Eamonn Keane
Fr. Tony Flannery's censure by Vatican was necessary!
By Eamonn Keane
January 31, 2013

Since April 2012, Irish Redemptorist priest, Fr. Tony Flannery, has been at the centre of a controversy over questions of Catholic doctrine that has gained media coverage in many parts of the English-speaking world.

News of the controversy erupted in April 2012 when the Catholic Church's Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (hereafter CDF) instructed Fr. Flannery to discontinue his regular column in Reality magazine which is a publication of the Redemptorist Order in Ireland. Amongst other things, the CDF exists to help the Pope carry out his duty of guarding Catholics from false doctrine and its negative impacts on their understanding and practice of the faith.

The CDF censure of Fr. Flannery was all the more noteworthy given that he was a founding member and one of the spokespersons of the Association of Catholic Priests (hereafter ACP) in Ireland. The ACP claims to have a membership of 1000, representing about twenty five percent of priests in Ireland.

Many media headlines reporting on the controversy portrayed Fr. Flannery as a victim of an abusive use of power by Pope Benedict XVI and the CDF. Some examples of this are: "Hoover FBI tactics used against Irish priests by Vatican" (IrishCentral, April 7, 2012); "Fr Flannery may not be burned at the stake but the censure is itself frightening" (Irish Examiner, April 9, 2012); "Dissent in the Catholic Church, especially from members of the clergy, invariably elicits a mailed fist reaction from the Vatican" (Irish Examiner, April 7, 2012); "Pope has consistently come down on dissent within the church like a hammer" (Irish Times, April 18, 2012); "Fr. Flannery's grasp of theology better than that of his silencers" (Catholic National Reporter, January 25, 2013).

Initial reports on the controversy in 2012 claimed that the causes of the dispute between Fr. Flannery and the CDF concerned his published comments on questions pertaining to the Church's teaching on the ordination of women and sexual morality. In January 2013, however, it was reported that the CDF was concerned also about other aspects of Fr. Flannery's writings, including comments made by him on the origin and nature of the ministerial (ordained) priesthood in the Catholic Church.

On January 19, 2013, The New York Times published part of an interview with Fr. Flannery which stated that he had been suspended by the Vatican in 2012 and "that he would be allowed to return to ministry only if he agreed to write, sign and publish a statement agreeing, among other things, that women should never be ordained as priests and that he would adhere to church orthodoxy on matters like contraception and homosexuality." The New York Times quoted Fr. Flannery as saying: "How can I put my name to such a document when it goes against everything I believe in." He added: "If I signed this, it would be a betrayal not only of myself but of my fellow priests and lay Catholics who want change. I refuse to be terrified into submission."

The New York Times article referred to above recounted how in 2012 the CDF wrote to the Superior General of the Redemptorists in Rome objecting to an article authored by Fr. Flannery and published in Reality magazine in 2010. In the article, Fr. Flannery said that he no longer believed that "the priesthood as we currently have it in the church originated with Jesus" or that he designated "a special group of his followers as priests." Instead, revealed the New York Times, Fr. Flannery had claimed that, "It is more likely that some time after Jesus, a select and privileged group within the community who had abrogated power and authority to themselves, interpreted the occasion of the Last Supper in a manner that suited their own agenda."

Fr. Flannery's statement above contradicts Catholic doctrine on the ordained priesthood which holds that it was instituted by Jesus Christ and that its transmission across time is linked to Apostolic Succession and the sacrament of Holy Orders. Subsequent to the NYT interview, Fr. Flannery released the contents of a note he wrote for the CDF clarifying his position on the origin of the ministerial priesthood. The CDF judged his response inadequate. It called on him to affirm in writing his assent to certain Catholic doctrines on the ministerial priesthood which his original dissenting comments had either explicitly or implicitly contradicted.

On 23 January 2013, the Superior General of the Redemptorist Order in Rome, Fr. Michael Brehl, issued a statement in which he "earnestly" urged Fr. Flannery "to renew the efforts to find an agreed solution to the concerns raised by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith." At the same time, Fr. Brehl called on his "Redemptorist confreres of the Irish Province to join with [him] in praying and working together in the spirit of St Alphonsus to maintain and strengthen our communion with the Universal Church."

Fr. Flannery confuses questions of Church 'doctrine' with questions of Church 'governance.' Writing in the Irish Times on 22 January 2013 in regard to his expressed views on questions of Catholic teaching which merited his censure by the CDF, Fr. Flannery said: "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...It is important to state clearly that these issues were not matters of fundamental teaching, but rather of church governance." Church teaching on questions like the institution of the ministerial priesthood by Christ, the reservation of priestly ordination to men alone, as well as the intrinsic evil of contraceptive and homosexual acts, are not questions of Church 'governance,' but rather of Church doctrine.

Despite Fr. Flannery's published opposition to the teaching of the Catholic Church, the ACP Leadership Team in Ireland issued a statement on 20 January 2013 in support of Fr. Flannery which said:

"The Association of Catholic Priests (ACP) affirms in the strongest possible terms our confidence in and solidarity with Fr Tony Flannery as he strives to clear his name and we wish to protest against unjust treatment he has received from the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith...The effort to depict him as 'disloyal' and 'dissident' is unwarranted and unfair...The ACP is disturbed by the procedures evident in this case: the unwillingness to deal directly with the accused person; the injunction to secrecy; the presumption of guilt; the lack of due process. They suggest a callousness and even brutality that is in sharp contrast to the compassion of Jesus Christ."

Responding to this public expression of support for Fr. Flannery by the ACP, David Quinn, writing in the Irish Independent newspaper on 25 January 2013 said: "The Association of Catholic Priests (ACP), of which Fr Flannery is a founder member, has given him its full support. Has it no reservations whatever about his stance? Is any and all dissent permissible? Ordinary Catholics, as well as the ACP's members, have a right to the answers." Quinn continued by adding: "The ACP is always calling for debate, but it is extremely unclear whether or not it believes there is any limit to what can be debated and whether or not it believes there are any settled and irrevocable doctrines whatever in the church."

