An interesting article by a former Redemptorist

i recently came across this article, written in 2012 by an Australian theologian, David Timbs.  David is a former Redemptorist priest, and is one of the people who is coming to the conference I am hosting in Limerick in April for Church Reform leaders around the world.

Straining out a gnat and swallowing a camel

The recent spate of Vatican crack downs in various local churches is not going unnoticed anywhere across the Catholic world and beyond. In the thinking of many people it is a massively asymmetrical over-reaction and yet another indication that the upper levels of leadership in the Catholic Church are so disturbed, even rattled, by the negative attention the Church has been attracting that it has had recourse to any means available to distract attention away from itself.

The process of micromanagement in the Church has recently cranked up a number of gears. With very few high profile theologians to investigate for heterodoxy the CDF seems to have by passed completely the procedures of local Church governance and targeted peripheral‘problem’ areas. The Doctrinal Office, for its own reasons, perhaps to deflect attention away from the clerical child abuse scandal, has gone after the Irish and with a vengeance.

So far this year, five Irish priests have been silenced and censured for holding and promoting views at odds with official Church teaching on a range of issues most notably, birth control, the availability of sacraments to remarried divorcees, homosexuality, clerical celibacy and the priestly ordination of women. Tony Flannery and Gerard Moloney, both Redemptorists, have been silenced; 84 year old Marist priest-theologian Prof. Sean Fagan has been threatened with forced laicisation if he speaks out any more and his books are to be removed from circulation; Conventual Franciscan Owen O’Sullivan and most recently, Passionist Brian D’Arcy have also been silenced.


These are good men, loyal priests and very effective pastors of God’s People. What they have accomplished in their ministries, and very successfully so, is to have articulated with skill, integrity and with clarity the pressing concerns of a great many people. The Vatican campaign to isolate these men has had the opposite effect to what was anticipated. Instead of imposing command and control, the Roman Curia has forfeited both influence andcredibility. The treatment meted out to these Irish priests has left them all personally bewildered but not angry or embittered. It’s clearly a different story with the people they have served. Most of them are scandalised and left seething with indignation. The ecclesiastical policy of prescription and compliance does not have significant purchase any more. Churchgovernance has lost not only its moral authority but, even more importantly, respect.

The disproportional nature of authoritarian coercion is now increasingly obvious to both insiders and outsiders and is being assessed accordingly – yet another example of an oftenreactive paranoia. The Vatican doctrinal bureaucracy, in the public eye, has elevated gnat straining to an exotic new art form.

Further to the Irish saga, the most recent episodes involving American theologian, Elizabeth Johnson and British colleague, Tina Beattie have consolidated the view that a vast sub-culture of institutional fear, ineptitude and irresponsibility prevails at the top.  The monitors of doctrinal purity in the Vatican are looking more and more like a pack of bullies.

Significantly, the normally reserved, conservative Church historian, Eamon Duffy has rather dispassionately described this authoritarian behaviour of silencing and disciplining dissent as a form of totalitarian suppression of Catholic thought by the Vatican and its franchises. About the (Catholic) University of San Diego/Tina Beattie affair, Duffy remarked, “I fear that by publicly withdrawing the invitation, the University of San Diego has brought academic ignominy on itself, and is colluding in the sovietisation of Catholic intellectual life which many feel is one of the saddest features of the contemporary Church.” [1]

An even more disturbing phenomenon has re-appeared in the post-Vat II Church. It is the behaviour of the Roman Curia in its appropriated role as global doctrinal policeman. Ottaviani’s Holy Office has been reincarnated under Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger’s tenure at the CDF and its intrusive power has become nothing short of pervasive and largely free of the checks necessary to rein it in.

The recent crackdowns in the US and Ireland are clearly cases of aggressive micromanagement of the local Church by a centralised, authoritarian Vatican bureaucracy.  These interventions, furthermore, probably constitute a serious violation of Vat II’ Lumen Gentium # 27. This Dogmatic Constitution teaches that collegiality and subsidiarity are of the essence of the Church. The leadership of the local church is exercised by the bishop whose authority derives from Christ through ordination. The bishop is not the vicar of the Pope. TheBishop is the overseer of his local church and it is his responsibility to deal with doctrine and discipline within his jurisdiction. This Conciliar doctrine was once enthusiastically embraced and championed by none other than a young German theological advisor at Vatican II by the name of Joseph Ratzinger. That seems to have undergone a rather profound re- interpretationduring the past thirty years or so.

