The Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith has formally requested that the Rev. Tony Flannery, a well-known Irish Redemptorist suspended in May 2012, sign a statement affirming his acceptance of church teaching, as formulated by the C.D.F., on homosexuality, civil unions between persons of the same sex, the admission of women to the priesthood and “gender theory.” His signature on the C.D.F. document would allow him to return to public ministry.
He declined to sign the document and made the C.D.F. letter public on Sept. 16. He described the process that brought him to this point as “unjust,” saying he had “no chance to defend myself, no appeal system, no direct communication, judgment passed and sentence decided before I even knew what was happening.”
“Maybe I am deceiving myself,” he said to America by email, “but I believe I can do more for the church by exposing in every way I can the unjust process, rather than trying to get Francis to wave a wand and return me to the ministry.”
The C.D.F. said today: ‘We did everything possible to dialogue with Father Flannery. It wasn’t always easy.’
Father Flannery, one of the founders of the Association of Irish Priests in 2010, which now counts in its membership around 30 percent of all Irish priests, said he was astounded by the fourth proposition renouncing gender theory he was asked to sign because, he said, he has never spoken on the subject.
Cardinal Luis. F. Ladaria Ferrer, S.J., prefect of the C.D.F, addressed the case at a Vatican press conference on Sept. 22. When asked by Joshua McElwee of National Catholic Reporter whether he had any advice to give to Father Flannery, he replied:
If we have any advice to give to Father Flannery, we would give it to Father Flannery, but I believe that out of respect for everyone, and in particular for him, we would give this advice to him in private. We did everything possible to dialogue with Father Flannery. It wasn’t always easy. We did everything possible. At a certain moment, we had to take some measures, which never involves a judgment on the person, because that is always reserved to Our Lord, but on his teaching or on his behavior. Therefore, we tried always to maintain our respect for Father Flannery. But the duty we have [in the C.D.F.], according to what is laid down by the church, is to safeguard the faith and to point out something that is not in conformity with the faith. This is a very unpleasant responsibility of the C.D.F., very unpleasant, but it is our responsibility and it would be a failure on our part if we did not exercise our responsibility and set it aside and not say a word when in certain moments, painfully, many times, it has to be said.
The instruction from Rome for Father Flannery came in a letter from the Italian archbishop Giacomo Morandi, secretary of the C.D.F., to the superior general of the Redemptorist order, the Rev. Michael Brehl, on July 9. The letter does not mention Pope Francis, and there is no evidence that the pope was involved in the decision to issue it.
Archbishop Morandi said he had received a letter from Father Brehl on Feb. 27, which proposed that the C.D.F. consider permitting Father Flannery to return to public ministry.
“The specific task of the C.D.F. is to elaborate doctrine and defend it, and the pope as shepherd has to engage in a pastoral approach which does not disregard doctrine but looks at the persons where they are.”
America has learned that the Council of the Irish Redemptorists, believing that a new climate prevailed in Rome, had sent a letter to Father Brehl requesting him to lift the suspension on Father Flannery, since it was the Redemptorists who had imposed the suspension, under pressure from the C.D.F. Father Brehl referred the matter to the C.D.F. The issue was discussed at a meeting in Rome on Feb. 27 which seems to have involved Redemptorist and C.D.F. officials.
The archbishop’s letter of July 9 came with a document from the C.D.F. containing four “recent doctrinal propositions” on the topics in question. It asked that Father Flannery give his written assent to each proposition and said that once the C.D.F. received the signed statement, “a gradual readmission of Father Flannery to the exercise of public ministry will be possible.” But, it said, “he should not be asked to speak publicly on the above-mentioned topics, which have caused problems in the past.”
Each of the propositions Father Flannery was asked to sign was prefaced with relevant extracts from St. John Paul II’s apostolic letter “Ordinatio Sacerdotalis”; Pope Francis’ Apostolic Exhortations “Amoris Laetitia” and “Querida Amazonia”; the Catechism of the Catholic Church; the code of canon law; and a document from the Congregation for Catholic Education on gender theory.
The texts of the propositions are:
1. According to the Tradition and the doctrine of the Church incorporated in Canon Law (c.1024), a baptized male alone receives sacred ordination validly.
2. Since the homosexual practices are contrary to the natural law and do not proceed from a genuine affective and sexual complementarity, they are not approved by the moral teaching of the Catholic Church (cf. CCC 2357).
3. The marriage covenant, by which a man and a woman form with each other an intimate communion of life and love, has been founded and endowed with its own special laws by the Creator (CCC 1660). Other forms of union do not correspond to God’s plan for marriage and family. Therefore, they are not allowed by the Catholic Church.
4. In so far as it contradicts the foundations of a genuine Christian anthropology, gender theory is not accepted by Catholic teaching.
