Recalling my brush with a ‘formal precept of obedience’

Because of something I am currently involved in, I have had occasion to go back over all the documentation relating to my dismissal from priestly ministry eleven years ago, which I hadn’t done in a good number of years. It made again for interesting reading, especially coming at it from the perspective of that length of time. What really stood out for me now was the use made by my superior general of what is known in religious life terms as a ‘formal precept of obedience’. It is generally regarded as something used as a last resort, and if disobeyed, would almost inevitably lead to dismissal.

My brush with this precept began with point five of the original document relayed to me on my very first meeting with my superiors, listing the ‘grave concerns’ of the CDF concerning me:

“You are to instruct Fr. Flannery to withdraw from his leadership role in the Association of Catholic Priests”.

After a series of to and fro with statements and phone calls throughout the Spring and Summer of that year, 2012, I received a letter from my superior general on October 27, which contained the following:

I also let you know that the CDF had regretfully found it unacceptable for you to participate in or attend the Annual General Meeting of the ACP on November 10th, 2012 and requested me to instruct you, under religious obedience, to cancel your attendance at this meeting.  Since you have been unable to give me an assurance that you would follow this instruction, I am therefore obliged to issue you a formal precept of obedience obliging you to carry it out. You are hereby formally asked to cancel your planned attendance at this meeting and not to have any part in its deliberations.

And he prayed that I would “willingly and promptly” obey his precept.

In my reply to him, by email, on the day I received his formal letter, I said:

“It is my understanding that such a precept as I have now received should come only at the end of a process where I had been acquainted, in writing, with the matters of concern that my congregation has in relation to my involvement with the ACP. No Redemptorist superior, at any level, has expressed any reservation to me, either verbally or in writing, about my activities in this association”

I attended the AGM.

On November 12th I received a further letter from the superior general, which contained the following:

I regret very much that it became necessary for me to give you those formal instructions, but it is a matter of even greater sorrow to me that you chose to ignore these explicit directions. I now wish to remind you that as a Redemptorist religious priest you have failed in a serious way against the obedience  you have professed in the Congregation and thereby seriously weakened your position within the Congregation. If this kind of disobedience to the lawfully and formally expressed wishes of superiors continues there could be very serious consequences to follow.

The ‘serious consequences’ he threatened me with would have been dismissal from the Congregation; I don’t know what else it could have been, since I was already dismissed from priestly ministry. Even though I went very public on the whole situation a month or two later, that threat was never carried out. I don’t know why.

Looking back on it all now, a couple of things are clear to me.

  1. The superior general acted all the time under duress from the CDF. He made no secret of that.
  2. The issuing of a formal precept of obedience is a very serious and rare occurrence in religious life, intended to be reserved for really grave matters.
  3. To issue it in relation to attendance at a meeting of priests was completely out of proportion, and I presume my superior general knew that very well.
  4. Doing it because of orders from a body outside of the religious congregation, without due reason within the congregation, would, in my view, have made it invalid. In fact I would go so far as to say that his order was an abuse of the religious vow of obedience.
  5. It was a perfect opportunity for my superior general to stand up to the CDF, saying that such orders were internal matters for the Congregation, and refuse to do so — just as the Benedictine sisters did in relation to Sr. Joan Chittister 

He didn’t. All through the process he seemed to me to act in complete subservience to the CDF. 

Thank God for Francis, and for his curtailment of their abuse of power.