God’s Labrador and a turbulent priest

The attempted silencing of Fr Tony Flannery was tragic. The censure of Brian D’Arcy verged on the ridiculous

Sat, Nov 23, 2013, 01:00

Food for the Soul
By Brian D’Arcy
Columbia Press, 270pp, €14.99

A Question of Conscience
By Tony Flannery
Londubh Books, 192pp, €14.99

There are one or two dark moments in Brian D’Arcy’s essays and sermons. In one piece he mentions his famous spat on The Late Late Show with Cardinal Daly, and his dissatisfaction with the authoritarian nature of governance in the Catholic Church during the reign of John Paul II.

It was clear all along that John Paul II’s model for the church was going to be a disaster. But I suppose in the early years D’Arcy thought his generation could master their pastoral duties with modern communication and outmanoeuvre the harmless old fogeys at the Vatican.

Until he realised that they weren’t quite the harmless old fogeys we had all imagined, and D’Arcy started to get cross on The Late Late Show as he questioned the cardinal. That’s almost 20 years ago.

In another essay he mentions the cherry trees that he was ordered as a young man to cut down, in the grounds of a monastery, and the obedience with which he applied himself to the task, and the horror of the old gardener who came to him the next day and chastised him.

The intention of these short essays is always to uplift the faithful with refreshing insights and positive views of the world. Though D’Arcy has recently been censured by the Vatican, this is not a book of anger or rage. I doubt if he has an angry bone in his body.

Even the title suggests a particular audience, and the blurb describes the book as a compendium of sermons and newspaper columns in which people will find “little pieces of God to feed their souls”. And they certainly will. The fact that I wouldn’t enjoy it any more than I’d enjoy Big Tom singing Gentle Mother is neither here nor there.

Tens of thousands of people in Britain and Ireland do still want to find little pieces of God to feed their souls. And for them this book will be a perfect treat. It’s marked by the sincerity, honesty and self-effacing rustic charm that has defined D’Arcy as a successful journalist.

He writes about everything and anything: Olivia O’Leary, John O’Donohue, Magdalene laundries and women in miniskirts. It’s a book to dip into, a pastoral book that will give hope to the faithful.

Psychologically abused
The testament of Tony Flannery is a different kettle of fish. He too has spent his life as a cleric, and a writer. And, as he clarifies in this book, he has been the victim of much psychological abuse by those in the church who have held power over him.

The book is a revealing document of how the Vatican silences unruly priests. Flannery outlines the details of the inquisitorial ordeal he has been through in recent years, behind closed doors, and how, when his intellectual errors were identified, he was ordered to pray, accept the teachings of the church and publicly confess his faith in the absolute truth of those teachings.

There is a notion in modern philosophy that nothing is absolutely true; things are true as far as they go, but it is in negotiating our way through the day that we become human. Catholic theology has no truck with such relativism. Catholic theology is mostly a medieval construct: it deals with “absolute truth” as that which is substantial, immutable and eternally true.

And apparently it is the burden of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith to protect that truth from the liberal loolas who think Vatican II was a charter for free thinking. Absolute truth enjoys absolute rights, and it is therefore incumbent on those in the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith to police the rantings of wayward clerics such as Fr Flannery. He must be made to think with the mind of the church, not indulge himself in the arrogant notion that a man might think for himself.

This is the apparent reason Flannery was dragged over the coals by faceless men who initially communicated with him on unsigned bits of paper, outlining for him where they thought his thinking had gone wrong.

The invisible men
It all began when Fr Flannery started to get cryptic messages from unidentified minions in the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. It was his own superiors who first relayed to him the messages coming from the invisible men. Apparently these masters of diplomacy in the congregation communicate on unsigned sheets of paper with no letterhead, much like terror organisations, ensuring that no email or phone recording will ever cast the shadow of their dead hand into the world. And the local bishops act as complicit mediators.

Over the years Flannery, in keeping with the theology of Vatican II, has reflected in stimulating ways on the nature of priesthood, and the importance of the Gospels in creating a new model of church, but he has not wavered a jot from the essential teachings of the Gospel.

And so the intellectual chess game that the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith forced him to play was trivial in its content, though not its consequences if Flannery didn’t sing the way they wanted. Excommunication was whispered somewhere along the line. For a man in his late years to be threatened with what would amount to losing his home and his job, and being expelled from the community to which he has devoted his life, would be a severe injustice and one worth testing in a civil court.

Particularly upsetting is the clear implication that underneath the spurious inquisition was the fact that the Association of Catholic Priests in Ireland deeply irritates the Vatican. It is a democratic organisation, and Flannery was one of its founders. What better way to intimidate them than by making an example of a single individual and persecuting him.

The book begs a question: will the new pope be able to break the power of these political elites within the Vatican? I suppose it’s possible. At least for the moment Francis has given people the chance to believe again in a God of mercy and a church of compassion. It’s hard to imagine such a church not cherishing the few Tony Flannerys who are left and who could be cornerstones of a Franciscan renewal.

The attempted silencing of Flannery is tragic, but it’s when you think of someone trying to silence Brian D’Arcy that you realise how completely off the wall the little invisible men in the Vatican actually are.

Do they not know that D’Arcy has the respect of his secular peers at a time when clerics are generally held in low esteem? Does the inquisition not realise that if Ratzinger was God’s Rotweiller, then this man might be God’s Labrador? Did someone not explain to them that D’Arcy is the theological equivalent of an evening with Daniel O’Donnell, another good man who touches many people with nothing more nor less than good sentiment?

And yet in a strange way D’Arcy is also a subversive figure. Because his obedience, quietude and folksy gentility accentuate the fascist rot at the heart of the institution that would seek to crush him, and Tony Flannery, and all the other loolas of the world who commit the error of thinking for themselves.

Michael Harding is an Irish Times columnist, author of Staring at Lakes: A Memoir of Love, Melancholy and Magical Thinking, and a former priest

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