The Brandsma Review

Pro Vita, pro Ecclesia Dei et pro Hibernia – A journal of conservative Catholic opinion from Ireland

Issue 130, January-February 2014

Hibernicus Observes Irish Life

A Question of Conscience:Tony Flannery
(Dublin, Londubh Books, 2013) €14.99

THIS IS A VERY SAD BOOK, and it is impossible to read it without pity for its author. Fr Flannery describes his life as he sees it; how his parents, a schoolteacher obliged to retire early under the marriage bar and a small farmer and Bord na Móna worker who died prematurely from the effects of his work, wished their children to get an education and escape their own poverty. (The bitterness of such poverty is too often overlooked by people who respond to the vices of our own time by sentimentalising “the good old days”–and this failing allows genuine
concerns be brushed aside.)

This concern, as much as religious motivation, led them to send him to a Redemptorist minor seminary at the age of twelve in the late 1950s to study for the priesthood, such an early decision being common practice then but now recognised as having many ill effects.

Fr Flannery recalls his early training as being dominated by fear of hellfire and focussed on blind obedience, and sees the “spirit of Vatican II” and the spirit of the Sixties more widely, which he encountered at University College Galway, as having liberated him from this fear. He contrasts old-style Redemptorist hellfire preaching with the second-century Bishop Irenaeus of Lyons, taught by disciples of the Apostles, who said that the glory of God is the human person truly alive; and he opposes to the traditional insistence on obedience to superiors Cardinal Newman’s statement “I will drink to the Pope, if you please; but to Conscience first”.

Fr Flannery implies very strongly that his rejection of Humanae Vitae led him to consider leaving before ordination, but that he decided the encyclical was merely an irrelevant throwback which would soon be reversed; he makes it clear that he used the confessional to encourage penitents to “decide for themselves”, that is, to reject the teaching. He conveys that through his rejection of Humanae Vitae and still more through his hostility to John Paul II, whom he regards as a dictator stamping out the message of Vatican II, he came to regard the teaching authority of the church as a harmful irrelevance and focused on developing what he sees as the true spirit of Jesus through local congregations celebrating themselves in liturgy. After the horror of the clerical abuse crisis and the resulting falling-away, he and those like him came to believe that they must speak out and organise publicly against what they see as the reactionary clericalism upheld by the Vatican, which they see as responsible for the scandals. In response, the Vatican, with the support of reactionary lay groups, has silenced him without a chance to explain his views adequately. He is left feeling that he has wasted his life in the service of an institutional church which has betrayed the message of Jesus and which may be past saving and not worth saving.

Excessive pressure on young people

Certainly Fr Flannery’s sad story reflects certain aspects of pre-Vatican II religious life which should be taken into account. There was widespread and excessive pressure on young people to adapt religious vocations without sufficient thought about what it would entail, in the belief that God would supply the necessary graces more or less automatically. Voluntary acceptance of mortification for the purpose of spiritual growth was extended until suffering was seen in many cases as a good in itself. There was widespread abuse of religious obedience, to the extent that the superior’s whims and arbitrary diktats–or the parish priest’s–were treated as infallible, criticism was regarded as inherently wicked and illegitimate, and explanation and comprehension were dismissed as unnecessary. These excesses fostered a bitter adolescent spirit of suppressed resentment, and when external discipline was relaxed rebellion was the result. The question is whether the baby has not been thrown out with the bathwater. (For example, asGary MacEoin–who himself was dismissed from the Redemptorist novitiate under unjust and arbitrary circumstances, as explained in his 1950s memoir Nothing is Quite Enough–pointed out, St Alphonsus emphasised obedience and asceticism in the Redemptorist rule precisely because he wanted Redemptorists to evangelise the poorest of the poor, with all the hardship that entailed, and to resist the temptation to drift back to the relatively comfortable life available to aristocratic chaplains in Naples. St Alphonsus of course assumed that it was a matter of the utmost importance that the people should be evangelised, and that self-fulfilment lies in pursuing the greatest good with the cost that entails, rather than in a therapeutic model of self-satisfaction. Similarly, hellfire preaching can be hideously manipulative and destructive, and is often counter-productive, but the fact that in the Gospels Our Lord explicitly and repeatedly warns his listeners of the fires of Hell suggests that it should not be rejected altogether.) Indeed, some critics of old-style clericalism end up by repeating its faults of arrogance, intolerance, condescension and intellectual sloppiness. Fr Flannery, unfortunately, is a case in point.

