20 Apr 2012

When Peter and Paul disagree

When Peter and Paul disagree
The Irish Catholic - Editorial
19th April 2012
Garry O'Sullivan
Managing Editor

An 88-year-old nun/sister wrote to me this week congratulating the paper’s coverage of the Fr Flannery/Vatican controversy (we broke the story) and signed off saying, “Thank God, He is in charge.” Amen sister!

I couldn’t agree more and although I’m less than half her age, I share her tiredness. Self-described Vatican II liberals lining up to bash their heads against the equally stubborn heads of more conservative priests and bishops and Vatican officials. It’s all a bit predictable.

The Association of Catholic Priests (ACP) are of course right that the Church should permit discussion and dialogue and it is also true that the Vatican are having a PR nightmare by failing to communicate their point of view leaving the secular media to have a field day thrashing the Church.

Others have pointed out that Fr Flannery et al have had the last 40 years to discuss these issues unfettered in the religious press and in an inviting secular press.

There has been general tolerance of discussion of these not so new issues, until now. Maybe this is a harsh clampdown by the Vatican or maybe the Vatican, through its visitation, believes that real damage is being done to the faithful by the constant raising of these issues as key to the renewal of the Church.

Why the surprise after the visitation that things would be tightened up? That’s what audits do. For instance, why was Redemptorist Fr Flannery singled out and not Fr Hoban or Fr McDonagh?

Could it be that one of the Apostolic Visitors is a former superior general of the Redemptorists and is now the secretary of the Congregation for Consecrated Life!

It seems highly credible that Archbishop Joseph Tobin shone the spotlight on Fr Flannery as he did his visitation of the Redemptorists and didn’t like what he saw/read/heard.

Did Fr Flannery meet Archbishop Tobin and was there any correspondence between them? We should be told.

There is essentially an issue of obedience in this and it is also a fair point to say that the Church authorities, to whom vows of obedience are taken, have the right to seek fidelity to that vow, as a manager has the right to manage and discipline his/her staff.

But obedience only goes so far until conscience comes into play. According to St Thomas Aquinas: “Every judgement of conscience, be it right or wrong, be it about things evil in themselves or morally indifferent, is obligatory, in such wise that he who acts against his conscience always sins.”

If the ACP and the religious orders whose members have been silenced want to register a significant protest to the Vatican and in full conscience believe that the Church’s position on the issues they have raised is morally wrong, they could take a lesson from the Civil Rights movement.

Let them all start writing articles in magazines and newspapers advocating their positions and then report themselves and each other to the Vatican.

If in good conscience they believe that Fr Flannery and Fr Sean Fagan are being wronged, then courageously stand up together against that wrong. It would be an act of mass disobedience but didn’t Cardinal Newman write to the Duke of Norfolk to say that he would raise a toast to conscience first and then the Pope?

Many priests were prepared to go to jail rather than break the seal of the confessional last August. If this is an issue of conscience, then the vow of obedience can be supplanted just as the law can be flouted.

Abbot Mark-Patrick Hederman tells the wonderful story of Maximus the Confessor, who reflects a moment in the history of the Church when the truth was abandoned by virtually all in the official Church.

Maximus held that Jesus had two wills, that of God and of a man, but everyone declared this position anathema and Maximus has his limbs cut off and his tongue cut out. His protest and his courage were eventually recognised. His point shouldn’t be lost; God always respects our human freedom.

So we are left with the question, are the issues on which these priests are being required to refrain from writing or speaking about, matters of such import that they require a breach of obedience under the right of conscientious objection? Perhaps the plethora of moral theologians out there would care to write in and tell us.

The question of right and wrong goes back to Vatican II and how it is interpreted. To my fallible knowledge, Vatican II did not push women’s ordination, married clergy, and sexual ethics was mostly pushed out to the Pope’s commission on reproduction.

What it did do was revisit a vision of the role of the laity that was certainly ignored since the Reformation, some would say since the early Church.

In her book The Emerging Laity, Aurelie Hagstrom convincingly argues that Vatican II reclaimed the early Pauline theology of the Church which resulted in a renewed theology of the laity, and their identity and function in the Church.

At the Reformation, Protestant reformers stressed some of Paul’s teachings while Catholicism reacted by becoming almost exclusively ‘Petrine’.

It took 400 years to reclaim St Paul back into our theology. The Pauline and the Petrine dimensions of the Church were finally reunited at Vatican II.

Interestingly, some people have been suggesting that those calling for change in Church teaching should join the Protestants because that is what they are. This ignores the possibility that many are only espousing the long tradition of Paul versus Peter! And Peter was wrong on several occasions.

I don’t have the answers, but to conclude, I do find it deeply ironic, that at a time when the Petrine Church is struggling to find vocations, those who advocate change and radical change at that to save the Church they too love, they pick the issue of replenishing the ranks of the clergy with married and female priests as the battle ground issue on which to fight with the Vatican.

They do this in the name of fighting for the values of Vatican II which specifically outlined the key role of the laity in the new Pentecost. Could it be that both sides are wearing clerical blinkers and the Holy Spirit has a whole different plan? Thank God He is in charge!

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