A useful reminder

Eamon Duffy, in the cited Tablet letter, evokes the memory of John Henry Cardinal Newman who, in his own day, vigorously opposed theological censorship and controls on academicfreedom and discussion. Newman was a great advocate of consultation and conversation not only within the world of theological speculation but especially between the hierarchy and the people. He believed that truth could be arrived at from many quite different starting points and paths along the way. This is quite pertinent here.

A contemporary of Newman, Jesuit academic George Tyrrell, feared greatly that on becoming a Cardinal, Newman might forfeit his individuality and be subsumed into the narrow vision and almost ossified theological categories of the Roman school. In another Tablet article, this time on Newman himself, Gabriel Daly has observed,

“Tyrrell also reacted instinctively and strongly against the co-opting of Newman into the neo-scholastic establishment. The fact is that Newman, in spite of his undoubted orthodoxy, remains uncomfortably non-establishment in respect of any attempt to co-opt him on to any ecclesiastical programme whatever. One of Newman’s most attractive qualities is that he never fitted completely into any ecclesiastical setting, whether evangelical Anglican, High Church Anglican, or Ultramontaine Catholic. That is his glory; and in this age of theological conformity the Catholic Church has never been in greater need of his spirit of independence.” [2]

Tyrrell, Daly writes, need not have worried. Newman continued writing in the same theological style after he was created a Cardinal as he did before and much to the consternation of his overseers within the Roman School (the theological system which promoted the normative role of the Vatican worldview). Newman somewhat enjoyed being monitored for his orthodoxy as his watchers were in an almost permanent state of bewilderment at his idiosyncratic methodology and reasoning. Fr Perrone, one of most preeminent members of the Roman School, once declared in an assessment, “Newman miscetet confundet omnia” (“Newman mixes up and confuses everything”).

It is quite likely even now that much is still lost and distorted in translation between the modern legion of the watched and those who are so closely scrutinising their every word.

A skewed ecclesiology

Under the aegis of the past two pontificates in particular, unity has often been confused with conformity, responsible discipleship with compliance and blind obedience to directive and norm. This culture of compliance was given extra authority by one of Pope Benedict’s favourite Ambrosian expressions, the Magisterium of Discipline. People in growing numbers have revolted against the highly regulated and homogenised forms of Catholicism. They find them offensive to their sense of adulthood and baptismal dignity.

A growing conundrum for the Roman School and its Vatican patrons is the way serioustheology can be done by people with a critical apparatus different from its own. The same goes with pastoral theology and praxis. Problems, often extremely complex ones in specific cultural contexts and far removed from the protected environment of the CDF, are faced and dealt with on a daily basis. Often all that the doctrinaire bureaucrats see is heterodoxy and heteropraxis and condemn it as moral relativism and cooperation with secular humanism. Sadly, it is often the case that the Incarnation itself, in its many realisations, is sacrificed on the altar of Roman expedience.

While the Irish and American episode amounts in reality to little more than a series of local spot fires, best left to local churches to deal with, the Vatican has mistakenly treated them as uncontrolled forest fires endangering the whole Church.

Patsy McGarry, in an April 18, 2012 article in the Irish Times quotes an unnamed but respected priest, perhaps one of the banned and silenced, who comments on the deeper implications of the Vatican’s punitive policy and behaviour,

“It is not possible to speak about reform in the Church, be it in Ireland or elsewhere, without bearing in mind the ever-present elephant in the room, namely the Roman curia and the papacy.  ….  it has come to the point where the bishop of Rome is regarded less as a bond of unity and charity in the Church than as an oracular figure to be reverenced in his person with quasi-sacramental fervour.

It has become a tyranny whenever it successfully creates an atmosphere in which open inquiry and honest dissent are construed as disloyalty or worse.” This is “a form of fundamentalism” which “trivialises debate, particularly in the theological field by reducing all issues to questions of authority and obedience.” [3]

[1] For a response to the disinvitation of Tina Beattie by the University of San Diego, see Eamon Duffy’s protestagainst muzzling theological speculation  in The Catholic Herald, here.

[2] See Gabriel Daly’s article on Newman in the 03/03/01 Tablet, “Breaking the mould,” here.

[3] McGarry’s article on Fr Tony Flannery and other issues can be found here. For a report on the disciplinary action against Fr Sean Fagan, click here. See another Patsy McGarry item featuring the response of Fr Peter McVerry to the tactics employed by Vatican authorities against alleged ‘dissenters’; it can be found here


David Timbs writes from Melbourne, Victoria, Australia.