With Father Flannery’s writings over the direction of the Catholic Church provoking intimidation from the Catholic hierarchy, Isobel Fergus speaks to him about the censure

Father Tony Flannery has caused tension in the Catholic Church after making headlines all over the world over his disagreements with the Vatican. Agree or disagree, his views have brought to life the divide in the church between liberals and conservatives on key teachings. The topics that have caused the most controversy are sexual teaching, the ordination of women and homosexuality.

Recently there has been controversy over what Father Flannery believes about the origins of the priesthood and the Eucharist.  “I think the main thing that drew attention to him was that he had said that he didn’t think the priesthood was founded by Christ, that it was a group somewhere down the line, and that would be a very central issue,” says Petra Conroy from Catholic Comment. Father Flannery took to the Association of Catholic Priests’ website to clarify his beliefs on this, stating: “I believe and accept that the Eucharist was given to us by Christ Himself. I believe and accept that the call to Priesthood, indeed to all our Church’s ministries, comes from God through Jesus Christ.”

There has also been speculation about whether he is actually facing excommunication with the Irish Catholic newspaper saying the Vatican said there was “no question” of this. However, looking at quotes of the letter from the Vatican, it could be interpreted that he could ultimately face excommunication though it’s not stated in plain terms.

Father Flannery has been writing for the Redemptorist magazine Reality for the past 15 years, often writing very frank articles. So why in February it suddenly became a big issue for the Vatican, is quite baffling. In February, Father Flannery was told to come to Rome immediately. “I was presented with two documents; one was a page with four quotations from different articles that I had written in Reality over the years and then a second page was a list of sanctions and that began a period of about 4-5 months of negotiations; never direct negotiations with me and the Vatican because they never spoke to me but all the time through the head of the Redemptorists,” says Father Flannery. He joined the Church when he was just 17 and has served as a priest ever since. It is hard to believe that at 66, the institution that he had devoted his life to would not talk to him directly.

In June, after giving a statement covering the issues, Father Flannery was allowed back to minister. This was only until September, when a further document came looking for four further inserts into the statement. “That’s where the real problem began because they brought in new issues that hadn’t been in it before, issues around the ordination of women and issues around church sexual teaching and they proved to be the breaking point,” says Father Flannery.

What Father Flannery has tried to emphasise is that he knows that change will not happen over night but he is aiming for open discussion to feature more prominently in the church. According to Conroy: “There will always be a place for discussion in the Church, but there are central issue that are beyond discussion, at some point you have to say, well, what does it mean to be a Catholic if absolutely everything is up for grabs?”

Father Flannery grew up in the Church of the Second Vatican, which he describes as one of openness. With secularisation more prominent around the world, it would be fair to think the Vatican might be eager to modernise the Church in relation to some teachings. However, the modern church has seemed to move in exactly the opposite direction. The current Pope Benedict XVI and his predecessor have held very conservative views on many issues. According to Father Flannery “what they are trying to do is bring the Church back to a 19th century type church. It cannot possibly succeed; it will inevitably collapse.”

It is becoming common that the traditionalists in the church are becoming younger and younger. Father Flannery states: “One of the strange anomalies of it all is that the liberals in the church are my generation and the conservatives are the young crowd. There is only a handful of people becoming priests any more but those that are becoming priests are extraordinarily conservative.”

As one of the founders of the Association of Catholic Priests, this could be one of the main reasons why the Vatican is keen to make an example of him. The Association of Catholic Priests is known to be a progressive body and was founded to deal with many of the crises in Catholicism but has not received much support from church hierarchies. “In November, when the AGM of the Association of Catholic Priests was coming up I was put under what’s called a form of precept of obedience not to attend it. Now, in religious life terms, it doesn’t come heavier but I went to the meeting because the Association of Catholic Priests is an independent body and if I didn’t go to the meeting, I would have been feeding a basic principle that the Vatican had the authority to decide who belongs to the Association and who doesn’t”. By going to this meeting however, Father Flannery further compromised his position in the church.

The future is unclear for Father Flannery but as a keen writer, he intends one day to write a book about the ordeal. One thing is for sure he is not going to take this lying down. “As long as I’m alive and healthy, I will try to be in whatever way I can to be a thorn on the side of the Vatican. One way or another I’m going to be outside of the system clearly when your outside of the system you have a much freer voice,“ says Father Flannery.