In the New York Times interview referred to above, Fr. Flannery described the CDF's treatment of him as a "Spanish Inquisition-style campaign," something which he said "is being orchestrated by a secretive body that refuses to meet me. Surely I should at least be allowed to explain my views to my accusers."

I have read most of Fr. Flannery's published work and am not at all surprised that he has been taken to task by the CDF. His assault on definitive Catholic teaching is wide-ranging. His published works are his real 'accusers.' I will now outline some of the material I am referring to.

1. Did Christ know in his earthly life he would rise from the dead?

In a 1999 book he authored titled From the Inside: A Priest's View of the Catholic Church (Mercier Press, Cork), Fr. Flannery presents us with a Christ who he claims may not have been aware that he would rise from the dead. He says: "When Christ died on Good Friday, people didn't know he was going to rise again on Easter Sunday. Maybe he didn't know himself" (From the Inside, pp. 188-189).

The assertion that Christ may not have been aware that he would rise from the dead contradicts Catholic Christological doctrine. In Christ the properties of his divinity can be referred to his humanity as a consequence of the unity of the divine and human natures in the one Person of the Word Incarnate. In his 2001 Apostolic Letter Novo millennio ineunte, Pope John Paul II addressed this question when he said:

"The Church has no doubt that the Evangelists in their accounts, and inspired from on high, have correctly understood in the words which Jesus spoke the truth about his person and his awareness of it...In his self-awareness, Jesus has no doubts: 'The Father is in me and I am in the Father' (Jn 10:38)... there is no doubt that already in his historical existence Jesus was aware of his identity as the Son of God" (n. 24).

St. Luke's reference to Jesus' growing "in wisdom and in stature" (Luke 2:52) cannot be understood as implying that he was ignorant of the eternal plans he had come to reveal. While the Catechism of the Catholic Church (hereafter CCC) states that the "human soul that the Son of God assumed is endowed with a true human knowledge" (n. 472), it nevertheless adds: "But at the same time, this truly human knowledge of God's Son expressed the divine life of his person. The human nature of God's Son, not by itself but by its union with the Word, knew and showed forth in itself everything that pertains to God" (n. 473). The CCC concludes its discussion of Christ's soul and his human knowledge by saying: "By its union to the divine wisdom in the person of the Word incarnate, Christ enjoyed in his human knowledge the fullness of understanding of the eternal plans he had come to reveal. What he admitted to not knowing in this area, he elsewhere declared himself not sent to reveal" (n. 474).

Throughout his earthly life, Jesus was in possession of the Beatific Vision. Referring to this, Pope Pius XII in his encyclical Mystici Corporis said:

"[B]y that blessed vision which He enjoyed when just received in the womb of the Mother of God, he has all the members of the Mystical Body continuously and perpetually present to Himself, and embraces them with salvific love... In the manger, on the Cross, in the eternal glory of the Father, Christ has all the members of the Church before Him and joined to Him far more clearly and far more lovingly than a mother has a son on her lap, or than each one knows and loves himself." [1]

In November 2006, the CDF issued a Notification formally approved by Pope Benedict XVI censuring erroneous ideas about the Person of Jesus Christ that had been propagated by the Spanish Jesuit Fr. Jon Sobrino. Fr Sobrino is representative of a body of theology that has sought to separate what it believes to be the 'real' Jesus of history from what it considers the fabricated Jesus produced by the Church's Christological doctrine. In a section headed the "Self-Consciousness of Jesus," the Notification said:

"Jesus, the Incarnate Son of God, enjoys an intimate and immediate knowledge of his Father, a 'vision' that certainly goes beyond the vision of faith. The hypostatic union and Jesus' mission of revelation and redemption require the vision of the Father and the knowledge of his plan of salvation" (n.8).

In stating this, the Notification cited the passage quoted earlier from Pius XII's Mystici Corporis Christi which teaches that Christ was in possession of the Beatific Vision from the first moment of the Incarnation. To this end the Notification cited the Gospel of John: "Not that anyone has seen the Father except the one who is from God; he has seen the Father" (Jn 6:46), in conjunction with which it cited paragraphs 473 and 474 of the CCC which I referred to above.

St. Paul is emphatic in stating that the truth of the Christian faith stands or falls on the truth of the apostolic witness that Christ has risen from the dead: "And if Christ has not been raised, our preaching is useless and so is your faith. (1 Cor 15:14). If Fr. Flannery's assertion that Christ may not have known that he would rise from the dead is right, then the CCC's teaching that Christ "enjoyed in his human knowledge the fullness of understanding of the eternal plans he had come to reveal" would have to be regarded as possibly wrong. If the CCC could be wrong about this, then how could it be trusted to be right on anything else? The implications of Fr. Flannery's assertion that Jesus may not have been aware that he would rise from the dead undercuts the foundations of Christian faith in the Eternal Son of God made man.

2. Did Jesus Christ Explicitly Reveal the Blessed Trinity?

In 2005 Fr. Flannery published a book titled Keeping the Faith: Church of Rome or Church of Christ (Mercier Press, Cork) in which he speaks of biblical scholarship as though it were something that invariably contributes to our understanding of the Gospel message. After stating that "most Catholic Scripture scholars" do not see the Gospels "as accurate historical accounts of the life and teaching of Jesus" (p. 34), he goes on to say:

"A good illustration of this is the sentence of Matthew's Gospel, where Jesus is quoted as telling his disciples to 'baptise them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit'... The idea of Trinity as expressed in this sentence could not have been used by Jesus. It would have been completely foreign to Jewish belief and expression, and Jesus was a Jew. So it was clearly added much later to include and affirm the new teaching of the Trinity" (Keeping the Faith, p. 35).

