Father Tony Flannery, suspended by the Vatican in 2012 for his views on the priesthood, homosexuality and contraception, talks to me about how the Pope is even more radical than he is, and his hopes for reform in the Catholic Church.
The new Pope? He is more radical than me says silenced priest
Since being elected 11 months ago, Pope Francis has won over many critics of the Catholic Church with his apparently liberal and modern outlook.
But even he might be surprised to discover he has a new ally here in Ireland – a Redemptorist priest whose often controversial views led to him being suspended and silenced by the very Vatican that Pope Francis now presides over.
Father Tony Flannery, who is delivering a speech in Cork tomorrow insists: “Pops Francis has gone way beyond anything that I’ve said. He’s much more radical in certain ways. So yes, there is an irony in it.
“He’s saying all the right things, extraordinary things that I never thought I’d live to hear a Pope say. Whether he’ll be able to push his ideas through is another matter.”
Fr Flannery, from Galway, was suspended by the Vatican in 2012 and threatened with excommunication as a result of his outspoken views on issues such as the ordination of women priests, contraception and homosexuality.
Early last year, he rejected an offer that he could re-join the fold if he renounced those views in writing. He is still technically a priest, but the prohibition from public ministry remains in place.
Fr Flannery, a founder of the Irish Association of Catholic Priests (IACP), is now touring Ireland with a talk entitled ‘Repairing a damaged Church’, seeking to bring about a debate on Church reform.
He will be giving his talk at the Blue Haven in Kinsale tomorrow night as a guest of the Kinsale Peace Project and, ironically, he says he will be quoting a lot from the leader of the institution he would like to change.
“For the first time in my life, I’m quoting Popes,” says Fr Flannery. “I never was a fan of Pope Jean Paul or Pope Benedict. They were much too controlling, centralised and dogmatic.
Argentinian Pope Francis has made some outspoken comments on the Vatican and its institutions such as its powerful banking empire. The 77-year-old has also made conciliatory remarks about atheists and homosexuals, saying of the latter “Who am I to judge?”
“He’s certainly looking like the man who’ll have quite an impact on the Church. But it’s too early to be definite.
“I’d say the initial impression is that he has created a much more positive view of the Church generally, not only among Catholics. Whether this will bring people flocking back to the Church is another matter, and hard to predict.
“There are forces ranged against him from structures within the Vatican that are there for centuries. And people who are in positions of power and control are very reluctant to let go of them, and that is as true of the Church as it is of any other institution.
“But he’s showing amazing energy and clarity of thought and strength for a man of his age.”
The 67-year-old Flannery is himself undaunted by any opposition.
“At the age I’m at, I’d be retired now in any other profession. Instead, I lead a very interesting life now. I’m much freer to speak now than I was before [as a result of being suspended]. Of course, I pay a price for that, but it does bring a liberation with it.”
One of the controversial subjects raised by Fr Flannery relates to the subordinate role of women within the Church, which he feels cannot continue for practical reasons, but also as a matter of justice.
“I absolutely believe that women will be fully admitted to the Catholic Church, but it will take time. It’s not something that can happen overnight.
“I would like to see other stages along the way, like bringing back priests who can get married, ordaining married men, and by those steps gradually opening up the priesthood, and then definitely we will have to face the issue of women priests. Denying women a place in the priesthood for no good reason, it’s not tenable.
“The whole notion of priesthood is dysfunctional at this stage anyway, and if I had my say, I’d like all priests to retire at 65, which would provoke the inevitable crisis of priesthood, which is going to happen anyway, whether they work until 85 or 65, because they’re not going to replaced. So the sooner we face this crisis, and the sooner we can begin to rethink the notion of priesthood, the better. So maybe I’m doing my little bit.”
When asked about the issue of abortion, Fr Flannery replies: “What do you want me to say about that? That is an immensely complex issue. At the IACP, we stayed out of the debate entirely because we felt it was much too difficult. I wouldn’t be inclined to comment on that at all.
I basically support the Catholic position on the protection of life, and that abortion is not a good thing. But I am aware of the enormous complexity of it and, of all the topics, it is one I would not like to be dogmatic about.
Fr Flannery is circumspect on other questions, but still finds himself in a similar place to the Pope on issues such as homosexuality, and supports the views expressed by Mary McAleese earlier this year.
Speaking in Edinburgh in January, the former President denounced the church’s attitude to gay people, saying “I don’t like ‘love the sinner, hate the sin’. If you are the so-called sinner, who likes to be called that?”
In supporting Mrs McAleese’s position, Fr Flannery says that Pope Benedict’s statements had been very unfortunate and unhelpful.
“The Church’s recent teachings have been very deficient. However, it was great to hear Pope Francis saying ‘Who am I to judge?’ From a Church point of view, that is a great start.”
Fr Flannery’s talk in Cork tomorrow night will look at the history of the Church, and how it has come to where it is today – in a state of near crisis, with falling attendance, diminishing respect and ever fewer priests – and then try to point a way forward out of this crumbling state.
Fr Flannery has already spoken in other parts of the country, as a result of which he is certain that there is a hunger in Ireland for this debate.
“The response I’ve had so far has been mightily energetic and stimulating. People have so much to say. Undoubtedly Ireland is ready for it. There is an almost total acceptance, I’d say, among ordinary people that change is needed.”
And not only the public, but other priests have also been supportive of what he has to say.
“There are many others like me, but the main difference is that I have been writing for most of my life. And when you put things on paper, you are much more likely to get into trouble than if you just say them. You’ve made a record, and that is why the Vatican came after me first a couple of years ago. But I wouldn’t be saying anything different from what a lot of other Redemptorists are saying.”
Redemptorists are part of a missionary Congregation that may once have been associated with a more hell-fireish brand of preaching, but went through a sort of conversion in the 1970s, leading to the adoption of more progressive views.
A lot of Fr Flannery’s beliefs flow from that new sense of positive open-mindedness, and can also be found in the Constitution of the IACP, which calls for a debate on reform of the Catholic Church, in particular the priesthood, and a re-evaluation of some of its teachings. These views put him into direct conflict with older, more established traditions.
Fr Flannery worries that the upholders of those traditions may also be holding back Pope Francis’s ability to enforce institutional change that he has been calling for at the Vatican, but feels that it’s too soon to know whether the Pope will prevail.