Prof Catherine Maignant on Fr Tony Flannery – Vatican Sanctions have increased ‘his aura and influence’

One of the more intriguing chapters in a new book edited by Eamon Maher and Eugene O’Brien, Tracing the Cultural Legacy of Irish Catholicism: From Galway to Cloyne and Beyond (Manchester University Press 2017), is written by French academic Catherine Maignant.

It focuses on Fr Tony Flannery, whose silencing by the Vatican’s Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith has gained wide attention in Ireland and further afield. Titled ‘Tony Flannery: A Witness in an Age of Witnesses,’ the chapter traces Flannery’s career and outlines his perspectives, setting them in a wider context of what could be considered the failure of the Irish Catholic Church to embrace the spirit of Vatican II.

Though I plan to review the whole book soon, I thought Maignant’s chapter deserved special attention. Maignant so effectively encapsulates what Flannery means to many Irish Catholics, that I think her words are worthy of a wider audience. As she writes (p. 142):

Flannery is not so much a thinker as a voice, not so much the holder of unorthodox views as a leader. In the same way as a prophet, he expresses the preoccupations of his day and states clearly what many people think in private but do not express publicly.

Maignant, Professor of Irish Studies at the University of Lille, engages with all of Flannery’s major writings and reflects on his position as a founder of the Association of Catholic Priests (ACP). Indeed, she observes that Vatican only moved against Flannery shortly after the launch of the ACP – with the logical conclusion that these events are linked.

I agree that there is truth in this observation. As Maignant writes (p. 142):

It is no accident either that one of the penalties imposed on him was to leave the leadership of the ACP. The priests of the Pfarrer initiative in Austria have similarly been disciplined as they, just like the ACP, are considered a threat to the Vatican, whose authority they undermine.

I am disappointed that the Vatican could see such organisations as threats rather than potential partners.

Alas, the demise of Columba Press – which Maher and his various collaborators used to great effect in producing a series of quality, affordable edited collections about religion in Ireland – means that this volume comes with a hefty £85 price tag.

That price tag means that Maignant’s chapter is out of reach for most people. But her chapter has given us a thoughtful, sympathetic account of Flannery’s life and his continued significance for the Irish and worldwide Church. As she writes in the chapter’s Epilogue (p. 143):

… Flannery has toured America, England and Ireland to give lectures on Church reform; he gives interviews in Ireland and abroad; and the Internet is an effective medium to convey his message worldwide. It seems in fact that the difficulties he had with the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith have increased rather than reduced his aura and influence. Today, even though sanctions against him have not been lifted, it is his hope that Pope Francis’s efforts to liberalise the Church will bear fruit. … Yet the extreme fragmentation of opinions within the institution, and the strength of conservativeness that was evidence during the Synod on the Family, may well indicate that the road to the restoration of what Flannery sees as the true church of Christ will be long and steep.


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