Using the historical-critical method

The first thing that must be said about this book is that it is presented as a story, not an analysis. In order to come to terms with it we must deploy the historical- critical method, for whose use Fr Flannery calls, to work out the underlying assumptions of the  text–what Fr Flannery takes so much for granted that he does not bother to spell it out. Of course, the historical-critical method is vulnerable to the critic’s own assumptions (something which Fr Flannery does not take sufficient account of when he discusses the development of the priesthood) and it should be open to reinterpretation in the light of additional evidence; so I write subject to correction and if anyone can show where I am mistaken in my interpretation of Fr Flannery I will withdraw where I am mistaken.  Let us take a few representative passages. On p. 47 Fr Flannery explains how he dealt with a complaint that he had said he would never use the word “many” instead of “all” in the new translation of the missal:

I quickly realised that, while there was no doubt that I had made this comment and that it represented where I stood on the matter, the research by the CDF left a lot to be desired: they got both the newspaper and the date wrong, confusing two newspapers, The Irish Times and The Sunday Times… Once I pointed out the inaccuracy, this particular complaint was never mentioned again.

In other words, the complaint accurately represented his views but instead of standing over them he used a technicality to wriggle out of taking responsibility for them. This naturally raises uneasy questions about whether Fr Flannery may not be treating readers of this book as he treated the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. We will discuss later why Fr Flannery should take such an extraordinary position.

On pp 44-45 Fr Flannery explains one of the passages for which he was censured by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, in which on the face of it he seems to deny that Jesus intended to found a Church or to establish a priesthood, as follows:

I am not a trained theologian and do not write with the sort of precision that theologians use. I have always been in the business of communicating with the ordinary Catholic, who has little or no theological training… so I try not to use words or sentences that would obscure meaning for them.

As Fr Flannery himself states (p. 46) that his statements “might be interpreted as heretical” it seems that he considers it is worse for the “ordinary Catholic” not to understand the meaning of accurate technical language (apparently he assumes the “ordinary Catholic” is too lazy and/or stupid to look it up, or to ask someone who does know) than for the “ordinary Catholic” to be misled into heresy because Fr Flannery was too busy and hurried to express himself clearly. One hopes that Fr Flannery would not have implemented this view that it is better to be inaccurate than to use technical language if he had gone into some other profession, such as pharmaceutical chemistry or electrical engineering.

This is certainly not what St Irenaeus would have seen as “the human person fully alive”; St Irenaeus thought to be fully alive was to know and live and love the truths he received from the pupils of the Apostles; hence he devoted much of his life to writing such works as In Defence of the Apostolic Teaching and Against the Heretics–in other words, to arguing that certain representations of the faith are so incorrect as to be unacceptable, a view which Fr Flannery–who presents himself as a disciple of St Irenaeus–considers outrageous when it is put to him by lay Catholics or by the Vatican authorities.

Arrogance and sharp practice

One of the most striking things about Fr Flannery is that although he talks of dialogue, he is absolutely unwilling to accept the first precondition of dialogue, which is to accept that the other person disagrees with you sincerely and in good faith. This is why Fr Flannery engages in the extraordinary arrogance and sharp practice we have noted earlier–he believes that his own views are not only true but self-evident, that the only possible outcome of a dialogue is that everyone should agree with him, and that anyone who disagrees is unworthy of respect. (Although Fr Flannery admits at one point that the documents of Vatican II are ambiguous with “a foot in both camps” (p. 54) he
does not acknowledge the corollary–that his interpretation of Vatican II is not the only possible one.)

