it) especially when you are judging yourself.

Dan Hannula | 1/27/2013 - 10:38am

Is that an argument?

John Hayes | 1/22/2013 - 1:40pm

Fr. Flannery reponds in yesterday's Irish Times:

"So now, at this hour of my life, I either put my name to a document that would be a lie, and would impugn my integrity and my conscience, or I face the reality of never again ministering as a priest. I have always believed in the church as the community of believers and as an essential element in promoting and nourishing the faith. I have enjoyed my years of preaching, the main work of Redemptorists, and never had any doubt that Christ’s message was one worth proclaiming.

But to give up on freedom of thought, freedom of speech and most especially freedom of conscience is too high a price for me to pay to be allowed minister in today’s church."

Bob Hunt | 1/21/2013 - 10:46pm

It's always tempting to think of oneself as essential to God accomplishing His work. How could the cause of women's ordination and acceptance of homosexual activity possibly advance in the Church without Fr. Flannery's voice?

As Gamaliel counciled the Sanhedrin, if Fr. Flannery's causes are not the will of God, they will fail to succeed; if they are the will of God, there is nothing anyone can do to stop them. I suspect they are not the will of God, so I'm skeptical that Fr. Flannery's decision to "defy the Vatican" will accomplish much. He will likely become another in a long list of former priests that continue to speak with a determined voice to their small group of devoted followers. But, as for effecting change, much less progress, in the Church - not so much. Perhaps the reason Fr. Martin resorted to citing "and many others" along with the recent example of Roy Bourgeois is that few of even his readers would recognize the names of the many others who chose what I think Fr. Martin mislabels as justice. On the other hand, most educated Catholics recognize the names of Merton, Murray, and Congar, and Chardin, as well. Their obedience allowed them to continue to be effective voices in the Church, continuing to inspire many even today. Ultimately, I think the difference is that Merton, et al. had faith that the Church is what she claims to be, along with a healthy understanding of who they were before God. It remains to be seen if Fr. Flannery has a similar faith and understanding.

David Pasinski | 1/22/2013 - 8:26am

I think the examples cited obscure rather than clarify.These were men of another era and of a fir different experience of faith and the church. Sure, it is possible to learn something, but the "silencing" or, perhaps better, "censoring" of each held far different consequences, as Lisa Fullam points out. I think that Mr. Hunt's remarks attempt to infer a hubris to those who dissent. I think that Father Charlie Curran's excellent autobiography, "Loyal Dissent: Memoir of a Catholic Theologian," would be instructive to all admitting, of course, that it is his own interpretation and self- understanding of his positons and struggles.

Lisa Fullam | 1/21/2013 - 7:07pm

This is very helpful, but I'd like to add what I think is an important dynamic. Istm that the decision between obedience and justice must take into account other persons affected by the decision to accede to being silenced. In other words, one should ask, "who will be hurt by my fidelity, and how badly?" Teilhard de Chardin, e.g., agreed to a silencing that hurt mostly him. It deprived the world of access (for a time) to his theological ideas, but he was the one who lost the most--the feedback from other scholars that would have improved his own work. In the matters about which Fr. Flannery is being threatened, it's a different question. Are people hurt by the magisterium's teaching regarding homosexuality? How badly? Are people (men and women) hurt by the magisterial exclusion of women from positions of authorized leadership in the Church? How badly? We must never forget that sometimes silence can harm others.

John Hayes | 1/21/2013 - 9:59pm

This may be what ratcheted up the Vatican's attention:

"In the letter, the Vatican objected in particular to an article published in 2010 in Reality, an Irish religious magazine. In the article, Father Flannery, a Redemptorist priest, wrote that he no longer believed that “the priesthood as we currently have it in the church originated with Jesus” or that he designated “a special group of his followers as priests.”

Instead, he wrote, “It is more likely that some time after Jesus, a select and privileged group within the community who had abrogated [sic] power and authority to themselves, interpreted the occasion of the Last Supper in a manner that suited their own agenda.”

Father Flannery said the Vatican wanted him specifically to recant the statement, and affirm that Christ instituted the church with a permanent hierarchical structure and that bishops are divinely established successors to the apostles.

Jeanne Linconnue | 1/21/2013 - 12:13pm

It seems that it is not so much a matter of "justice" v. "fidelity", but a matter of being faithful to God - obeying God by following one's conscience - v. fidelity (obedience) to human men. When it comes to a matter of obeying God v. obeying men, is there any real decision to be made?

I do not know if Fr Martin wrote his own headline, but it is a revealing emphasis - defiance. Why not a headline that emphasizes "conscience" or obedience to God rather than to men?

David Pasinski | 1/21/2013 - 11:44am

This is helpful, but I agree that it is not quite comparable with the era of Merton, Congar, Murray (and add Teilhard and others!). The Vatican has centralized and polarized even more in this information age, I believe.

Also, I am a bit surprised at the expression of "through whom he believes God will act." I think the distinction between justice and obedience are helpful, but I'm sure the struggle with "obedience" with more mundane -though significant issues -- like an assignment or a role in the conegregation/order -- is different than a matter of what one's conscience or belief is compelling and can be brought o responsible expression.

