A Conversation with Tony Flannery
Tony Flannery is a priest and author of A Question of Conscience. He is also co-founder of the Association of Catholic Priests in Ireland. In 2012, Tony was censured by the Vatican and forbidden to minister as a priest over his calls to reconsider official church teachings on celibacy for priests, contraception, homosexuality and women’s ordination. Since 2013, he has been active in the church reform movement around the world.
Conscience: When did you get called to the priesthood? And what attracted you to it?
TF: I grew up in a rural part of Ireland in the 1950s, when opportunities for education and work were very limited, and a large percentage of young people emigrated. We lived close to a Redemptorist monastery, and my two older brothers boarded at their school, which also happened to be a junior seminary. So, to some extent I got on the “conveyor belt” at an early age, and there is no doubt that some of the attractions of religious life and priesthood at the time were more status and material than spiritual. But as I went through seminary, I was drawn to the Redemptorist style of ministry, being extraordinary preachers of the Word.
Conscience: How did you cope with the loneliness when you were silenced by the Vatican and church authorities?
TF: I don’t think loneliness was a great problem. I had, and have, plenty of support—from my siblings; from one or two close friends; from the leadership of the Association of Catholic Priests, who were solidly on my side; largely from the members of my own congregation; the Redemptorists; and great numbers of people around the country who still contact me.
What I found more difficult to cope with were the feelings of hurt, anger and bitterness. I knew that would destroy me, so I had to work hard at freeing myself, and moving on. I didn’t want to go through the rest of my life considering myself a victim.
Conscience: You reference a Catholic conscience in the title of your book about being silenced by the Vatican. Why is it so important to you?
TF: Conscience should be important for everyone. It is the ultimate arbiter of our life, our beliefs and actions. I am glad to see Pope Francis trying to reestablish the primacy of conscience in Christian living. In my dealings with the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF), I came to a stage where what they demanded of me went contrary to what I believed. So I was faced with a very stark choice between external authority and my own conscience. There was only one choice I could have made by which I would retain my dignity and self-respect. At that point, it wasn’t difficult or courageous. It was simply what had to be done.
Conscience: Why do you think the institutional church plays down, or downright ignores, the role of conscience in Catholic decision making?
TF: Because the church of the second millennium, after it had become centralized and clerical, set about trying to control the people. This is a great temptation of all institutional religions; they try to control people down to the minutiae of individual lives. In Catholic terms, this was especially true of the area of relationships and sexuality, and the exclusion of women. Telling people that their conscience is the ultimate arbiter gives them freedom, and freedom undermines control. One of the main reasons why the church has lost ground in the developed world is that people are now educated, and are not willing to allow their lives to be controlled in the way that past generations were—at least not by the church.
Conscience: Does the hierarchy have an unhealthy interest in women’s reproductive health?
TF: Traditionally, that would certainly be true, but maybe a little less so today. Perhaps it is the case that many of our modern bishops are afraid to open their mouths on anything remotely contentious. (I speak here more of Irish bishops, who tend to be nondescript and lacking in any leadership.)
The real question here is why are bishops so interested in this subject? Has it anything to do with celibacy—with its attendant personal struggles—[this] creating something of an obsession about all things female?
Conscience: You have been a champion for women in the church. Why are women treated so unequally?
TF: The church has a long history of misogyny, going back to the early centuries. But there is no trace of it in Jesus’s response to the women in his life.
I suppose women have been treated unequally in most societ[ies] down through the centuries. There have been great improvements in the past hundred years or so, especially in the Western world. The church, as usual, is slow to catch up.
I do think that this is a defining issue in the church today. Unless we introduce real reforms that bring women into the center of decision making in the church, we will lose the younger female generation completely.
Conscience: What music do you listen to just to chill out, and what else do you do to relax?
TF: Sadly, I don’t have a musical ear, and I cannot sing. But I have learned to appreciate classical music of the lighter variety.
And then the music of the Sixties— the Beatles, Simon and Garfunkel, etc.— have a nostalgic appeal for me.
I also play golf. I walk, and I follow sports.
Conscience: Have any of the saints inspired you to keep going over the years?
TF: I am not big into saints, I’m afraid. In my novitiate year with the Redemptorists, we were only allowed to read books on saints. These were mostly so terrible, badly written and painting totally unreal pictures of the people concerned, that I think they put me off saints completely!
Conscience: Where do you see the seeds of hope that change and justice can come to the institutional church?
TF: Outside of Pope Francis, it is hard to see too many seeds of hope in the institution. Maybe I am colored by my personal experience of the unjust practices of the CDF. The policy Francis seems to be adopting is not so much to change the unjust institutions, but to go around them. That has a certain merit, but the danger is that when he either retires or dies, the institutions will quickly reassert themselves, and all that he has tried to do will come to nothing.
I hope I am wrong!