Fr Flannery is not interested in understanding why some people might disagree with him, or how he appears in their eyes. For example, on p. 39, when discussing how the Redemptorists’ inclusion of lay people on their mission teams met some resistance from “militant lay people” Fr Flannery describes how when a woman read the Gospel at a Mass two members of the congregation stood up and protested. He presents this as reactionary hostility to lay participation; what he does not explain is that church law clearly and specifically reserves the reading of the Gospel (as distinct from the first two readings) to ordained clergy. You can believe in lay participation and think it has limits; if Fr Flannery thinks those limits can be set aside at his own sweet will, some people will legitimately wonder whether he thinks there should be any limits at all.

Power-mad dictators

Why does this matter? Fr Flannery often tells us Mass is a communal celebration in which the congregation are active participants. Fr Flannery is a GAA fan. Let us suppose that in a GAA club match some participants realise that other players are ignoring the rules whenever they feel like it. They appeal to the referee and are told that they are “outside the consensus”, are “reactionaries” who represent “an outmoded fundamentalism”–in the language which Fr Flannery routinely uses in this book to describe anyone whose understanding of the faith differs from his own. What would the players do? They would go home and appeal to the Governing Body to intervene and check the lawless tyranny of those responsible for the shambles, and ask that those responsible be made accountable for their lawless and tyrannical misuse of the authority which they derive from the Governing Body–or, as Fr Flannery dismissively comments about the protestors: “We had no doubt that this was reported to the Vatican before the day was out”. (And I have no doubt it was probably ignored, as many of us know from bitter experience that the Vatican cannot police every little petty clerical dictator who misuses his authority to treat his personal whims as beyond criticism and who invokes his personal authority in the most draconian manner while despising authority from above.)

Thus, when laity disagree with Fr Flannery, he dismisses them as ignorant zombies “who see adherence to the teaching Magisterium of the Church as the only valid criterion” (p. 81). Fr Flannery, in contrast, seems not to believe in a Magisterium at all. When the Church authorities disagree with Fr Flannery, they are presented as simply power-mad dictators who exercise tyranny for its own sake and impose views which no thinking person can believe; the idea that their teaching might have a rational basis, that they might actually believe it on its merits and seek to enforce it as a condition of church membership because they believe it to be true and because it is supported by centuries of theological reflection, is treated as so much rubbish. What is most striking about Fr Flannery’s apparent denial (surrounded by a good deal of equivocation) that Jesus created a Church and a priesthood is that he does not merely say the commonly-held Catholic doctrine is mistaken; he asserts that no-one can really believe it “in the modern era of scholarship and with an educated laity this traditional understanding is no longer credible” (p.54) and that “some time after Jesus, a select and privileged group within the community, who had arrogated power and authority to themselves, interpreted the occasion of the Last Supper in a manner that suited their own agenda” (p. 43).

In other words, he believes that they seized power first and imposed an interpretation afterwards, implicitly for the sake of power; that no-one could derive priesthood from analogy between the priesthoods of the Old and New Covenants or from the sacrificial language applied to Jesus throughout the New Testament; that St Ambrose and St John Chrysostom [late 4th century], for example, were either fools or liars when they wrote on the priesthood, and that their views are unworthy of the slightest respect. Fr Flannery seems to think that nobody ever suggested the view of the priesthood he advances before the present generation; he is so unaware of the history of debate over the Biblical and patristic understanding of priesthood that when it is suggested that he should go off and become a Protestant he treats this as a random insult “as if this was a fate worse than death. I considered this to be quite offensive to our Protestant brothers and sisters” (p. 72) rather than an accurate observation that he has taken up an interpretation of the biblical and patristic evidence which Protestants have been advancing for centuries, the Protestant interpretation being in turn extensively criticised by Catholics.