Cody Serra | 1/20/2013 - 10:19pm

"To Conscience first, and to the Pope afterwards." (Cardinal John Henry Newman) "If Newman places conscience above authority, he is not proclaiming anything new with respect to the constant teaching of the Church." (Pope John Paul II)

I want to make two points:
First: Merton followed his vow of obedience limiting his publishing and being silenced. He did that before Vatican II, but used his "creativity" to offer his writing around the world. Call it what you want as related to the vow of obedience.
Second: I don't believe the primacy of conscience has been approved “only” for the laity. I can't find that in any church document. Certainly, God can transform anything we do or happens and use it for the fulfilling of his plan.

I can't see how Merton's behavior would lead me to understand Fr. Flannery's situation, and the recent silencing of others in different western countries for speaking about problems of the lack of unity and inclusiveness in the Church, as well of clericalism and legalism of the pre-Vatican era. Pastoral love and compassion seem to be on the way out, and replaced by threats and punishments carried out.

I follow the Lord. I believe in the apostles Creed and in the dogmas. The Eucharist is the greatest gift .
I never was asked to sign a promise, or vow to stop thinking, reflecting and growing in faith by prayer and study trying to understand God's mystery. God is the Teacher and the Holy Spirit is alive and well among the people of God, lay and ordained.
I do follow the Lord. I did not vow to follow the Vatican. It has failed us miserably very recently. Many of us can’t trust it blindly. The Pope is not God. He represents God, sometimes better than others. I don’t believe authoritarianism was the message left by Jesus for the new Church. It turned in this direction in the Medieval Ages, and never seemed to find its way back to the Church of love, mercy, compassion and inclusion of all children of God in spirit of collegiality, as were the intentions of Vatican II.

ed gleason | 1/21/2013 - 11:07am

Cody Serra says it for me too especially in his third paragraph . And wasn't St Francis clever never to get bound up in those restrictive clerical promises? I think about 'filioque' and say are they kidding me?

Sara Damewood | 1/20/2013 - 7:44pm

Thanks for this helpful article, which helps me understand the Church's teaching on obedience and informed conscience. I'll pray for Fr. Flannery and all those who live in obedience.

Olivia Cook | 1/20/2013 - 4:01pm

Not the only thing that a certain person ever wrote on conscience,,,

"Above the pope as an expression of the binding claim of church authority stands one’s own conscience, which has to be obeyed first of all, if need be against the demands of church authority.” - author Fr Joseph Ratzinger - From a commentary on Gaudium et Spes (“The Church in the Modern World”) in Commentary on the Documents of Vatican II, Vorgrimler, Herbert (Ed.), Burns and Oats, 1969, p. 134.

In this he seems to be paraphrasing St Augustine, who wrote in a similar vein that one should choose excommunication rather than violation of one's own conscience. (Can anyone find the exact quote?)

Let us indeed pray for all those who live in obedience, for all those who seek justice, and pray most especially for those who make it impossible to do both, for it may be that they in the end will need our prayers more than those they castigate.

Olivia Cook | 1/20/2013 - 4:09pm

Found the quote, it's St Thomas Aquinas, not St Augustine

"It is better to die excommunicated than to violate one's conscience. (St. Thomas Aquinas in his Commentary on the Fourth Book of Sentences of Peter Lombard)

John Hayes | 1/20/2013 - 3:35pm

"Remember that an informed conscience is the ultimate arbiter in the moral life, and one should never violate one's conscience, where, as the Second Vatican Council taught, we hear the echo of God's voice"

"Informed" is the complication. "Donum Veritatis" written by Benedict while he was prefect of the CDF refers to
"Dignitatis Humanae" but seems to say that if your conscience doesn't agree with the Magisterium, you haven't formed it correctly:

38. Finally, argumentation appealing to the obligation to follow one's own conscience cannot legitimate dissent. This is true, first of all, because conscience illumines the practical judgment about a decision to make, while here we are concerned with the truth of a doctrinal pronouncement. This is furthermore the case because while the theologian, like every believer, must follow his conscience, he is also obliged to form it. Conscience is not an independent and infallible faculty. It is an act of moral judgement regarding a responsible choice. A right conscience is one duly illumined by faith and by the objective moral law and it presupposes, as well, the uprightness of the will in the pursuit of the true good.

The right conscience of the Catholic theologian presumes not only faith in the Word of God whose riches he must explore, but also love for the Church from whom he receives his mission, and respect for her divinely assisted Magisterium. Setting up a supreme magisterium of conscience in opposition to the magisterium of the Church means adopting a principle of free examination incompatible with the economy of Revelation and its transmission in the Church and thus also with a correct understanding of theology and the role of the theologian. The propositions of faith are not the product of mere individual research and free criticism of the Word of God but constitute an ecclesial heritage. If there occur a separation from the Bishops who watch over and keep the apostolic tradition alive, it is the bond with Christ which is irreparably compromised