It was a cool, rainy night Wednesday at Augustana Lutheran Church in Washington, D.C. But the drizzly weather did not keep more than 150 people from coming out to hear Fr. Tony Flannery, a priest from Ireland who has been ordered by the Vatican to sign a statement of orthodoxy and to remain silent. But Flannery -- unlike many theologians before him -- did not sign and won't keep quiet. In fact, this was the first stop in an 18-city speaking tour of the United States, sponsored by a coalition of U.S. church reform groups.
The evening began when the Rev. John Kidd, the Lutheran pastor, welcomed this congregation of "modern Catholic reformers" to his church and offered quotations from Martin Luther on the significance of conscience. Both he and Flannery were grinning from ear to ear.
I interviewed Flannery the day before for "Interfaith Voices" and found him an absolutely delightful human being who has been deeply hurt by his treatment at the hand of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith at the Vatican. He explained that they condemned him and his views without even a conversation with him. They communicated only with the leadership of his Redemptorist order. He had no opportunity to dialogue or answer the charges against him.
"Any institution which acts against human rights and human dignity has lost its legitimacy," he said.
His reforming views include many that are held by majorities of Catholics today: welcoming LGBT people into church life and treating them with dignity, choice in the use of contraception, and the ordination of women. (Although he sounds like many feminist theologians I know who don't think women should become part of the current "system.") He believes that the role of women is the "elephant in the church," the obvious issue that cries out for change.
From our sister publication: A Place to Call Home, a new series focusing on women religious helping people who are homeless. Read more
But the doctrinal congregation was also interested in his writing on the origins of the priesthood. The question is this: Did Jesus actually ordain the apostles at the Last Supper? Well, Flannery shares the view of many church historians that the priesthood and "ordination" actually "developed" one or two centuries after Jesus' lifetime. But the doctrinal congregation did not agree.
Add to that the fact that Flannery is a founder of the Association of Catholic Priests in Ireland, an organization that has attracted approximately 1,100 reform-minded priests and has been gaining influence in a country where the bishops -- according to Flannery -- are microphone-shy.
Flannery also explained that his conscience would not permit him to sign a statement of orthodoxy demanded by the doctrinal congregation that would have said he agreed that women would never be ordained (a crazy statement, he noted) and that he was in agreement with the moral teachings of the church (on homosexuality, contraception, etc.).
He gave great weight in his talk to both the sensus fidelium ("sense of the faithful") and the primacy of conscience in his talk.
He said he is an admirer of Pope Francis, who "lit up" the sense of the faithful by having married couples speak first each day at the recent Synod of Bishops on the family. In fact, he said that the next 12 months -- before the second half of the synod in 2015 -- are very important. And what's needed in the process most are women theologians.
The future of the church? It's with the laity, not priests, he said.