The price of conscience
It is sad but hardly surprising that Tony Flannery should, at this stage of his life, be silenced, removed from ministry and threatened with excommunication. Following on from Vatican II, the Catholic Church’s influence has waned in western societies because of sexual and financial scandals. But a determined effort is now being made by Vatican authorities to impose orthodoxy. Fr Flannery with a number of colleagues and members of the Association of Catholic Priests (ACP) are under threat due to their insistence on the importance of personal conscience.
Fr Flannery has written of an era of great openness in the church after Vatican II, when freedom of thought and conscience existed and priests were able to present the message of Christ in a way that addressed the reality of people’s lives. In time, as authority became more centralised in the Vatican, priests were sanctioned, silenced and dismissed because they would not “toe the line”. Orthodoxy was the imperative, he wrote. Allowing people to think for themselves was seen by a significant core of the church as dangerous.
Two years ago, a special “visitation committee” to Ireland from the Vatican emphasised the need for doctrinal discipline. The emergence of the ACP represented a challenge. With a membership of 10,000, it sought meetings with the hierarchy to discuss alternative ways of renewing the church and addressing the decline in vocations. They were rebuffed. Findings, through an opinion poll it commissioned, that a majority of Catholics approved of the ordination of women priests, divorce and contraception made matters worse. Fr Flannery is correct when he speaks of a disconnect between the Irish laity and Rome. The appointment of Msgr Eamon Martin as Coadjutor Archbishop of Armagh presents an opportunity for new beginnings in the Irish church. But the Vatican’s prioritising of orthodoxy, apparently over conscience and inclusivity, makes a process of renewal more arduous.