Today’s post is from Sr. Jeannine Gramick, SL, co-founder of New Ways Ministry.
A popular Irish priest, who led a 2018 New Ways Ministry retreat in the U.S. for LGBT+ Catholics and their allies a couple years ago, is now being asked to sign four public oaths of fidelity to Church teaching.
In 2012, Redemptorist Fr. Tony Flannery, a co-founder of the Association of Catholic Priests in Ireland, was suspended from public ministry by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF) for his public positions on a number of church issues, most notably advocacy of women’s ordination and same-sex marriage.
With the election of Pope Francis and an atmosphere of more open discussion of sexual issues, Fr. Flannery’s Irish provincial leaders requested that he return to public ministry. In February 2020, Fr. Michael Brehl, the Redemptorist Superior General in Rome, approached the CDF. In response, the CDF required Fr. Flannery to affix his signature to four oaths to affirm his belief in: a male-only priesthood, homosexual practices are contrary to nature, the restriction of marriage to a man and a woman, and a rejection of “gender theory.”
While the first three issues arose in Fr. Flannery’s case in 2012, the issue of gender theory was new. “I don’t think I have ever written a line on gender theory,” said the priest, joking: “I’d want to study up and know what exactly it was before I’d ever begin to.”
And no wonder! The Vatican has used the ambiguous expression “gender theory” or “gender ideology,” without specific definition or scientific information, to make official and officious pronouncements. In June 2019, the Congregation for Catholic Education issued a document criticizing “gender ideology,” but recommended that the Church be open to listening and talking with those who define their gender differently. When subsequently asked if the Congregation had taken its own advice by consulting and listening to transgender people before writing the document, the head of that Congregation acknowledged that it had not.
The Flannery case has received massive international coverage. When asked publicly by the National Catholic Reporter about the case, Cardinal Luis Ladaria, head of the CDF, responded that the CDF has the “duty…to protect the faith and therefore to indicate some things that do not conform with this faith…This is a responsibility that is very unpleasant for the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith,” said the cardinal, repeating, “Very unpleasant.”
I wonder if the CDF is going to extract similar oaths from German bishops and cardinals who have spoken out on women’s issues and on same-sex marriage. For example, Bishop Georg Bätzing, head of the German Bishops’ conference, and Cardinal Reinhard Marx, a close advisor to Pope Francis and one of his “kitchen cabinet” cardinals, support church blessings for same-gender couples. In fact, so do Bishop Franz-Josef Bode and Bishop Dieter Geerlings. Will the CDF ask them to sign orthodoxy oaths comparable to the ones they sent to Fr. Flannery? And if these bishops refuse, will they be barred from public ministry?
If these views can be publicly expressed by priests, bishops, and theologians, why can they not be said by a priest in Ireland? Meaningful dialogue, not oaths or suppression of ideas, is the rightful path to solve the many crises which the Church faces today.
The CDF is not being faithful to Pope Francis’ concern about more leading roles for women in the Church, his words that LGBT+ people are not to be judged but to be accompanied, and his public addresses to theologians calling for greater theological freedom and broader dialogue with those on the margins of society and the Church.
In his proposed reform of the curia, Pope Francis plans to reduce the premier status of the CDF as the leading Vatican department in favor of the Dicastery for Evangelization. Francis’ intent is to move the Church from an Inquisition-like era of oaths and condemnations to a “field hospital” of accompanying those who need healing and mercy. This Church, as described by Pope Francis in his apostolic exhortation, The Joy of the Gospel (Evangelii Gaudium), is a humble and listening Church, where the People of God are in dialogue with each other, ever trusting that God’s Spirit will ultimately lead them to truth.
This is the discerning and infallible Church, of which Pope Francis spoke and for which Catholics yearn. Fr. Flannery’s stance of openness and honesty in stating his beliefs and refusing to bow to coercion in saying what he does not believe show a real love for this Church.
When I heard the news, I contacted Fr. Flannery, a good friend of mine, and asked him how he felt. “I was not surprised by the document,” he responded, “and, of course, I didn’t have to spend a long time deciding on my response. I think the CDF has done themselves no favors both by the content and the tone of their demands.” Obviously, he has no intention of signing the four oaths.
You (and the CDF) can read more about what Fr. Tony Flannery thinks in his new book, From the Outside; Rethinking Church Doctrine. “That,” as he said, “will give them more to chew over.” For more information about the book, visit http://www.tonyflannery.com.
—Sr. Jeannine Gramick, SL, New Ways Ministry, September 25, 2020
National Catholic Reporter, “Vatican tells Irish priest Flannery to sign fidelity oaths, or remain suspended” (September 17, 2020)
National Catholic Reporter, “Vatican cardinal defends issuing fidelity oaths to Irish priest Tony Flannery” (September 22, 2020)
The Irish Times, “Fr Tony Flannery rejects Vatican offer to restore ministry for silence, submission to teaching” (September 16, 2020)
La Croix International, “A cardinal says he’s open to women’s ordination; a priest who did so remains suspended” (September 18, 2020)