The words of Jesus quoted above by Fr. Flannery would come from Chapter 28 of St. Matthews Gospel. Since Fr. Flannery did not bother to give the actual chapter and verse reference, it will be worthwhile if I reproduce the entire passage here:

"Then the eleven disciples went to Galilee, to the mountain where Jesus had told them to go. When they saw him, they worshiped him; but some doubted. Then Jesus came to them and said, "All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age" (Mt 28:16-20."

In this passage from St. Matthew's Gospel we have the parting words of Jesus to his Apostles prior to his Ascension. St. Luke in referring to Jesus' appearances to the Apostles between the time of his Resurrection and his Ascension says: "After his suffering, he presented himself to them and gave many convincing proofs that he was alive. He appeared to them over a period of forty days and spoke about the kingdom of God" (Acts 1:3). Fr. Flannery's assertion that the risen Lord was incapable of communicating over a period of 40 days the mystery concerning the Trinitarian life of God is to undermine the divine and supernatural foundations of the Christian faith.

Biblical scholarship can be a great aid to theology. Some strands of it, however, can fail to give due attention to the unity, inspiration, inerrancy and historicity of Sacred Scripture, thus detracting from the objective content of what is revealed in it. Form criticism and biblical criticism are not exact sciences. At best, the conclusions reached from applying the tools of scientific analysis to the interpretation of the Bible are more or less acceptable opinions depending on the extent to which they agree with the teaching of the Church. At worst, they are a vehicle whereby preconceived ideas are given legitimacy.

3. The Virginal Conception of Jesus and the Perpetual Virginity of Mary

After recounting in Keeping the Faith how for many years he had preached "about Mary as a woman of faith," Fr. Flannery goes on to say: "But now I have many questions about the use the church has made of Our Lady down through the centuries, and how issues like her virginity and her submissiveness, probably based on ancient myths rather than historical reality, have shaped attitudes and teaching about women and marriage, and have been used to oppress people, and restrict their freedom" (Keeeping the Faith, pp. 12-13). Reiterating his scepticism in regard to the historical truth of the New Testament witness to Mary's virginity, Fr. Flannery adds:

"Read in this way, the nativity story takes on a new and wonderful meaning. It is not about virginity. Rather it is a glorious statement about Jesus, his divine origin and purpose. But the other side of the coin is that it raises the possibility that Jesus was born in the same way as any other human being, as a result of the loving relationship between Mary and Joseph. Modern scholars, like Jerome Murphy-O' Connor seem to suggest, though, as far as I know, without stating it directly, that Mary might have had more children. That would be a fairly natural assumption if we accept that the story of the Virgin Birth is not historically accurate... The gospels do state quite specifically that Jesus had brothers..." (Keeping the Faith, p. 117).

Continuing to demean the Catholic dogmatic teaching on the Virginity of Mary, Fr. Flannery goes on to say:

"I know that suggesting Mary may not be a virgin in the physical sense would be interpreted by many people as degrading her. This is a clear indication that the old belief system about the superiority of celibacy and virginity is still very much in place...Imagine the difference it would have made if the ordinary Catholic had believed that Mary was a married woman, having normal sexual relations with her husband, and rearing her children" (Keeping the Faith, p. 119)

Concluding his discussion of Mary's Virginity and the need he sees for the Church to reconsider its dogmatic teaching, Fr. Flannery says: "Devotion to Mary is so tied up with the notion of virginity that it would be hard for people to let go. But I am confident that in the long run it would lead to a more real and fruitful devotion. It would be easier to relate to Mary, the married woman and the mother of a family" (Keeping the Faith, p. 121).

Fr. Flannery's approach to the infancy narratives in the Gospels of St. Matthew and St. Luke is an example of a type of biblical scholarship that has been condemned by the Magisterium (teaching authority of the Church which resides in the Pope and in the bishops in communion with him). A Catholic exegete (interpreter of the Sacred Scripture), following the principles of biblical interpretation laid down by the Church, will approach the Gospel references to the virginal conception of Jesus already convinced that this is a truth contained in the deposit of faith. Hence the question of doubt and scepticism as applied to the historicity of the Gospel's reference to the mystery of the virginal conception of Our Lord will not arise. An excellent example of such an integral approach to biblical exegesis and the question of Mary's virginity is to be found in the recently published Volume 3 of Pope Benedict XVI's Jesus of Nazareth: The Infancy Narratives (see in particular section headed 'Virgin Birth – Myth or Historical Truth, pp.51-57).

In March 2012, the International Theological Commission published an English-language document entitled Theology Today: Perspectives, Principles and Criteria. Its publication was authorised by Cardinal William Levada, who at the time was Prefect of the CDF. Under a section of the document headed 'The truth of God and the rationality of theology,' we read:

"Christianity claimed to teach the truth both about God and about human existence. Therefore, in their commitment to the truth, the Church Fathers deliberately distanced their theology from 'mythical' and 'political' theology, as the latter were understood at that time. Mythical theology told stories of the gods in a way that did not respect the transcendence of the divine; political theology was a purely sociological and utilitarian approach to religion which did not care about truth."

In asserting that the Church's teaching on Mary's virginity is "probably based on ancient myths rather than historical reality," Fr. Flannery is contradicting Catholic dogma. Basing himself on Sacred Scripture and on Sacred Tradition, Pope St. Gregory the Great said: "His [Christ's] origin is different, but his [human] nature is the same. Human usage and custom were lacking, but by divine power a Virgin conceived, a Virgin bore, and Virgin she remained." (Sermons 22:2 [A.D. 450]).

