Last week’s conference on ‘Irish Catholicism on Trial’ at the Institute of Technology, Tallaght, in Dublin provided a platform for a variety of voices. Among them was a panel of ‘clerical voices,’ whose critiques of the Irish Catholic Church provided something of an insider perspective.
Fr Tony Flannery, the Redemptorist priest and co-founder of the Association of Catholic Priests (ACP) – who has been ‘silenced’ by the Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith – spoke on ‘Did the early Church Fathers know too much about God?’
Flannery opened his remarks by saying that although he is still a part of the Redemptorist order, he is now living outside that community in his late parents’ family home, so he has an ‘opportunity to view the church from the outside.’
He said he was now ‘grateful to the Vatican’ for the action it took against him, because it ‘forced me to begin a re-think [of faith] … and at 70 years of age, that’s an interesting thing to be doing.’
Of course, Flannery was well-known for his radical views before the silencing, so one might wonder how much further he might go in his ‘re-thinking.’ He said:
‘When I was a priest, I was sceptical about those who said they were spiritual but not religious – now I think maybe they are on to something.
… The mistake the Church made was to turn myth and metaphor into rigid doctrine [the early church fathers had not made this mistake]
… The only way to speak about God is through myth and metaphor. But most ordinary Catholics in Ireland are ignorant that the stories of the Bible are myth and metaphor.
Too much doctrine has killed mystery and left us struggling to believe in things we know make no sense.
… I am pessimistic that the Church can face up to scientific advances. People will turn to spirituality – and not religion – and maybe in the end it will be better that way.’
Mark Patrick Hederman, the abbot of Glenstal Abbey, spoke on ‘What happened to the priesthood of the laity?’
Hederman confessed that he thought that ‘laity’ was one of the ‘most hideous words ever invented,’ as he proceeded to outline a history of how the Catholic Church had developed rigid hierarchical structures. He said:
‘We have turned the household of God into a House of Lords or a Game of Thrones rather than a household of service.’
He referenced the documents of Vatican II, which had emphasised that every baptised person is priest, prophet and king, and has received the Holy Spirit. He said that so-called ‘ordinary’ Catholics should be viewed as ‘sources of truth’ in theology – but that their perspectives are systematically ignored.
Much of this is down to Canon 129 in Canon Law, which reads:
Can. 129 §1. Those who have received sacred orders are qualified, according to the norm of the prescripts of the law, for the power of governance, which exists in the Church by divine institution and is also called the power of jurisdiction.
2. Lay members of the Christian faithful can cooperate in the exercise of this same power according to the norm of law.
Hederman said that this Canon prevents the laity from participating in meaningful governance in the church, and that it will have to be removed before laity and clergy can fully cooperate in running the Church.
When asked about the ordination of women, Hederman said that he could envision it happening in the future, to prevent a schism in the Church. But he warned that if women bought into to the ‘clerical oligarchy’ that the laity would still remain marginalised.
Fr Patrick Claffey, who lectures in the Department of Religions and Theology at Trinity College, presented a historical paper on ‘John McHale: Ireland’s First Liberation Theologian.’
Throughout the paper, Claffey contrasted McHale’s approach with that of his contemporary, the notorious Cardinal Paul Cullen, who historians have credited with enforcing the Irish Catholic Church’s strict conformity with the most ‘Romanist’ aspects of Roman Catholicism.
McHale, who was from Connaught, was viewed as a priest of the people, saying in his first speech as Archbishop of Tuam that:
‘In advocating the cause of the poor I am only fulfilling my covenant with my God and my people.’
Claffey added that McHale voted against papal infallibility at Vatican I – a cause Cullen had championed.
Claffey’s paper was a reminder that although Irish Catholicism has at times been stereotyped as authoritarian and conformist, there has always been within it a more radical tradition that is concerned with what today we would call social justice.
At the same time, Flannery and Hederman’s remarks were reminders that the Irish Catholic Church does provide some wriggle room for dissenters. But in the case of Flannery his treatment as a dissenter by the institutions of the Church has not been sympathetic, to say to the least.
The extent that the Irish Catholic Church can revive and maintain traditions of dissent and social justice – both among the clergy and the laity – will determine its future for decades to come.