Irish priest in the Vatican dock: Is speaking your mind impossible in the church?

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Another priest bites the dust, or may soon: Father Tony Flannery, an Irish Redemptorist priest and founder of the Irish reform group the Association of Catholic Priests, has broken the silence demanded of him by the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith by publishing an op-ed in the Irish Times. In it, Flannery chroncles his interactions with the Vatican through his Redemptorist order. The CDF's terms were that Flannery no longer speak publicly about reform issues in the church, specifically, "Either I sign a statement, for publication, stating that I accepted teachings that I could not accept, or I would remain permanently banned from priestly ministry, and maybe face more serious sanctions. It is important to state clearly that these issues were not matters of fundamental teaching, but rather of church governance."

Flannery doesn't say specifically which church teaching he must sign his assent to, but the work of the ACP has largely centered on issues of church governance and the new English translation of the Roman Missal. Flannery notes that a woman reading the gospel at Mass drew sanction against the priest who permitted it, and the role of women in the church's ministry remains a neuralgic point for the Vatican. Either way, Flannery has decided that he cannot accept the Vatican's demands and now awaits his fate, which could include expulsion from the community that has been his home since 1964. One hopes that Flannery does not suffer the same fate as former Maryknoll priest Roy Bourgeois.

Many will counsel Flannery to be "obedient" and sign whatever Rome asks of him, regardless of his conscience on the matters in question. Thomas Aquinas and Catholic tradition in general would disagree that one should sacrifice the judgments of one's conscience before any authority, even church authority (as Thomas says). As for obedience, Swiss abbot Martin Werlen reminded the Swiss church in December that it is also possible for church authority to be "disobedient" in that it refuses to "listen"--the root meaing of "obey"--to the faithful: "The disobedience deplored by church officials is often the consequence of those very church officials’ own disobedience," Werlen said.

That diagnosis is, to my ears, the correct one: There simply are no official structures of listening to the movement of the Spirit among God's people, and so many in the hierarchy to continue to repeat themselves and insist on "obedience" while many others in the church reject what it is being said. The current crisis in the church will not come to an end unless and until that that failure of mutual listening is corrected.