03 June 2012

Creating problems that may increase apathy and antipathy towards the Church

Vatican censorship ... the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith has censured at least five Irish priests in recent months (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Patrick Comerford

In a couple of days
They come and take me away
But the press let the story leak.
And when the radical priest
come to get me released
we was all on the cover of Newsweek

Paul Simon’s 1972 song, ‘Me and Julio down by the schoolyard,’ recalls the story of Daniel Ellsberg, a government employee who leaked secret papers on the Vietnam War. The “radical priest” who visited Ellsberg in jail was Daniel Berrigan, the anti-war Jesuit, and that visit made the front cover of Newsweek in the early 1970s.

The Berrigan brothers Dan and the late Philip, were radical priests and peace activists throughout the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s. Dan Berrigan developed a reputation as a radical, working actively against poverty and on changing the relationship between priests and laypersons. Philip, who later left the priesthood and married, was a member of the Josephites, an order set up to work with Black Americans against racism and segregation.

The Berrigan brothers were regarded as being so radical that they were both on the FBI’s “10 most wanted” list in the 1970s. They were proud of their Irish ancestry, and when they visited Ireland no-one was surprised that Dan was a Jesuit. Radical priests in those years might have been Jesuits – but hardly ever were they Passionists, Redemptorists or Capuchins.

In the Ireland of the 1950s and the 1960s, the Redemptorists were known for their missions and – on their own admission, on one of the own websites – as “hellfire and brimstone preachers.” The Passionists, based in Mount Argus, had a similar reputation. The Capuchins, who followed a stricter rule of life than other Franciscans, were associated with Father Mathew’s temperance movement and a conservative piety that found an expression in devotion to the Italian priest Padre Pio.

It must have been a surprise to many with memories of rural pieties of the 1950s and the 1960s when the Vatican silenced or disciplined five priests in Ireland for what are regarded in Rome as radical theological views.

None of these men hold unorthodox views when it comes to the essential doctrines. Indeed, they are conservative by many standards and their beliefs about the Trinity, the Incarnation, the Passion, Death, Resurrection and Ascension of Christ, and their respect for the Bible as the word of God are above reproach.

Reality ... the popular monthly magazine that has been censured by the Vatican

But in recent months the Vatican has censured five priests – Father Brian D’Arcy, Father Tony Flannery, Father Gerard Moloney, Father Seán Fagan and Father Owen O’Sullivan – simply for saying what most Roman Catholics actually think about five key issues:

● Clerical sexual abuse of children
● Contraception
● Compulsory clerical celibacy
● The ordination of women to the priesthood
● The place for gay and lesbian Christians within the Church.

The real ‘Father Trendy’

Father Brian D’Arcy ... speaks of himself as a voice for people who have no voice at all

Father Brian D’Arcy is probably the best-known Passionist in Ireland. As a young priest in his 20s, he began writing about the showband scene in teen and pop magazines. He went on writing a weekly column, entitled “A Little Bit of Religion,” in the popular tabloid, the Sunday World. Some suggest that his style inspired the comedian Dermot Morgan’s characters Father Trendy and Father Ted Crilly.

Two years ago, when Pope Benedict XVI visited Britain, he described the Pope as “a sophisticated thinker who understands the relationship between faith and logic.” Father D’Arcy has not written about contraception in the last 20 years “because, in my view, people have made up their minds about it anyway.”

But he has publicly opposed the Vatican’s discipline or rules on clerical celibacy, which are not dogmatic or doctrinal teaching, and has indicated he believes the Vatican should lift its prohibition on debating the ordination of women. After the publication of the Murphy Report in 2010, he accused the Vatican of hiding behind legal procedures in not dealing with allegations of child abuse.

I find it hard to imagine the Pope as a regular reader of the Sunday World. But someone complained to the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF) about Father Darcy’s articles two years ago and the headlines they carried. The weekly Tablet revealed in April that Father D’Arcy has been instructed to submit his writings and broadcasts to an official censor. The letter of censure came from the CDF, the successor to the mediaeval Inquisition.

The Provincial Superior of the Passionist in Ireland, Father Pat Duffy, said Cardinal William Levada, the Prefect of the CDF, had expressed “concerns” to Father Ottaviano D’Egidio, the Passionist Superior General in Rome, about “some aspects” of Father D’Arcy’s writings. Father Duffy told Father D’Arcy in March 2011 that the CDF concerns were prompted by a headline on one of his articles in the Sunday World, which included a letter from a reader on homosexuality.

Father D’Arcy has said in the past that some of the blame for the sexual abuse of children must go back to Rome, and he argues that if there is secrecy and no questioning within the Roman Catholic Church, then no child will be protected.

He has spoken of himself as a voice for people who have no voice at all. Now when his newspaper articles concern matters of faith and morals, they are checked by a theologian. But he has said that if he ever has to stop writing about issues such as homosexuality and the abuse of children he would have to consider leaving the priesthood.

