On Saturday 21 February Fr Tony Flannery spoke at a meeting of the Association of Catholics in Ireland (ACI) at the Duncairn Centre for Culture and Arts in Belfast.
Flannery’s topics were “The urgent reforms needed in the Catholic Church, and where Pope Francis stands on them” and “Reflections on the growth of the Catholic reform movement around the world; its strengths and weaknesses”. (Audio from the event is on the ACI website.)
More than 60 people from Belfast, Bangor, Ballymoney, Ballymena, Larne, Coleraine, Armagh, Carrickfergus, Donegal, Mayo, New York and Cyprus attended the event.
Flannery, a Redemptorist, has been put out of ministry by the Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith over articles he wrote for the Redemptorist magazine Reality, which dealt with women priests and teachings on contraception and homosexuality.
In an interview with William Scholes in the Irish News in advance of the event, Flannery said:
“What they objected to in particular was that I suggested– and we have to remember that this was in the middle of the clerical sex abuse crisis – that the priesthood as we have it now is not as Jesus intended it to be.”
ACI officer Martin Murray summarised some of the points from Flannery’s talks in a report on the ACI website:
… Fr Tony went on to speak on the crisis now coming sharply into focus in the Church across the country, namely the shortage of priests. Commenting first on the inadequacies of the responses being made to the problem, he went on to outline the more radical suggestions made by the Association of Catholic Priests in Ireland (ACP), some of which could be implemented immediately and others which may need to be introduced over a longer period of time. … However solutions such as the introduction of a strictly male only permanent diaconate, “after all the problems of clericalism, and after Pope Francis condemning the whole culture of clericalism over and over again”, fell well short of what was required. “The last thing we need” he said “is yet another layer of male clerics”.
Turning to Pope Francis, Fr Tony recognised that after two years in office, it was clear that the new Pope was not going to change doctrine or deal with any of the hot button issues such as the ordination of women, etc. But what he was doing, was attempting to change structures and the way the Church does its business and makes its decisions. This is seen in the way the current Synod on the Family is being conducted in comparison to all previous Synods of Bishops under the previous two papacies. Since Vatican Two, only one previous Synod had the Bishops writing the report (1971), but in this recent synod Pope Francis is not only giving the Bishops freedom to speak their views but is also attempting to include voices of those on the periphery, albeit by a very cumbersome and unuser-friendly consultation process. This has so far resulted in a report that although not earth shattering, is very different to anything produced before by the bishops.
In his interview with Scholes, Flannery had linked reforms to the very survival of the Catholic Church in Ireland:
“In Ireland in 10 to 15 years’ time there will be very few priests left. Without priests you won’t have the Mass, and the Mass is central to the life of the Christian, so something has to be done about that. … It is clear now that the notion of confining priesthood to male celibate people does not work anymore. That has to be changed. Priesthood has to be opened to married people – initially to married men, and then gradually also, women. That has to happen if the Church is to survive.”