In reference to Mary's virginity, the CCC says: "Mary's virginity manifests God's absolute initiative in the Incarnation. Jesus has only God as Father. He was never estranged from the Father because of the human nature which he assumed. . . He is naturally Son of the Father as to his divinity and naturally son of his mother as to his humanity, but properly Son of the Father in both natures" (CCC, 503). Later the CCC adds: "Mary 'remained a virgin in conceiving her Son, a virgin in giving birth to him, a virgin in carrying him, a virgin in nursing him at her breast, always a virgin' (St. Augustine, Serm. 186, 1: PL 38, 999): with her whole being she is 'the handmaid of the Lord' (Lk 1:38)" (CCC, 510).

In her definitive teaching, the Catholic Church gives interpretations of the data of faith that are to be held in an absolute way. This implies that in the development of doctrine the principle of non-contradiction has to be observed. Cardinal Newman illustrated his deep awareness of this reality when he said that Gospel faith is "a definite deposit, a treasure common to all, one and the same in every age, conceived in set words, such as to admit of being received, preserved, transmitted." [2]

In both the Apostles' Creed and the Nicene Creed the Catholic Church professes its belief that Jesus "was born of the Virgin Mary." The Catholic Church interprets this statement of faith to mean that Our Lord was conceived in the womb of the Virgin Mary without the involvement of a human father, and that she remained a virgin in giving birth to him. This interpretation is "absolute" in that it cannot be reconciled with a contrary assertion positing that Mary did not remain a virgin either in the conception of our Lord, or in her giving birth to him.

To affirm as 'absolutely' true that the teaching regarding Jesus' virginal conception as recounted in the Gospels refers to a biological fact, does not mean that this interpretation exhausts all meaning that the revealed mystery contains. It does however demand that any subsequent development of doctrine pertaining to this mystery not be in contradiction with what is already held definitively in regard to it. In other words, as Blessed Pope John Paul II said in regard to this Gospel revelation and dogma of faith, it "deprives of any foundation several recent interpretations which understand the virginal conception not in a physical or biological sense, but only as symbolic or metaphorical..." [3]

The truths revealed by God and taught authoritatively by the Magisterium do not restrict the use of reason by the believer. Rather they challenge him or her to probe more deeply into what is being taught in order to discover the profound unity and coherence that exists between the various doctrines of the faith. In this way reason is itself elevated and empowered to reach depths of penetration into reality that would not otherwise be possible for it.

4. Did Jesus intend to found the Church?

In Keeping the Faith, Fr. Flannery asserted that Jesus may not have intended to found the Catholic Church. Here are some quotations to this effect:

"Many interesting and quite significant issues have been raised, for example the type of church, if any, Jesus intended to set up..." (Keeping the Faith, p. 21).

"The New Testament does not state clearly that Jesus intended to found a church. Even if he did intend that a church be founded to preserve his message, it is too much to conclude that the church we have today is the blueprint he had in mind. Jesus may well continue to be with his followers without necessarily being with the present system that makes up the institutional Catholic church" (Keeping the Faith, pp. 23-24).

"I now have difficulty with an assumption that I made automatically for a great part of my life, that in terms of teaching, Christ and the church are one and the same. I no longer accept as automatically true that the church we have now is necessarily according to the plan of God" (Keeping the Faith, p. 25).

"The weight of evidence suggests that Jesus didn't have anything as specific as a church in mind. He gave his followers a mission to go and preach the Kingdom of God, but he didn't set up or outline any kind of structure" (Keeping the Faith, pp. 35-36).

The foundation of the Church by the will of Christ is an article of Catholic faith. Vatican II teaches that "the Catholic Church was founded by Christ our Lord to bring salvation to all men." [4] It states that "the one mediator, Christ, established and ever sustains here on earth his holy Church," which is a "society structured with hierarchical organs." [5]

5. Did Jesus establish the ministerial priesthood?

In asserting in Keeping the Faith that Jesus did not establish the ministerial priesthood, Fr. Flannery said:

"I think it is valid to assert that Jesus did not establish a ministerial priesthood. As I outlined in an earlier chapter, it is not even very certain that he intended to set up a church, and if he did, what kind of church he had in mind" (Keeping the Faith, pp. 136-137).

In the Catholic Church there are seven sacraments which are: Baptism, Confirmation, Eucharist, Penance, Holy Orders, Matrimony and the Anointing of the Sick. Speaking of the sacraments, the CCC says: "The sacraments are efficacious signs of grace, instituted by Christ and entrusted to the Church, by which divine life is dispensed to us." (CCC 1131). Note how the CCC refers to the sacraments as having been "instituted by Christ." This doctrine was defined by the Council of Trent when it stated that "the sacraments of the new law were . . . all instituted by Jesus Christ our Lord." [6] It prefaced this teaching by saying that in proclaiming this doctrine it was "adhering to the teaching of the Holy Scriptures, to the apostolic traditions, and to the consensus . . . of the Fathers." [7]

The Catholic Church teaches that the ministerial priesthood, by which "the mission entrusted by Christ to his apostles continues to be exercised in the Church until the end of time" (CCC 1536), is conferred through the sacrament of Holy Orders which was instituted by Jesus Christ. The sacrament has three degrees: bishop, priest and deacon. It confers on bishops and priests the power to preside over and consecrate the Eucharist.

With the aid of a quotation from St. Ignatius of Antioch (c.35-110 AD) who was a disciple of St. John the Evangelist, the CCC in referring to the link between the ministerial priesthood and the structure of the Church says:

"Since the beginning, the ordained ministry has been conferred and exercised in three degrees: that of bishops, that of presbyters [priests], and that of deacons. The ministries conferred by ordination are irreplaceable for the organic structure of the Church: without the bishop, presbyters, and deacons, one cannot speak of the Church (cf. St. Ignatius of Antioch, Ad Trall. 3, 1)" (CCC 1593).