Single ‘Great Church’

To simplify matters, the Protestant-Catholic dispute boils down to whether the sacramental and priestly doctrines which are clearly visible in the second and third centuries, and the view (so clearly expressed by St Irenaeus) that there is a single “Great Church” whose precedents define orthodoxy and whose decisions exclude heresy, can be read back into the first two centuries where records are limited, on the basis that Jesus’ commitment to His followers precludes the possibility that the Church could have gone wrong so rapidly on something so fundamental. Fr Flannery seems to believe that the Church went wrong very early indeed, and that its decisions from very early on can be dismissed. For example, he juxtaposes the role of St Cyril of Alexandria in inciting the murder of the pagan philosopher Hypatia of Alexandria with the role of St Cyril in the declaration that Mary is Mother of God at the Council of Ephesus (431 AD) in order to suggest that Marian devotion was devised by misogynists like Cyril (who was in fact just as venomous towards male as female opponents) to oppress and subjugate women by presenting an idealised Mary as representing an impossibly exalted standard of behaviour and punishing real women for falling short of this. Leaving aside (as Fr Flannery does, without a word) the long history of women who have found in Mary a role-model who raised them to great heights of achievement, even in purely secular terms, Fr Flannery seems not to realise that the doctrine that Mary is Mother of God is only
incidentally about Mary and centrally concerns her Son. To deny that Mary was the Mother of God opens up a gap between the human and divine natures of Jesus which ultimately threatens belief in the Incarnation. This is why, irrespective of the wrongdoings of Cyril, Ephesus is received as one of the great Councils by Orthodox and Copts as well as Catholics, and why Bl. John XXIII chose to commence the Second Vatican Council on the feast of Mary Mother of God, the anniversary of Ephesus. To denounce Ephesus is a strange action for someone claiming to represent the true spirit of Vatican II–but then, the intense and lifelong care which Pope John took to preserve his chastity, and which is extensively documented in his writings, would make him a misogynist by Fr Flannery’s standard.

Believe the worst

Fr Flannery can see no good in the Vatican at all throughout history. He never mentions it without mentioning the Inquisition. God knows the faults and crimes of numerous popes, cardinals and curial officials throughout history make sad and shameful reading; but Fr Flannery ignores anything good in the history of the Papacy while accepting uncritically any accusation made against it, even when the reality is bad enough. For example he tells us that the witchhunts of late mediaeval and early modern Europe were centrally directed by the Popes through the Inquisition (which he helpfully reminds us later developed into the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith), inspired by sheer hatred of women and coercing the civil authorities to massacre those whom they would otherwise have left untouched.

Now it is true that certain late-mediaeval Popes propagated the belief that there was a vast organised witch-cult centrally directed by the Devil, and sent out inquisitors at various times to take action against supposed witches, and that some of these inquisitors produced books on witchcraft which are dripping with paranoia and misogyny and which caused the deaths of many innocents. (The Inquisition as a centralised
body was a later development; late-mediaeval inquisitors were appointed for specific missions.) It is also the case that they did not invent the witch-craze, nor impose it unilaterally; there is a scholarly consensus that the witch-craze derived from a combination of popular witch-beliefs and elite theories about witchcraft held by lay scholars as well as clerics. State authorities believed in the supposed witch-cultjust as much as ecclesiastics; one reason why mediaeval Popes intervened was because civil authorities were punishing witchcraft as a secular crime rather
than reserving it for ecclesiastical courts. The fact that the witch-hunt was not centrally directed from the Vatican is shown by the well-known fact that it continued and even intensified in Protestant countries after the Reformation; does Fr Flannery really ask us to believe that the witch-burners of Lutheran Norway and Presbyterian Scotland, Matthew Hopkins’ witchhunting in East Anglia and Cotton Mather conducting
witch-trials in Salem, Massachusetts, were all taking orders from the Pope? The fact that these Protestant witch-burners had married clergy also calls into question Fr Flannery’s insinuation that the whole monstrous business derived from clerical celibacy. The facts are bad enough, God knows; Fr Flannery shouldnot play fast and loose with them to score cheap points.

