Last week Fr Tony Flannery attracted the attention of The Irish Times with a blogpost entitled ‘How Much of Church Doctrine do we Really Believe?’
The Church’s credibility problem in Ireland, he argues, rests on something deeper than recent scandals. He argues that “[s]ome of the very basic doctrines of the Church no longer make sense to the modern mind, and are being quietly rejected even by people who still attend church”.
He’s far from being alone in this diagnosis. Many clergy would agree that a pervading unbelief is a real phenomenon in the Irish Church. However, Fr Flannery’s response to that diagnosis seems to tell us more about him and his struggles than it does about the Church and the Christian faith.
Fr Flannery chooses to criticise a childishly crude parody of God rather than the doctrine that the Church teaches. For example, he presents the idea of original sin as something that presents the Creator as having condemned the people before Christ to live “shut off from any relationship with God” as though the Catholic Church ignored the prophets of the Old Testament and the Ten Commandments.
Many non-Christian thinkers choose to engage with a more convincing account of our faith than the parody Fr Flannery presents.
Even for those who think Church teaching is a subjective matter, the question of ‘what the Catholic Church teaches as her fixed doctrine’ is a question that’s capable of being answered objectively. The fact that Fr Flannery fails to give an accurate account of what he critiques is the sign of a bad argument.
One might hope that he was criticising the way Church teaching can be presented poorly or how inadequate the popular understanding of our faith can be. If that were the case, the next step would be to look at how a poor understanding could be brought to a deeper and better account of the teachings and person of Jesus Christ.
However, Fr Flannery doesn’t do that. Even though the supposed shortcomings he identifies are the kind of things that the Church has responded to repeatedly and with great care since the first days of Christianity, he prefers to take his strawman as being a sufficient reason to dismiss such ideas as the Trinity, original sin, the redemption and the role of Mary in God’s plan.
When asked about whether he believes in the resurrection of Christ, he penned another blogpost opining that the Apostles “gradually began to realise that in a mysterious, but very real, way he was still with them”.
The fact that the scriptures are at pains to insist on the physicality of the Risen Christ, and that people 2,000 years ago understood as well as we do that dead men, as a general rule, do not get up and walk again, seems lost on Fr Flannery who seems to write off the bodily resurrection of Christ as something only acceptable to generations who knew no better.
What do we get instead? Fr Flannery writes vaguely about ‘quantum physics’, presenting a very distant-sounding God, very unlike the personal God of scripture.
Perhaps the most substantial creed he gives is as follows: “The wonder and mystery of the universe, that we are now beginning to glimpse, is only a small insight into the far greater wonder and mystery of the creator. It should have been left at that, and leave us free to gaze in awe at the mystery in the many ways in which it reveals itself to us in our lives and in the world.”
That wonder that he speaks about is far from new! It is found in scripture and the Christian tradition. However, what is missing is the Christian (and Jewish) conviction that God has chosen not only to show Himself in creation, but has chosen to speak to us directly.
The question of how, through whom and with what intent God might speak to us is probably the loftiest human inquiry, and it’s not for us to sneer at anyone’s answers, no matter how strange we find them.
However, the issue with Fr Flannery is that he seems to be saying either that God hasn’t spoken to us, or that it doesn’t really matter whether or not God has spoken. He seems to think we should be satisfied with pondering the mystery of the universe.
On that point, Fr Flannery breaks clearly with the Christian tradition and every page of the scriptures.
This leads to an inevitable question – why would Fr Flannery want recognition as a Catholic priest? He’s not just saying that there are problems in the Church, that the Church should do better, and that the Church should be reformed.
If we take his statements at face-value, he is arguing that the teaching work of the Church has been systematically misrepresenting the Gospel since her foundation.
If he is so agnostic about whether God has spoken to us or not, he’s denying any reason for the Church to exist at all. Why want to be a Christian, let alone a priest, if “awe and wonder in creation” is the summit of understanding?
The rehabilitation of Fr Flannery has been a cause célèbre for some years. What his recent blogpost shows is that he’s not just ‘controversial’ or ‘questioning’.
At face value, what he writes is so far from the basic ideas of Catholicism that it makes no sense for him to be an official teacher of the Faith. He has every right to go on his own spiritual and intellectual journey, but he can’t expect to have the institutional support and backing of the Catholic Church as he tries to argue her out of existence.
A Catholic educator with the Twitter handle @nosdnomde recently posted about an eight-year-old baptismal candidate who explained to her: “The Nicene creed happened in the Church a long time ago when the old people couldn’t decide if Jesus was a man or God & we know he’s both.”
There’s a better grasp of why we need doctrine in that child’s sentence than in Fr Flannery’s empty creed.
Fr Bernard Healy is a priest of the Diocese of Kerry.