From among his disciples, Jesus appointed twelve men to be his Apostles. On them he conferred special authority to govern in his name: "Whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven" (Mt 18:18). In commissioning them to teach in his name, he said: "Make disciples...teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you" (Mt 28:19-20). Most importantly, on the first Holy Thursday night, Jesus instituted the Sacrament of the Eucharist through which he created a living re-presentation of his own death and resurrection. In so doing he commanded the Apostles to do what he had done, thereby conferring on them the power to confect the Eucharist: "Do this in remembrance of me" (Lk 22:19).

In conferring this power on the Apostles, Jesus was thereby conferring the ministerial priesthood on them. The bestowal of this priestly power was accompanied after the resurrection by the bestowal of the power to forgive sins: "Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any they are forgiven; if you retain the sins of any they are retained" (Jn 20: 22-23).

The Council of Trent stated that "if anyone says that by the words 'Do this in remembrance of me' (Lk 22:19; 1 Cor 11: 24) Christ did not establish the apostles as priests or that He did not order (ordinasse) that they and other priests should offer His body and blood, let him be anathema." [8] Regarding this "visible and external priesthood" established by Christ, the Council of Trent stated that "Sacred Scripture shows, and the tradition of the Catholic Church has always taught, that this was instituted by the same Lord our Saviour, and that the power of consecrating, offering, and administering His Body and Blood, as also the power of forgiving and retaining sins, was given to the apostles and to their successors in the priesthood." [9]

In his encyclical on the Eucharist titled Ecclesia De Eucharistia (hereafter EDE), Pope John Paul II stressed that the Eucharistic presence of Christ in his Church has been one of its essential elements from the beginning. He said: "Ever since Pentecost, when the Church, the People of the New Covenant, began her pilgrim journey towards her heavenly homeland, the Divine Sacrament has continued to mark the passing of her days, filling them with confident hope." [10] In conjunction with this, he reaffirmed Catholic doctrine regarding the link between the celebration of the Eucharist and the ministerial priesthood. He warned against tendencies to obscure "the necessity of the ministerial priesthood, grounded in apostolic succession" for any valid celebration of Eucharistic mystery. [11] Linking the ministerial priesthood to Apostolic Succession he said: "succession to the Apostles in the pastoral mission necessarily entails the sacrament of Holy Orders, that is, the uninterrupted sequence, from the very beginning, of valid episcopal ordinations." [12] After stating that the Eucharist "was entrusted by Jesus to the Apostles and has been handed down to us by them and by their successors," [13] Pope John Paul II went on in EDE to add that the ministerial priesthood "effectively came into being at the moment of the institution of the Eucharist." [14]

6. Women Priests?

In Keeping Faith, Fr. Flannery stated: "I am convinced that the present form of priesthood is one of the main bulwarks of the power structure that is oppressing the church. The office of priesthood needs to be opened up to married people and to women" ( p. 14).

Over the last few decades, the Magisterium of the Church has reaffirmed Catholic doctrine on the reservation of the ordained priesthood to men alone on many occasions including: i) Pope Paul VI, Response to His Grace the Most Reverend DR F.D Coggan, Archbishop of Canterbury, Concerning the Ordination of Women to the Priesthood, 1975; ii) Inter Insigniores, 1976; iii) Pope John Paul II, Apostolic Letter Mulieris Dignitatem (n. 26), 1988; iv) Pope John Paul II, Apostolic Exhortation Christifideles Laici (n. 51), 1988; v) Catechism of the Catholic Church (n. 1577), 1992; vi) Pope John Paul II, Apostolic Letter Ordinatio Sacerdotalis, 1994; vii) Response to Dubium, CDF, 1995.

Looked at merely from a sociological perspective, it is erroneous to assert that the Catholic Church acts unjustly in refusing to confer priestly ordination on women. Alongside the right of every person to choose his/her state in life is the parallel right of every free association or society to choose its own ministers and leaders according to the normative criteria laid down in its constitution. All one needs to do is read the statutes or by-laws of their local county council or football club to see that this is true.

Looked at from the theological perspective, the Catholic Church understands its doctrine on the reservation of the ordained priesthood to men alone as relating to something positively intended by God. According to Catholic doctrine, in establishing a hierarchically structured Church, Jesus Christ linked to it the ministerial priesthood which he conferred on the Apostles and willed that they in turn pass it on to other men. That the ministerial priesthood be conferred on men only is something intrinsic to what the Catholic Church understands to be the foundational will of Christ.

Regarding the teaching of Blessed Pope John Paul II on the question of women's ordination, in an ad limina speech to German bishops on 20 November 1999, he stated that "the doctrine that the priesthood is reserved to men, possesses by virtue of the Church's ordinary and universal magisterium, the character of infallibility which Lumen gentium speaks of and to which I gave juridical form in the Motu Proprio Ad tuendam fidem."

The whole of Blessed Pope John Paul II's address to the German bishops referred to above is interesting when read against the backdrop of demands for the Church to change its teaching on sexual morality and on the ordination of women. Such demands call for something contrary to the truth of being as rooted in the order of creation, and to the truth of the order of redemption as rooted in Christ's spousal relationship to his Bridal Church. In the second century St. Justin Martyr warned against the dire consequences of seeking to negate the twin orders of creation and redemption.

7. Papal Infallibility – Fact or Fiction?

In reference to the Catholic dogma of Papal Infallibility, Fr. Flannery says: "It is difficult to avoid the suspicion that papal infallibility was defined, in 1870 at the First Vatican Council, as an exercise in power, in an effort to increase the power of the papacy" (Keeeping the Faith, p. 54). Later, in outlining what he believes to be necessary criteria that must be met before a statement by a pope can be regarded as infallible, Fr. Flannery says:

"The pope needs to be seen to have received the opinion of the church. And then, when the pope has pronounced on the particular topic, the pronouncement, in turn, needs to be received by the faithful. If either of these conditions is not present, then infallibility is impossible" (Keeeping the Faith, p. 57).

