Brendan Hoban’s review of From the Outside

Review of Tony Flannery’s book ‘From the Outside’ by Brendan Hoban

Brendan Hoban

Many years ago, at an inter-church meeting, a Protestant minister who later became a great friend asked me the question: ‘Can you tell me this? Is it true that Catholics believe there are four persons in one God – Father, Son, Spirit and Our Lady?’

Once he asked the question, I understood why he asked it because we were at the time in the midst of an outbreak of what theologians sometimes call ‘Mariolatry’, the tradition of devotion to Mary that can lose the run of itself.

It was a dismal year. Rain was falling. Statues were moving. A variety of questionable Marian devotions were achieving a high profile, putative visionaries were peddling a variety of services and in some cases driving top of the range Mercedes cars.

The practice of not submitting theological error to the rigours of, say, official heresy-hunters in the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF) was justified on the basis that those involved were ‘good’ or ‘holy’ people and ‘You wouldn’t like to hurt them?’

Bishops – with the famous exception of Thomas McDonnell, bishop of Killala, who explained the strange happenings of that summer in scientifically forensic detail – tended to play down the excitement and theologians (keeping all options open) tended to look the other way.

In an effort to keep as many as possible on board, there has been something of an unspoken conspiracy between church authorities and theologians to present the Catholic religion as one ‘one size fits all’, to pretend that Catholicism is not a broad Church, that doctrine does not develop, that we are now and we always were and always will be singing from the same hymn-sheet.

On the basis of this book, that theory will be hard to sustain.

Tony Flannery’s story is well known and there is no need to repeat it here. Just a year after the Association of Catholic Priests was formed in 2010, the CDF set their sights on him by informing his congregation, the Redemptorists, that they regarded some of his writings as heretical. In the meantime, the extraordinary behaviour of the CDF, the Redemptorists and, it has to be said, of Pope Francis who sat on his hands, has after nine years of pain and sadness moved Flannery ‘from the outside’.

The only silver lining to this particular cloud is that Flannery’s semi-detached position has given him the opportunity to stand back from Church and priesthood and given him, in his own words, ‘the freedom to pursue new ways of thinking’: ‘I think it is true to say that I am now a different person from the one who got that first phone-call informing me of the Vatican’s interest in me . . . I have changed a good deal in these past years, and I hope this book will illustrate the nature of my changing ways of thinking and believing’.

The key point here is that Flannery in this book examines the set of doctrines that encompass the truth from a Catholic Church perspective – and its corollary that ‘all other belief systems are false’. And brings to his explorations, not just a refreshing sense of freedom but intelligence, reason and common sense. The result is an honesty, a clarity and a courage that should embarrass those we usually designate as ‘theologians’.

Flannery is sometimes given to describing himself as ‘not a theologian’. In that, he is selling himself short. Because it prompts the question: what makes a theologian? Are theology degrees and publications (in book-form or in credible theological reviews) needed to justify the appellation, ‘theologian’? Is the role of a Catholic theologian just about explaining Catholic theology? Or is there a place for exploration, intellectual freedom and a respect for the implications of the legitimacy – championed by Newman and Pope Francis among others – of the development of doctrine?

The more important theologians today are those who translate theology into digestible portions, who disavow theological jargon (including a welter of foot-notes) and who connect with the lived experience of people though a writing style that’s readable and accessible to the general reader.

Flannery ticks all those boxes and embellishes his reflections with an openness and a curiosity that I suspect resonates with people and priests. For example, he considers the Nicene Creed we recite at Mass. In 325 it reached its definitive position in a dogmatic statement of faith ‘for all time’, a definition that is in many respects ‘time-limited’, that has been un-revisited in 17 centuries and that seems to suggest that God can be explained and described rather a mystery beyond our comprehension. Can, he asks, a definition of the divine, formulated in the fourth century, be presented as ‘literal truth for all time?’

This is a book that takes a fresh look at a number of issues that for years theologians have voyaged around very carefully or else written about in a way that defeats the average Catholic. This is the nearest un-put-downable ‘theology’ book I’ve read in years.

If we had more theologians like Flannery, I think we’d all be reading more theology.

Tony Flannery, From the Outside, Rethinking Church Doctrine

Red Stripe Press, October 2020, €15.

Most bookshops, even if they are closed, have a click and collect system. They should all have copies of the book available by now.

Many online services also available, including the publishers, and the Association of Catholic Priests website.  Please use Irish online outlets if possible, as part of our general effort to shop local.