The style of the letter from the congregation and the document Father Flannery was asked to sign has raised serious questions. As is evident from Father Flannery’s case, the C.D.F. is still using the same procedures that prevailed under the pontificates of St. John Paul II and Benedict XVI. Several Vatican sources consulted by America confirmed this, though none wished to go on record for this article because they were not authorized to speak.
Father Flannery: “Maybe I am deceiving myself, but I believe I can do more for the church by exposing in every way I can the unjust process, rather than trying to get Francis to wave a wand and return me to the ministry.”
“Seven years into the pontificate of Francis, much has changed in the Vatican, but what has not changed is the C.D.F.’s manner of handling these things,” a former senior Vatican official told America.
The C.D.F. procedure is impersonal. Thus, for example, in the eight years since the C.D.F. first intervened in the case of Father Flannery, no official from the congregation has ever spoken with him.
“Not only have I not spoken to anyone at the C.D.F.,” Father Flannery said, “at no stage did they ever communicate directly with me.” The C.D.F. typically deals only with the superior general of an order, who then communicates with the local provincial superior, who, in this instance, let Father Flannery know what was happening.
I have documented how this procedure works in my book on the C.D.F.’s handling of the case of the pioneering Jesuit theologian, Jacques Dupuis (Do Not Stifle the Spirit: Conversations With Jacques Dupuis, Orbis Books, 2017). It is a procedure that often does great personal and professional damage to the person involved. A senior Vatican official with long experience in the field told me: “It’s time to revise this whole process. Most people who have experienced it have ended up with nasty and traumatic relations with the institutional aspect of the church.”
Father Flannery concurs. He told America, “The church should treat each person as a human being and follow international human rights principles.”
By sheer coincidence, the C.D.F.-Flannery news was broken on the same day that Pope Francis told parents of L.G.B.T. children, “God loves your children as they are” and “the church loves them as they are because they are children of God.” Almost immediately, many raised questions about an apparent discrepancy between the pope’s approach and that of the C.D.F. on this delicate question.
“I could not change my views on these topics because [the church’s views] are so out of touch with the times we live in and especially the question of the equality of women, which is a major stumbling block for the church.”
A senior Vatican source told America: “There is always a fine line between doctrine and pastoral approach; there is always a dialectic in the church on this. The specific task of the C.D.F. is to elaborate doctrine and defend it, and the pope as shepherd has to engage in a pastoral approach which does not disregard doctrine but looks at the persons where they are.”
He said, “The C.D.F. should recognize and receive the development in the church’s teaching and approach on complex situations as described in ‘Amoris Laetitia,’ Chapter 8, and recognize that those principles may be applied to certain situations concerning L.G.B.T. persons, a development that is not yet reflected in the Catechism of the Catholic Church.”
It is clear from the various comments that the Flannery case has thrown the spotlight on the fact that while theologians are no longer being interrogated by the C.D.F., as happened under the past two pontificates, the culture and procedures of the C.D.F. remain much the same as under Popes John Paul and Benedict when it comes to dealing with individual cases. Many in Rome still hope that Pope Francis can bring about a change of culture in the C.D.F.
Father Flannery hopes so too. He describes himself as “a consistent admirer and supporter of Pope Francis” and “love what he has written, at least nearly all of it.” Francis “is not perfect” and is “weak on women and [was] initially on clerical abuse,” he said, “but I think we look for too much from him. I do think he has already achieved a great deal, presenting a different way of being church—synodality, etc.—and the pastoral approach, as well as his reinstatement of Vatican II and conscience. I think all these will be game changers in the long run.”
Regarding the questions raised by the C.D.F., America asked Father Flannery how he would respond to those in the Vatican who might say he was never willing to modify or present in a more acceptable way his views on the ordination of women, gay marriage or homosexual relations and who say he is not obedient to church authority.
While recognizing such objections as “partly correct,” he nevertheless recalled that he presented two statements on these matters in his book A Question of Conscience (2012).
“I could not change my views on these topics because [the church’s views] are so out of touch with the times we live in and especially the question of the equality of women, which is a major stumbling block for the church.” As for the question of authority, he declared, “after 53 years in religious life I think I have a very different understanding of authority to that of the C.D.F.”
Asked what he will do now, since it seems unlikely that he can return to public ministry, given his refusal to assent to the propositions, Father Flannery, 73, said, “I will get on with my life in retirement and hope to keep on reading and writing for as long as I can.
“I am publishing a new book next month. I believe deeply in the faith and in the church community. I have a good relationship with my confreres, and I know the Reds [Redemptorists] will not want to expel me.”
He concluded, “I will take what comes. But what I do not want to do is spend my last years trying to deal with church authorities who have no respect or care for me. Life is too short for that.”
America sought comments from both Archbishop Morandi and Father Brehl but has not received a response to either request so far.