By asserting that the binding force of papal teaching is dependent on its having to be "received by the faithful," Fr. Flannery was contradicting Catholic doctrine. In the teaching of Vatican II we read: "The Roman Pontiff, by reason of his office as Vicar of Christ, namely, and as pastor of the entire Church, has full, supreme and universal power over the whole Church, a power which he can always exercise unhindered" (Lumen gentium, 22). Consistent with this and in regard to the supreme teaching authority of the Pope, Vatican II went on to add: "And therefore, his definitions, of themselves, and not from the consent of the Church, are justly styled irreformable...and therefore they need no approval of others, nor do they allow an appeal to any other judgement" (Lumen gentium, 25).

8. Reality Magazine – spreading dissent

In 2008, Fr. Flannery authored a book titled Fragments of Reality (Fragments hereafter), which was a compilation of selected pieces from his regular column in Reality magazine. That Reality magazine actually published articles critical and contradictory of Catholic doctrine is all the more deplorable, given that it was sold in parishes throughout Ireland and targeted largely at families still practicing the faith.

In regard to the Church's teaching that women cannot be ordained to the priesthood, he said: "I don't have any doubt that there is no theological or scriptural basis for this position, but that it is purely a social and institutional construct hiding a fairly barefaced and primitive desire for male domination" (Fragments, p.9). Later he added: "Most scholars agree that Jesus did not ordain any priests...This fact, of course, is significant in relation to the debate about the ordination of women. If Jesus did not ordain anybody, then it is not important that he did not ordain women" (Fragments, p.61).

In Fragments, Fr. Flannery relativised definitive Catholic teaching on apostolic succession and the origin and nature of the ministerial priesthood, as well as the meaning of the term 'Transubstantiation' as descriptive of what the Catholic Church believes happens at the consecration of the Mass.

After posing to himself the question as to what Jesus "would make of all the different expressions of religious belief we have in the world now," Fr. Flannery went on to answer as follows:

"I don't think he would be impressed by the multiplicity of Christian churches, all claiming to be the true church that he founded, and the many points of law and doctrine that we quarrel over. I can't imagine him devoting too much energy to the exact meaning of the word 'transubstantiation,' or getting caught up in a debate about ministers of one denomination being more truly priests and descendants of the apostles than those of another" (Fragments, p.20).

In the passage just quoted, Fr. Flannery is suggesting that the Catholic Church's doctrinal teaching in these areas is not expressive of the teaching of Christ, or if it is, that it has no ultimate significance for the way in which God has made provision for our salvation. It does not matter which of these interpretations of Fr. Flannery's words we adopt, they are both incompatible with Catholic doctrine.

Over the years, Reality Magazine occasionally published articles either directly or indirectly questioning the truth of the moral doctrine contained in Pope Paul VI's encyclical Humanae Vitae (hereafter HV).. In this great encyclical, Pope Paul VI defended the integral truth about marriage at a time when it was coming under increased pressure from the rise of secular humanism and the spread of contraceptive practices and their associated mentality.

In HV, Pope Paul VI pointed out that "Marital love reveals its true nature and nobility when it is considered in its supreme origin, God, Who is Love (cf. 1 Jn 4:8)"(HV, n. 8). He was particularly concerned to defend the truth regarding the inseparable connection between the unitive and procreative meanings of the marital act. In doing so he condemned contraception, direct sterilization and procured abortion as intrinsically evil (see HV 14 and CCC 2370). He warned that rejection of this moral teaching would have dire consequences for individuals and nations. In particular, he warned that the spread of contraceptive practices would lead to "conjugal infidelity and the general lowering of morality" (HV 17).

Rather than trying to transpose for his readers the various dimensions of natural moral law and integral Christian humanism which underpinned Humanae Vitae, Fr. Flannery chose instead to discredit the teaching by holding up as luminaries theologians who dissented from the teaching such as the late Fr. Bernard Haring (cf. Fragments, p.67). Speaking disparagingly of the doctrine of Humanae Vitae, Fr. Flannery said: "How much pain the church would have been spared if people in Rome had finally given up the hard line'" (Fragments, p. 67).

Chastising the Catholic Church for its refusal to bless attempted second marriages by persons divorced from a living lawful spouse with whom their first marriage was valid, Fr. Flannery said: "The logic of this is that any form of blessing given to such a couple will be confused with the sacrament, and will serve to debase and devalue the church teaching on the sacredness of marriage. From a legal point of view this has certain logic, but I'm afraid that pastorally it is cruel and unnecessary" (Fragments, p.33).

Whilst there are legal (canonical) reasons why the Catholic Church cannot bless attempted second marriages by persons divorced from a living lawful spouse, the main reason however is doctrinal. In regard to this, the CCC says that people entering such invalid second marriages are "in a situation of public and permanent adultery," since their attempted remarriage "contravenes the plan and law of God as taught by Christ" (CCC, nn. 1665, 2384).

In regard to homosexuality, Fr. Flannery says: "I honestly do not think it is either fair or realistic to expect all people of a homosexual orientation to remain celibate all their lives, and to refrain from any form of physical sexual expression. When this is made a condition for their belonging to the church, it is no wonder that so many walk sadly away. In the present regime, the church has taken an increasingly hard line on this" (Fragments, p.58).

Here Fr. Flannery has misrepresented the teaching of the Church. Since Christ came not "to call the righteous, but sinners" (Mt 19:13), the Church does not teach that Catholics with a homosexual orientation who engage in homosexual acts cannot belong to the Church. Like all members of the Church, people in such a situation are in a state of objective sin and as such are called to repentance.

The Church does teach that homosexual acts are disordered and intrinsically evil. It teaches the same thing about contraceptive acts, adultery and child sexual abuse. The call of the Church is the same to all: conform your conscience to the truth, turn away from sin by striving to change your behaviour.

