Rome may have done me a favour by removing me from priestly ministry

Fr Tony Flannery: For the first time in my adult life I could question rigid doctrine in a way I never had

I now accept that the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith in the Vatican may well have done me a favour when they intervened in my life eight years ago and decreed that I could no longer perform public ministry as a priest. Photograph: Alessandro Bianchi/Reuters

I now accept that the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith in the Vatican may well have done me a favour when they intervened in my life eight years ago and decreed that I could no longer perform public ministry as a priest. Photograph: Alessandro Bianchi/Reuters

 

In this increasingly uncertain world there is a strong inclination to cling to whatever might give us some sense of security. Life is fragile, and in the current pandemic we are experiencing an even greater sense of instability.

Many things we took for granted seem to be slipping from under our feet. However, I have come to the conclusion that clinging to old certainties can leave us without the resources to deal with the challenges of today.

I now accept that the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith in the Vatican may well have done me a favour when they intervened in my life eight years ago, and decreed that I could no longer perform public ministry as a priest.

These years, despite a certain amount of stress and sadness, have been good. Standing back from ministry, and from active involvement in the church, for the first time in my adult life, I could begin to read, to reflect and to question in a way that I had never done before.

Can we still accept this description of an angry, vindictive God? Furthermore, is the teaching that we are all born in sin credible any more?

Initially, I found it unsettling to be looking seriously at basic Catholic doctrines, and asking myself if what I have always been told made sense anymore. For instance, can we still accept a definition of the divine that was formulated in the 4th century and presented as literal truth for all time?

Fr Tony Flannery said he was “not surprised, but disappointed and saddened” by the CDF document. Photograph: Mark Stedman/Photocall Ireland
Fr Tony Flannery is a Redemptorist priest whose latest book, From the Outside: Rethinking Church Doctrine, has just been published. File photograph: Mark Stedman/Photocall Ireland

Can it be true that the creator God closed the gate of Heaven to humankind because of the sin of what we know now were mythical, rather than real, first parents?

A vengeful God?

Humans inhabited this earth for 200,000 years before Jesus of Nazareth was born. Could it be that all of those people were condemned by a vengeful God?

We have been taught that God’s anger with the human race could only be appeased by the cruel death, the sacrificial oblation of his Son.

Fr Tony Flannery

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Can we still accept this description of an angry, vindictive God? Furthermore, is the teaching that we are all born in sin credible any more?

In tandem with opportunities for reading and reflection I also had more time to immerse myself in the world of nature and, consequently, the questions began to pile up, and my appetite for new understanding grew.

What exactly do we mean when we say that Jesus was the only Son of God, once we have jettisoned the notion of God as the royal personage sitting on a throne somewhere in the skies, and when we have instead become aware of a loving presence, much closer and more accessible and present in and around us all?

Negative attitudes to women

Reflecting on the negative attitudes to women, and the demonisation of sexual love, which prevailed in the church from the time of Augustine, through Thomas Aquinas, down to our own time, raises questions about the teaching around the perpetual virginity of Mary.

Moreover, does it matter if she was a virgin or not, since either state, freely chosen virginity or sexual love, are both equally blessed?

I now believe that rigid doctrinal definitions become a serious obstacle to experiencing the mystery

Questions, and more questions. But what I am learning is that once I face the fear, the fear that my questions may leave me with nothing in which to believe, other possibilities, possibilities that are always evolving and changing begin to open up. TSEliot’s lines resonate:

‘And the end of all our exploring

Will be to arrive where we started

And know the place for the first time’

We are surrounded by mystery, if we can open our eyes and ears to see and hear. In my opinion the serious mistake the church has made, which dates as far back as the fourth century and continues to our day, is that it tried to tame mystery by encircling it with definitions and rigid doctrines.

God was defined as a being in Heaven, made up of three persons. As an image, a metaphor, it is useful, but as a doctrine claiming to be a literal description of God it is unhelpful.

I now believe that rigid doctrinal definitions become a serious obstacle to experiencing the mystery.

With our modern understanding of the wonder of creation as an ongoing rather than a historical reality, it is time to look again at our traditional Catholic doctrines and find new metaphors, new language, which will more effectively open up the mystery and timeless wonder of our Christian faith for the modern world.

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