Fr Tony Flannery, founding member of the Association of Catholic Priests (ACP), has challenged the belief that Mary, mother of Jesus, was a life-long virgin.
He also called on former Catholic primate Cardinal Seán Brady to renounce titles and privileges as penance for his role in investigating allegations of child sex abuse by Fr Brendan Smyth.
Belief that Mary was “ever virgin” is a core Catholic teaching and is also held by Protestant and Orthodox churches.
In a reflection on last Sunday’s gospel reading, where Jesus is rejected by his neighbours, Fr Flannery draws attention to the question those neighbours asked: “Is not this the carpenter, the son of Mary and brother of James and Joses and Judas and Simon, and are not his sisters here with us?”
Commenting on his website, reproduced by the ACP, Fr Flannery says: “We are told that Jesus had four brothers, and an indefinite number of sisters. This does not fit with the church’s need to present Jesus as the Son of God, conceived in a way that is different from other humans, and Mary as the perpetual virgin. So the scholars turned the brothers and sisters into cousins!”
He also said the gospel account made “a believable statement, that the family of Jesus found it hard to understand what he was about. But the church, who wished to present an idealised version of the Holy Family – Jesus, Mary and Joseph living in peace and harmony – choose to quietly pass over these words of Jesus.
“Not only that: these doctrines about Jesus, Mary and the Holy Family are now part of the essential doctrine of the church that we all must accept.”
Fr Flannery also referred to the “thorn in the flesh” reading from St Paul at last Sunday’s Masses. It, he said, “greatly helped in the church’s efforts to make anything to do with sex the greatest sin.”
He found the views of writer John McGahern on sexuality “more real and healthy than most of what the church has traditionally said on the subject”.
He also criticised Cardinal Brady for waiting until he retired to admit that his role in investigations concerning Brendan Smyth was about protecting the good name of the church. Fr Flannery was referring to the Cardinal's testimony in June at the Historical Institutional Abuse inquiry in Banbridge, Co Down.
“A statement like that, coming from the Archbishop of Armagh, would have been a refreshing breath of truth. But no. He waited till he was retired,” said Fr Flannery.
“I believe he should now make some gesture of penitence for his actions. What I would like to see him doing is to renounce his title of “cardinal” with all the trappings that go with it, including the title, the mitre and the ornate attire, and just dress and act as an ordinary retired priest for the rest of his days.”
It would be “some public acknowledgement of how appallingly both he and the church generally handled that dreadful case. And it would be more in tune with the type of humility that [Pope] Francis is constantly calling his bishops and priests to display.”
Fr Flannery was suspended from ministry in 2012 by the Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith for his views on women priests, contraception and homosexuality.