After calling for the creation in Ireland of "a church that is inclusive" (Fragments, p. 126), Fr. Flannery went on to call on the Irish Bishops to revolt against the Vatican. He said:

"This development in pastoral practice [church that is inclusive] will not come from the Vatican. The authorities there will continue to tell us that, among others, people in second relationships after their first marriage has broken up, or gay people in a sexual union, are in a state of serious sin, and cannot receive the sacraments unless they promise to give up their behaviour. We must not wait for a lead from there. The bishops could act on it...If the Irish bishops proclaimed that all Christian communities must be inclusive and that no person would be refused membership or sacraments, there would be little or nothing that the Vatican could do about it. A unified body of bishops making a statement like that would be a wonderful message of compassion from the church. If all the Irish bishops could not agree on this message of inclusivity, then maybe a number of them together could do so" (Fragments, p. 127).

Just as the majority of English bishops under Henry VIII betrayed the Pope and the Catholic Church, so in our own time in the pages of Reality magazine, Fr. Flannery had no compunction about calling on the Irish Bishops to betray the Church. If St. Oliver Plunkett and Blessed Mary Bermingham Ball had followed such "pastoral" advice, they might have lived a little longer and not have had to endure the agonising deaths inflicted on them, but if they had done so, they would never have had their names inscribed in the annals of Irish martyrs.

While the struggle to overcome sin and to strive after virtue can be difficult, even entailing frequent falls, we are however aided in this struggle by God's grace in the Sacrament of Penance. So, while the Church is a merciful Mother, "embracing sinners in its bosom" as Vatican II stated, [15] it cannot however in its teaching compromise moral truth by calling evil anything other than by its proper name.

9. Using the Clerical Sexual Abuse Scandal to Undermine Catholic Moral Doctrine

In 2009 Fr. Flannery edited a book titled Responding to the Ryan Report (RRP hereafter) which was a compilation of essays dealing with the clerical sex abuse scandal in Ireland. In his introduction to the book, Fr. Flannery signaled his ideological commitment when he stated that one of the assumptions to be "challenged in this volume" is "that Catholic Church teaching on sexuality is a true reflection of the teaching of Christ, and is adequate for the present age" (RRP, p. 10).

Fr. Flannery entitled his own essay in RRP as Some Ideas on a New Approach to Catholic Sexual Teaching. He outlined what he believes are necessary "basic changes" the Church needs to make by saying: "So the first basis of a new theology of sexuality would be a positive acceptance of the beauty and goodness not just of our sexual nature but of sexual activity in relationships...It would take the church a long time to come around to really believing that sex is good and beautiful, part of the wonder of God's creation..." (RRP, p. 165).

He continued by saying, "The second basic change would be to break the inherent connection, long part of traditional Catholic teaching, between sexual activity and marriage. To continue to hold that sex outside marriage is always sinful is in my view a mistake" (RRP, p. 165). He added: "Breaking away from the rigid connection between sexual activity and marriage would also give us a way out of the bind we find ourselves in with couples who are involved in second relationships. The failure of the church to respond to the many people who are getting married for the second time is scandalous" (RRP, p. 167). Later in the book, he repeats his call for the Church to "break the rigid connection between sexual activity and marriage, allowing for appropriate sexual relationships between people who are not married, when the quality of the relationship merits it" (RRP, p. 169).

The third change that Fr. Flannery calls upon the Church to adopt is that "we no longer teach that the use of artificial contraception in a loving relationship is sinful" (RRP, p. 169). He thinks that if the Church were to change its teaching on contraception it would then be better positioned to influence contemporary sexual mores. He says: "If we can accept that relationships of love can happen also outside of marriage, and can be appropriately expressed in a sexual way, then we will be in a position to influence the debate and have a voice in shaping the accepted moral ethics of society" (RRP, p. 166).

In RRP, Fr. Flannery postulates that since Catholic teaching on marriage, sex and procreation was framed in a time when the average life-span was much shorter than it is today, it therefore needs to be critically reviewed. He says:

"It makes no sense to expect that a teaching, which was framed when life was so much shorter, and when bearing children was the main purpose of marriage, would be still meaningful when circumstances have so dramatically changed...Commitment, dedication, fidelity – these are essential qualities of a relationship, and they are as important today as they ever were. But we change so much in the course of a lifetime that it is unrealistic to expect that every couple will continue to love and cherish each other until death. As long as we hold this rigid notion of life-long fidelity as the essential norm we will inevitably be excluding many people from full participation in the church, and branding them as failures. Undoubtedly keep it as an ideal, which of course it is, but do not make it a condition for full membership of the church" (RRR, p. 166).

Fr. Flannery is wrong to brand as a "rigid notion" the Catholic Church's insistence that validly contracted marriages call for life-long fidelity. He seems oblivious to the fact that Catholic teaching on sexual and marital morality is increasingly being vindicated by findings in the social and medical sciences. Such an outcome is only to be expected given that the Church's moral doctrine in this area upholds profound and deep truths about the goods of marriage and the dignity of the human person. [16]

Significant is the fact that an increasing number of economists and other social scientists are saying that the problems Europe is now experiencing with aging and imploding populations, as well as with faltering economies and rising levels of violence, will not lend themselves to long-term resolution unless there is a rediscovery of the objective moral principles underpinning marital stability and esteem for children as a gift to married couples and to society.

Reason indicates that marriage is not the product of some causeless and purposeless evolution. Nor can it be regarded as mythic putty, whose form and purpose can be redesigned at will. The natural law points to marriage as a lifelong union between one man and one woman to the exclusion of all others. It also points to an intrinsic link between marriage and human procreation. The two meanings of the marital act, the unitive and procreative, were generally accepted as self-evident truths throughout most of the history of Western civilisation up until relatively recent times.