Accusation and denunciation

Fr Flannery’s anxiety to whitewash the state authorities which carried out witch-hunts and to heap all the blame on the Vatican represents another worrying trend in his thought. He misrepresents the statement in Vatican II’s Declaration on Religious Liberty that state coercion in religious matters should be ruled out, in order to maintain that the enforcement of religious belief by the church as a condition for church membership is contrary to Vatican II (p.109)–as if the church, membership of which is voluntary, is the same as the state, which has a natural monopoly of power within its territory. Having thus misrepresented the Vatican II declaration to say something other than its true meaning, within a few pages, we see Fr Flannery calling on the state to impose its own will on the church’s teaching and internal governance, which is exactly what the Declaration condemns. Having repeatedly denounced the Redemptorist Generalate and the Vatican as a bunch of foreigners trying to tell an Irishman what he can do in his own country, on pp 135-136 Fr Flannery reproduces a letter which he sent to the Redemptorist General stating his refusal to obey a formal precept of obedience—the most solemn and binding command available to the superior—not to attend a meeting of the ACP. This includes the following passage:

I also wish to draw your attention to the fact that your formal precept that I do not attend the meeting on 10 November is in direct contradiction of the rights that I have as an Irish citizen under the constitution of the Irish Republic. These constitutional rights are fundamental and inalienable and are for the protection of all Irish citizens, be they priests or lay people. Any exercise of authority by an organ within the Irish State, be that organ religious or other, must be cognisant of and must not offend these rights.

He goes on to cite a legal opinion he has obtained to the effect that forbidding him to attend the meeting is “an infringement of your rights set out in various international and European human rights treaties to which the Holy See is a signatory”.

Criminalising religious life

In other words, Fr Flannery is saying that the mere existence of vows of obedience infringes the Irish Constitution and international law, and he is threatening to appeal to the civil authorities to override them. The logical corollary of this view is that the mere existence of religious orders bound by the vows of poverty, chastity and obedience infringes the rights of the citizen; that the fact that members enter these associations voluntarily is no justification, since they may come to regret their profession just as much as Fr Flannery apparently regrets his, and that the state has a duty to save these people from themselves. Someone less ignorant of history than Fr Flannery would realise that precisely this argument was used by Henry VIII and French republicans to suppress and criminalise religious orders, and by defenders of the Penal Laws and opponents of Catholic Emancipation. They called it religious liberty, too; they spoke of asserting their national rights against the tyranny of the Vatican and its native dupes. Fr Flannery’s exaltation of Enda Kenny for accurately expressing the anger of the Irish people against the Vatican, without bothering with the trifling criticism of whether that anger was based on accurate perception, now appears in an ominous light. (For the record, and without equivocation, I accept Fr  Flannery’s categorical statement that he was not responsible for Enda Kenny’s speech, which is also supported by Pat Leahy’s recent book on the Coalition, The Price of Power. Fr Flannery’s own statements are quite bad enough without blaming him for Enda Kenny’s as well.)

It would take a book larger than his own to expose all Fr Flannery’s blunders and misrepresentations, and I have already trespassed too far on the editor’s patience. I will leave the last word on Fr Flannery to someone wiser than me, whom Fr Flannery professes to reverence, Blessed John Henry Newman. As we have seen, Fr Flannery presents himself as inspired by memorable quotations from Newman on conscience, and in particular by his statement, which Fr Flannery ascribes to an after-dinner toast, that “I will drink to conscience first and the Pope afterwards”.

Unfortunately Fr Flannery’s acquaintance with the writings of Cardinal Newman appears to be limited to “quotable quotes”. Leaving aside his express statements on the need for a supreme teaching authority in the Church in order that the Great Commission may be fulfilled, his laudation of St Athanasius for refusing to accept Arianism and Semi-Arianism as compatible with church membership, his adherence to an understanding of the nature of priesthood which Fr Flannery repudiates and to the practical value and supernatural glory of that clerical celibacy which Fr Flannery excoriates as a mere Vatican control device, we shall see Newman confound Flannery on the ground which Flannery himself has chosen.

