The Vatican has been watching Father Tony Flannery for a long time. The popular Irish Catholic priest has candidly voiced his liberal—and critical—views on the church, becoming a beacon of reason to his many of his loyal readers.
He questioned celibacy and was an advocate of ordaining women into the priesthood, frequently writing about how women priests could help the church bring more Catholics to mass. To many, Flannery channeled the pop vox of today’s Catholics who wanted to keep the faith, but couldn’t easily navigate the church’s tough stance on issues like contraception and divorce.
But to his critics, his writing bordered on heresy.
The Vatican clearly has had enough of Flannery and last week silenced the 65-year-old priest. Just days before Easter, Flannery, a prolific and longtime columnist for the Redemptorist Order’s monthly magazine, Reality, was told he can no longer write on any of the church-doctrine issues.
Flannery publicly supported Irish Prime Minister Enda Kenny’s harsh criticism of the Vatican’s handling of the Irish church sex scandal. Reality editor Gerard Moloney has also been reprimanded for allowing Flannery’s prose to make it into print. Future editions of the magazine will now have to be reviewed by a Vatican-approved theologian. In the meantime, Flannery has reportedly been sent to a monastery for six weeks of prayer and contemplation.
The Redemptorists Order, formally known as the Congregation of the Most Holy Redeemer, are seen as one of the church’s most liberal wings. Flannery, as one of the order’s most popular voices, tackled tough issues like the Irish church’s great failing on its handling of the pedophile-priest epidemic, and he often questioned the relevance of archaic church doctrine in the modern world.
Father Flannery may be gone for now, but his stifling has sent a shock wave through the wider community of priests in Europe, lighting a fire under many who are now standing up against the Vatican. A growing number of Catholic bloggers say the movement has the makings of what could be considered the beginning of a Catholic Spring uprising. In Ireland, the 800-strong Association of Catholic Priests, which Flannery co-founded, sent a stern warning to the Holy See that actions like censoring a popular voice would not be tolerated. “We affirm in the strongest possible terms our confidence in and solidarity with Father Flannery and we wish to make clear our profound view that this intervention is unfair, unwarranted and unwise,” warned a statement on their website. “We wish to register our extreme unease and disquiet at the present development, not least the secrecy surrounding such interventions and the questions about due process and freedom of conscience that such interventions surface.”
Similar warnings were launched from Austria’s We Are the Church group, which has thousands of priests as members in countries across Europe. Group leader Father Brendan Butler told The Daily Beast that the move amounted to a return to the Inquisition and that the current Holy See governing body is worrying. “They are trying to bring our church back into rigid authoritarian centralized structures where all dissent is dealt with in a ruthless manner.”
Another popular columnist, Father Gabriel Daly, countered with an op-ed in another popular trade magazine for priests called Doctrine Life that seemed to be tempting the Vatican to shut him up, too. “Aided by secrecy and the unchallenged exercise of power, the Curia has established effective control over the whole church,” he wrote in this week’s edition. “There is little or no concern for those faithful Catholics who are quietly appalled by what is happening. They are seen as simply wrong.”
Even those close to the Vatican’s hard line on church doctrine are uneasy with the move to silence Flannery. Archbishop Diarmuid Martin told La Stampa newspaper in Italy that removing Flannery’s voice was moving toward “heresy hunting.”
The Vatican has not made a comment on its decision to take action against Flannery, but Pope Benedict XVI did allude to trouble in his Holy Thursday chrism mass in Rome. He told some 1,600 priests who attended the mass that changes to church doctrine like the ordination of women is nothing more than a “desperate push,” and he made mention of a “certain group of priests” who were calling for disobedience as a way to make change. “Is disobedience a path of renewal for the church?” he asked during his homily.
Veering off the church’s party line certainly didn’t work for Flannery, who will not be heard from any time soon. Just a few weeks before he was sent away, he voiced his frustration with the church. “Opening up the ministry of the church to laypeople, to married people, to priests, to women. In other words, not confining it to the male celibate priesthood as we’ve had in the past, because clearly that is not working now, so we have to begin to think in different ways, but the Vatican is increasingly forbidding any discussion on that,” he wrote. "Many of us priests are very frustrated with the way the Vatican conducts its business.” Now it seems almost certain that Father Flannery’s frustration with the church has only just begun.