(2.) Regarding the Eucharist, Fr Flannery should add to his article that he believes that Christ instituted the priesthood at the Last Supper; that in the Eucharist, under the forms of bread and wine, the whole Christ is truly, really and substantially contained; that the Eucharist is a sacrifice because it re-presents (makes present) the sacrifice of the cross; and that only a validly ordained priests can validly celebrate the Eucharist.
I accept that the words of sacred scripture ‘Do this in memory of me’ are inspired by the Holy Spirit. My understanding is that scripture scholars tell us that the Gospels began as oral tradition and gradually the stories and teaching of Jesus were put into written form, first in the writings of St Paul and the Acts of the Apostles, and later in the four Gospel accounts that have come down to us. These writing, which we believe are divinely inspired, tell us that very early, following the ascension of Christ into heaven, his followers began to gather, to re-tell the stories and celebrate the meal, just as Jesus had done. They did this as he had requested, and so what we now call the Eucharist became a central part of the life of the early community. Gradually they began to realise that when they shared the bread and the cup, Jesus was really present with them. And so I have no difficulty in believing that the origins of the Eucharist are to be found in the Scripture accounts of the Last Supper, and that Jesus is really and truly present when we celebrate the Eucharist.
I believe that priesthood, as we now know it, was not there from the beginning, but developed gradually. The early Christian communities chose one of their group to preside at the celebration, while other members of the community took on other functions. Only gradually did these different functions come together in one person, who began to be termed priest. Since the function of the Jewish priest was to offer sacrifice, the Christian priest also assumed the role of one who offered sacrifice to the Father, on behalf of the people. In saying this I am not suggesting that the development of priesthood in the early Church was not according to the mind of Christ. I accept the teaching of Vatican II that the ministerial priest, by the sacred power he enjoys, teaches and rules the priestly people; that the ministerial priest acts in the person of Christ when he makes present the Eucharistic sacrifice and offers it to God in the name of all the people.
3. Regarding his statement concerning the priesthood, Fr Flannery should add to his article that he accepts that the Lord Jesus chose men (viri) to form the college of the 12 apostles, and that the apostles did the same when they choose collaborators to succeed them in their ministry; and that the Church recognises herself to be bound by this choice made by the Lord himself, and for this reason the ordination of women is not possible.
I have always been impressed by the significant presence of women in the life of Jesus, as recounted in the Gospels. And the writing of St Paul and the Acts of the Apostles suggest that they were also significant in the early Church.
I am also conscious of the work of the Pontifical Biblical Commission in 1976. Having studied the question, the commission voted unanimously that the New Testament does not settle in a clear way and, once and for all, the problem of the possible accession of women to the presbyterate. Secondly, the possibility that the scripture gave sufficient indications to exclude the ordination of women was defeated by a majority of seven votes. And finally the proposition that the Church hierarchy could admit women to ordination without going against Christ’s original intentions was approved by the same majority.
My years of pastoral ministry have informed me that many women find the current Church teaching on this matter very difficult. Lumen Gentium 12 states that ‘The entire body of the faithful, anointed as they are by the Holy One, cannot err in matters of belief. They manifest this special property by means of the whole peoples’ supernatural discernment in matters of faith when ‘from the bishops down to the last of the lay faithful’ they show universal agreement in matters of faith and morals.
There are clear indications from research, and also from my many years of pastoral experience, that a great many of the faithful have not ‘received’ this teaching. Putting that together with the findings of the Pontifical Biblical Commission, I am left with serious questions about the teaching on the ordination of women in the Catholic Church.
I also have questions as to whether sufficient level of discernment was undertaken prior to the decree that the topic of the admission of women to ministerial priesthood should not be discussed by faithful members of the Catholic Church. I have given this serious consideration and I find it difficult to dismiss the strong possibility that the Holy Spirit may have been speaking through the aforementioned Pontifical commission, and may be currently speaking through the voice of the faithful. So I am left with serious and difficult questions.
In this context, I point to the Declaration on Religious Liberty issued by Vatican II. This document states that human persons are bound to adhere to the truth, once they come to know it and direct their whole lives in accordance with truth. I am aware that the thrust of the Declaration on Religious Liberty focuses on the religious freedom that must be accorded to the human person by the civil authorities. However, I believe when the Church declares ‘in religious matters, every form of coercion by men should be excluded’ I think that this teaching should also guide the governance of the Church in dealing with its own members.
4. Furthermore, Fr Flannery should state that he accepts the whole teaching of the Church, also in regard to moral issues.
This part of the request from the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith seems to particularly focus on Church teaching on moral issues.
As with my response to the last question, it is also clear to me that some matters of Church teaching on sexual issues are not ‘received’ by the majority of faithful Catholics. Again this is shown by the results of research in various parts of the world, and also clearly in my years of pastoral experience. So I am left with the same serious and difficult question. Is it possible that in this area also the Spirit is speaking to us through the voice of the committed believers?
I have worked for almost 40 years as a Redemptorist Priest, trying to follow the instruction of our founder, St. Alphonsus, that I should have particular care for the most abandoned, for those on the margins of society or Church, and for those who feel lost and alone. In this context I have experienced difficulty also with the way in which Church moral teaching has been presented and imposed on people. I have always been very conscious of the warning of Jesus that we should not be like the Pharisees, placing impossible burdens on people’s shoulders, and not lifting a finger to help them. There have been time when teachings were imposed without the necessary degree of understanding and compassion. Of course we must strive for the ideal, as laid out in the Gospels, but, like Jesus, we must be compassionate, accepting and forgiving of the weakness and failure of humanity, including ourselves.
Finally, may I say this about the dispute that exists between the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith and myself:
I hope that I am a committed member of the Catholic Church and of the Congregation of the Most Holy Redeemer. I have spent my priestly life preaching the Gospel of Jesus Christ to the best of my ability. I believe that my life as a priest and religious has been a great privilege, one of which I am not worthy. I love the Catholic Church. Its spirituality has nourished me through my life. I don’t want to belong to any other Church. I ask to be allowed to practice my priesthood.
I see how His Holiness, Pope Benedict has been able to reach out to the followers of Bishop Lefebvre and such reconciliation bears witness to the Gospel of Jesus Christ. I ask that this inclusiveness also include me.
In humility and charity, I point out that I have not made any public comments that have not been made by moral theologians and scripture scholars who are teaching in institutions that have the approval of the teaching Magisterium of the Holy Catholic Church. I cannot do otherwise than follow my conscience.
This is where I stand. This is my statement.
Fr Tony Flannery CSsR
The above correspondence was first published on the website of the Irish Association of Catholic Priests (ACP).
This revelation of the correspondence between Fr. Tony Flattery, a Redemptorist priest, and the Roman Catholic CDF (Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith) is interesting – especially in the area of Father Flannery’s questioning of the traditional imposition of the Vatican’s veto on women’s ordination and open discussion on matters of sexual ethics.
In this week’s issue of ‘The Tablet’, the English Roman Catholic newspaper, this featured correspondence between Fr. Flannery and the CDF has raised the question of a possible ground-swell of support among the clergy and people in the pews for a more tolerant view of the question of women’s ordination and of the acceptance of the LGBT community in the Roman Catholic Church. I have included only the questions relating to the priesthood and about the moral acceptability of a more tolerant attitude to LGBT people that are common to discussions going on at the present time in the Anglican Communion around the world.
Father Ron Smith, Christchurch, New Zealand