Ignorance of Newman

The passage Flannery quotes does not come from “an after-dinner toast” but from A Letter to the Duke of Norfolk, a pamphlet in which Newman replies to a polemic by the former Prime Minister, William Gladstone, who claimed that the proclamation of the doctrine of Papal Infallibility meant that Catholics could not possibly be good citizens, since at any time the Pope might order them to commit some crime and they would be bound to obey him. Newman replies by explaining that infallibility does not mean, for example, that I am bound to obey the Pope if he ordered me to murder an innocent person; but he never says that I can disobey the Pope any time I feel like it. The “drink to conscience” passage is presented by a long argument in which Newman expressly repudiates the view that conscience means doing as you think fit without regard to any external standard:

But, of course, I have to say again, lest I should be misunderstood, that when I speak of Conscience, I mean conscience truly so called. When it has the right of opposing the supreme, though not infallible Authority of the Pope, it must be something more than that miserable counterfeit which, as I have said above, now goes by the name. If in a particular case it is to be taken as a sacred and sovereign monitor, its dictate, in order to prevail against the voice of the Pope, must follow upon serious thought, prayer, and all available means of arriving at a right judgment on the matter in question. And further, obedience to the Pope is what is called “in possession;” that is, the onus probandi of establishing a case against him lies, as in all cases of exception, on the side of conscience. Unless a man is able to say to himself, as in the Presence of God, that he must not, and dare not, act upon the Papal injunction, he is bound to obey it, and would commit a great sin in disobeying it. Prima facie it is his bounden duty, even from a sentiment of loyalty, to believe the Pope right and to act accordingly. He must vanquish that mean, ungenerous, selfish, vulgar spirit of his nature, which, at the very first rumour of a command, places itself in opposition to the Superior who gives it, asks itself whether he is not exceeding his right, and rejoices, in a moral and practical matter to commence with scepticism. He must have no wilful determination to exercise a right of thinking, saying, doing just what he pleases, the question of truth and falsehood, right and wrong, the duty if possible of obedience, the love of speaking as his Head speaks, and of standing in all cases on his Head’s side, being simply discarded. If
this necessary rule were observed, collisions between the Pope’s authority and the authority of conscience would be very rare. On the other hand, in the fact that, after all, in extraordinary cases, the conscience of each individual is free, we have a safeguard and security, were security necessary (which is a most gratuitous supposition), that no Pope ever will be able, as the objection supposes, to create a false conscience for his own ends.

Has Fr Flannery observed this standard? No, he has not, no more than he observes the constraints of historical accuracy or the rules of debate. Fr Flannery has not bothered to “inform his conscience” by actually reading Newman’s works before citing him as an authority, and thus like a blind guide he leads his readers to believe that Newman held a belief which Newman absolutely repudiated and spent his whole life opposing. If this is admiration, may Heaven save us all from such admirers. Newman left the Anglican Church because he came to believe that it had abandoned the historic Christian faith for the arbitrary private judgement of the individual and the diktats of the secular authorities; he opposed the extreme ultramontanes because he believed that they made the Faith dependent on the mere arbitrary will of the Pope without respect for the existing deposit of faith. He stood by this belief that faith cannot be reduced to the arbitrary will when Pius IX suspected him of heresy; he reiterated it in his “biglietto speech” when Leo XIII made him a cardinal.

Fr Flannery’s views, founded on standards of accuracy and respect for intellectual disagreement whose nature will now be fully apparent to all my readers, amount to saying not only that the Church is not entitled to restrict his misuse of the authority he received from Christ through her, but that the mere existence of the Church infringes his liberty and it must be abolished to please him. In God’s name let him think again, or let him go; but let him not talk ofconscience as if no-one possesses one except himself.

Hibernicus is a professional historian.


Also in this issue:


Time for Cool Heads and Cautious Optimism

A Myth is Born but the Truth is Ignored


Rev Professor Éamonn Conway, Rev Dr Eugene Duffy and Dr Rik Van Nieuwenhove

Muinice de Bairgéad

Dr Joe McCarroll

Rev Dáithí Ó Murchú

Ciarán Mac Guill

Mel Cormican

Rev Professor Brendan Purcell

From the Editor’s Desk includes ‘Our Lady of Dublin, Whitefriars St’, and ‘Black monk ordination in Drogheda’; A Letter to the Editor from Eric Conway; and Hurling Shots comments on ‘The Phoenix’s Clerical Errors column–ACPI in print?’



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