The duality of the sexes is willed by God – "male and female he created them" (Gen 1:27). In marriage, a man and a woman are called to give themselves as an irrevocable gift to each other: "Therefore a man leaves his father and his mother and clings to his wife" (Gen 1:24). Like God, man and woman together in marriage are called to be a source of new life: "Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth and subdue it" (Gen 1:28). God inscribes this capacity of husband and wife to cooperate with him in bringing new human beings into existence in the act of marital sexual union. This "one flesh"(Gen 2:24) union expresses the full import of what is entailed in the marital covenant, whereby the husband and wife freely consent to the giving of themselves as an irrevocable gift to each other in the full truth of their masculinity and femininity.

These goods which God has inscribed in marriage – the faithful love and indissoluble communion of life rooted in the natural complementarity that exists between man and woman, and which is exclusive and open to new life – are all an expression of the creative love and wisdom of God. Respect for these goods is essential for a correct understanding of Jesus' definitive teaching on marriage: "What therefore God has joined together, let no man put asunder" (Mt 19:6).

Christian marriage differs from marriage in general in that Christ has raised it to the dignity of a sacrament. This means that marriage between two Christians is a sign of Christ's life-giving love for His Church. Coupled with this, the central mystery of Christian faith is that God is Three and God is One. Through Christ, God has revealed himself as an eternal exchange of love between the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. This revelation of the mystery of the Blessed Trinity has a profound bearing on our Christian understanding of marriage.

The CCC teaches that "God's works reveal who he is in himself; the mystery of his inmost being enlightens our understanding of all his works" (n. 236). Hence, we should look for the deepest meaning of marriage in God's revelation of Himself as Father, Son and Holy Spirit. In this regard, Blessed Pope John Paul II stated that "through the communion of persons which man and woman form right from the beginning," they are thus constituted as "an image of the inscrutable divine communion of persons." [17]

Through the mutual exchange of the gift of self in the marital covenant, the husband and wife reflect the mystery of God's inner life; while through the procreation and the education of their children, they participate in the creative activity of God. The best analogy that can do justice to the way in which the two meanings of the marital act coexist together in the being of the couple is to compare them to the Holy Trinity in whom union and generation coincide perfectly. They do not coexist together in the "one-flesh" sexual communion of the married couple as do the unity of two material things or processes that may be separated by way of a mechanical or chemical intervention. [18]

The Catholic Church exists to serve the world by pointing out the path it must travel on the way of salvation. To overcome the forces conducive to the spread of the culture of death, it is imperative that the truth about marriage be defended. In his great encyclical titled Evangelium Vitae (Gospel of Life), Blessed Pope John Paul II said: "It is an illusion to think we can build a true culture of human life if we do not...accept and experience sexuality and love and the whole of life according to their true meaning and their close inter-connection" (n. 97). On another occasion he alluded to more or less the same reality when he said:

"When the truth and meaning of sexuality is undermined by a secularised mentality, the Church must increasingly teach and uphold God's wise and loving plan for conjugal love. When 'social life ventures onto the shifting sands of complete relativism' (Evangelium vitae, n. 20), the moral and spiritual care of the family is a challenge which cannot be ignored: it practically defines the Church's pastoral mission." [19]

In RRP, Fr. Flannery contradicts Catholic teaching on the authority the Pope has to specify the content of Catholic doctrine. He says: "In a previous book, Keeping the Faith, I have outlined the principal [sic] that for church teaching to be fully valid, it be not only preached by the church authorities but generally accepted by the bulk of the faithful. If we apply this to artificial contraception, it is obvious that its use cannot be considered sinful. If the church could accept this, it might begin to actively encourage its use in the most responsible way possible" (RRP, p. 168).

In fostering dissent against the Catholic Church's teaching on marriage and related questions such as the intrinsically evil nature of contraceptive acts, Fr. Flannery and others of like-mind are acting as protagonists of the culture of death.


Fr. Flannery has fallen into multiple errors. None of us is immune from such danger. All who love Christ and his Church should pray that Fr. Flannery and any other members of the ACP who hold to his heterodox ideas will turn back to the truth. Let us pray also that people everywhere will have the opportunity to hear and understand the beauty and reasonableness of the entire corpus of Catholic doctrine.


[1]  Pope Pius XII, Mystici Corporis, n. 23

[2]  Cardinal Newman, Parochial and Plain Sermons, II, Sermon 22, The Gospel, a Trust Committed to Us.

[3]  Pope John Paul II, Virginal Conception Is Biological Fact, L'Osservatore Romano, 17 July 1996.

[4]  Vatican II, Inter Mirifica, n. 3

[5]  Vatican II, Lumen Gentium, n. 8.

[6]  Council of Trent, Decree Concerning the Sacraments (1547): DS 1601; cf. CCC 1114

[7]  Council of Trent, Decree Concerning the Sacraments (1547): DS 1600; cf. CCC 1114

[8]  Council of Trent, Session 22, Canon 2, (DS 1752).

[9]  Council of Trent, Session 23 (1563), Doctrine on the Sacrament of Order, ch. 1, (DS 1764).

[10]  Ecclesia De Eucharistia, 1.

[11]  Ibid. n. 10

[12]  Ibid. n.28

[13]  Ibid. n.27

[14]  Ibid. n.31

[15]  Vatican II, Lumen gentium 8

[16]  On this point I highly recommend Mary Eberstadt's book Adam and Eve after the Pill: Paradoxes of the Sexual Revolution (Ignatius Press, San Francisco, 2012).

[17]  Blessed Pope John Paul II, Original Unity of Man and Woman, General Audience, November 14, 1979.

[18]  See Bartholomew Kiely, S.J. in Science and Morality, L'Osservatore Romano, 13/4/87

[19]  Pope John Paul II, L'Osservatore Romano, 19/2/97.

© Eamonn Keane


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Eamonn Keane

Eamonn Keane is married with five children. He studied Commerce and Education at the National University of Ireland and Religious Education at the Catholic Teachers Training College in Sydney, Australia. He currently serves as Head of Social Science at Sydney's Redfield College... (more)


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