Disciplining dissent


HAMLET ORDERED Ophelia to “Get thee to a nunn’ry” to avoid the temptations of a sinful world. The Vatican has suggested that Fr Tony Flannery take himself to a monastery for six weeks to pray and to reflect on his liberal views. Fr Flannery, a Redemptorist priest, has upset the Vatican authorities. They have questioned the “orthodoxy” of some of his theological opinions. They have also censured and – for now – silenced him.

The Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF) – which upholds the teaching and doctrine of the Catholic Church and disciplines theological dissenters – has stopped Fr Flannery writing further articles on a number of issues: contraception, celibacy of priests, and the ordination of women priests. And the CDF has asked him to withdraw from the Association of Catholic Priests (ACP), of which he is a founding member. The organisation was set up in 2010 to provide Irish priests with a forum for debate and to give them an independent voice. Today about one in five priests are members.

The harsh disciplinary measures taken against Fr Flannery have come shortly after publication of the summary findings of the Vatican’s apostolic visitation to Ireland. Pope Benedict sent the group to examine the condition of the Irish church in the wake of the clerical child sex abuse scandal. In its report, the delegation of senior bishops was critical of what it described as a “fairly widespread” tendency among priests, religious, and laity to hold theological opinions “at variance” with the teachings of the church. This criticism of some Irish clergy may well have informed the CDF’s decision in Fr Flannery’s case. Last week, Pope Benedict once again warned that he will not tolerate priests who disobey the essential teachings of the church.

The domestic reaction, from sections of the laity and some clergy, to the Vatican’s disciplinary action has been one of regret and concern. The ACP has described the Vatican’s intervention as “unfair, unwarranted and unwise”. And it may well, as the association has warned, increase the public perception of a significant “disconnect” between the Irish church and Rome. Fr Flannery has spent many years developing the views that he now holds, views that were no doubt influenced and shaped by prayer and reflection. But six more weeks spent in silent isolation in a monastery engaged in further prayerful reflection may not produce the outcome the Vatican now hopes from its disciplining of one it, wrongly, regards as a turbulent priest.