In 2012, Tony Flannery, an Irish priest and religious writer, found out the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, the Vatican’s watchdog group, was displeased with some of his writings about the church.
In a David versus Goliath type tale, Flannery was suspended and forbidden to return to ministry unless he agreed to publish a statement saying he accepted the moral teachings of the church, including a statement that women should not be ordained priests. After a year of back-and-forth with the Vatican, Flannery went public with the matter in January 2013. A few months later he wrote a book about the experience, “A Question of Conscience.” In March, Pope Francis became the leader of the Roman Catholic Church.
“Suddenly I find that now, from being on the fringe of the church with views that were not acceptable, I now find myself in the situation where I’m almost in total agreement with Pope Francis and everything that he is saying,” Flannery told “St. Louis on the Air” host Don Marsh on Wednesday. “My basic positions and the basic reforms that I would be looking for in the Catholic Church would be very similar to the type of ones that Pope Francis is attempting to achieve.”
Changing the church’s leadership does not immediately change the church’s positions, or mean that Flannery has been reinstated, though. But it’s a start, Flannery said.
“Now we have a pope who, it seems to me and I think correctly, does not want to act in a totalitarian fashion, but wants to create a climate in which the voices of people are heard,” Flannery said. He said Francis is moving to bring the Second Vatican Council into reality.
“In the 1960s, there was a three-year council of the Catholic Church, Second Vatican Council, which was a reforming council,” Flannery said. “It laid out a new vision for the Catholic Church, but, unfortunately, the council documents were never fully implemented because two popes, Pope John Paul II followed by Pope Benedict, were very traditional popes who tended to bring the church back to pre-Vatican Two days.”
The Second Vatican Council did make some changes: the common language of worshippers replaced Latin during Mass; priests turned to face the congregation; nuns traded in large habits for clothing more similar to those they served; those in religious orders began taking on causes, such as civil rights and the war in Vietnam; attitudes toward other religions shifted, becoming more encompassing of those who shared a common belief in God to the point where the Catholic Church even acknowledged its Jewish roots.
Some in the church want additional changes. Instead of changes in doctrine, Flannery said he would like to see changes in how the church makes decisions.
“If we have a good process and open process, a non-totalitarian process, then I believe that the spirit of God will walk through that and appropriate doctrines and appropriate pastoral practices will emerge,” Flannery said. “Whether that will mean the ordination of women or not, really only time will tell on that. That’s not something that will come quickly in the Catholic Church. I believe it will come; I don’t expect to see it in my lifetime. Ultimately, it’s a matter of justice and equality, and I don’t think the Catholic Church can continue excluding women from decision-making in the church because that’s becoming more and more an anachronism in the modern world.”
One more change Flannery would like to see: the demotion of Cardinal Raymond Burke.
Burke, the former archbishop of St. Louis, recently compared Francis’ leadership to a “ship without a rudder.” Burke now leads the Vatican’s highest court, the Apostolic Signatura, but his two-year term will soon come to an end and is not expected to be renewed.
“It would appear that he has fallen from grace,” Flannery said of Burke. “It hasn’t been finally decided yet, but it seems fairly certain now that he is going to be demoted from his position. That is a significant move.
“I suppose for somebody in my position it is ironic because for years we have had people like Cardinal Burke reprimanding people of liberal views in the church and telling us that we must obey the Holy Father in the era of Pope John Paul and Pope Benedict. And now we find he himself is very openly attacking the present Holy Father, Pope Francis, because he doesn’t agree with some of the things that Francis is doing. I’d be pleased if Francis does demote him because I think the way that he is behaving is quite disgraceful.”
In December, Burke was removed from the influential Congregation of Bishops. Burke drew national attention 10 years ago when he said he would deny Communion to then presidential hopeful John Kerry for his stance on abortion.
Locally, Burke clashed with St. Stanislaus Kostka Church, excommunicating the church’s board members and priest in a fight over the church’s property and assets. In 2005, then Archbishop Burke announced his intentions to disband and sell the church, which was established in 1880 as a Catholic parish serving St. Louis’ Polish community. Two years ago, a St. Louis circuit court judge ruled that control of the church’s assets belonged to the church, not the archdiocese.
Burke, who is known for his conservative views within the Catholic Church, is “not an exception in terms of his views,” Flannery said.
“People of conservative views are as entitled to be in the church, as entitled to have their voices heard as, say, people like myself. But there is a way in which this needs to be done: There has to be great respect for each other and there has to be a great listening process. Some of the latest statements that have come from Cardinal Burke seem to me to be inappropriate in that context for somebody in his position.”
The church also needs to do a better job of listening to those who are not “old men,” Flannery said.
“Quite obviously, old men carry a lot of wisdom and experience. They only represent one element of the whole community of believers around the world. Certainly young voices need to be in there, but, equally important, female voices need to be in there.”
People of Conscience: A Conversation with Father Tony Flannery
- When: 7 p.m. Nov. 13, 2014
- Where: St. Stanislaus Kostka Church, 1413 N. 20th St., St. Louis
- More information
“St. Louis on the Air” discusses issues and concerns facing the St. Louis area. The show is produced by Mary Edwards and Alex Heuer and hosted by veteran journalist Don Marsh. Follow us on Twitter: @STLonAir.