Father Duffy, who is based in Mount Argus in Dublin, stresses that Father D’Arcy is complying fully with the “advice” of the CDF, and told The Irish Times: “He hasn’t been silenced. He is a priest in good standing.”

Realism in ‘Reality’

Father Tony Flannery ... told to “take time out for spiritual and theological reflection”

Father Tony Flannery is a Redemptorist priest who has been silenced by the Vatican because of his criticism of the way his Church has handled child sexual abuse cases, and because he favours allowing a discussion of the ordination of women. He expressed these views openly in a regular column in the Redemptorist monthly magazine, Reality.

Father Flannery was summoned to Rome in March, when he met Father Michael Brehl, the Canadian Superior General of the Redemptorists, who had been summoned to appear before Cardinal Levada. The Prefect of the CDF – who holds a post previously held by Pope Benedict XVI when he was Cardinal Josef Ratzinger – was concerned about the orthodoxy of views expressed by Father Flannery in Reality, and about his active role in the Association of Catholic Priests (ACP).

Father Gerard Moloney ... Redemptorist, editor banned from writing on a number of issues in his own magazine

Father Flannery and the editor of Reality, Father Gerard Moloney, another Redemptorist, were banned from writing on a number of issues. Father Flannery was told to withdraw from the ACP and was told to “take time out for spiritual and theological reflection,” including six weeks in a monastery, a period expected to end next month (July).

‘Grown-up answers’

Does Morality Change? ... Father Seán Fagan has tried to offer grown-up answers to their grown-up questions

Father Seán Fagan is not the sort of priest who could be categorised as a young radical either. Forty years ago, he helped produce the standard English translation of the Vatican decree on training priests, Optatam totius. He has written: “I am passionately in love with the Church which brings me so much of the endless compassion of Christ; the kind strong gentleness of Mary the Mother of Jesus; the consolation of God himself to help us through the many dark nights of the soul.”

Father Fagan, who is 84, is the author of three well-received books on theology and ethics – Has Sin Changed? (1977), Does Morality Change? (1997) and What Happened to Sin? (2008). He says all he has tried to do is to offer his readers grown-up answers to their grown-up questions.

When he was criticised by bishops, 14 theologians published a collection of essays, Thirsting for Truth, as a tribute to him. After the Murphy Report, he proposed an inquiry into clerical sexual abuse in all Roman Catholic dioceses. But when he suggested women and married men might be ordained as priests, all unsold copies of his latest book were bought off the shelves by his religious order, the Marists, and – after a lifetime of service to his Church – this elderly priest who is going blind was asked to give an undertaking not to write again.

Father Owen O’Sullivan ... moved to another parish

In 2010, Father Owen O’Sullivan, a Capuchin priest, was banned by the Vatican from publishing any more writings after he suggested the previous March in the Furrow that homosexuality is “simply a facet of the human condition.” He argued that “nature is a loose peg on which to hang a theology of human relationships.”

The CDF told the Capuchin secretary general in Rome that Father O’Sullivan was no longer to write for publication without first having his articles approved by it, and he was then moved to a another parish.

‘Saddened but not surprised’

These are not dissident priests. In many cases, they are not even questioning priests. They are marked more by a fresh approach to the questions that many people in their Church are already asking.

The Association of Catholic Priests, whose 800 members are ordinary priests, has described these Vatican actions as “heresy-hunting” and says they “may have the unintended effect of exacerbating a growing perception of a significant ‘disconnect’ between the Irish Church and Rome.”

The well-known Jesuit Father Peter McVerry says he is “saddened but not surprised at Rome’s actions.” But, he says: “Jesus too incurred the wrath of the religious authorities of his time.”

I wonder whether the Church of Ireland has been totally open to listening to our difficult priests and theologians. We have dealt in the past with issues such as celibacy, contraception and the ordination of women; we have not always dealt wholesomely with questions of child abuse when they have arisen; and last month’s debate in the General Synod shows we still lack a lot of charity and clarity when it comes to dealing with opposing views on homosexuality.

There is little to gloat about or to be smug about as we watch problems mount up for a sister Church that is both a kind and generous friend to the Church of Ireland and a cherished neighbour and ecumenical partner. Indeed, we ought to be concerned that these problems may hasten the growth of antipathy towards all branches of the Church, with the danger that many good but exhausted people will simply turn away, pronouncing: “A plague on all your houses.”

Cardinal William Levada ... holds a Vatican post previously held by Pope Benedict XVI

Meanwhile, in his Maundy Thursday sermon in Saint Peter’s Basilica in Rome, Pope Benedict XVI warned that the Roman Catholic Church would not tolerate priests speaking out against official teaching. His words echo those ascribed by TS Eliot to Henry II as he worried about Archbishop Thomas à Becket of Canterbury: “Will no one rid me of this turbulent priest?”

Canon Patrick Comerford is Lecturer in Anglicanism and Liturgy in the Church of Ireland Theological Institute and a canon of Christ Church Cathedral, Dublin. This essay was first published in the June 2012 editions of the Church Review (Dublin and Glendalough) and the Diocesan Magazine (Cashel and Ossory).

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