Irish theologian criticizes bishops' absence at Fagan funeral

by Sarah Mac Donald

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A prominent Irish theologian has strongly criticized the absence of Irish bishops from the funeral Mass of moral theologian, Marist Fr. Sean Fagan, who was censured by the Vatican in 2008, and who died on July 15.

Augustinian Fr. Gabriel Daly, 88, wrote in a blog on the Association of Catholic Priests' website that the presence of a bishop at Fr Fagan's funeral would have been "a golden occasion to express metanoia and the readiness to respond more sensitively to the message of the Gospel" and it would have meant so much to the Marist priest's family.

The Augustinian, who recently published The Church -- Always in Need of Reform, said the presence of a bishop at Fagan's funeral would have given witness to the triumph of Gospel values over institutional church attitudes. "Regrettably no bishop was present," he wrote. "I believe that this omission was not personal; it was institutional."

"It is highly probable that many bishops knew that the Roman Curia had behaved in a thoroughly unjust and unchristian fashion when it attacked six Irish priests who were giving admirable and enlightened service to God's people," he continued. "No bishop expressed public disapproval of what was happening, or came to the defense of priests who were being treated so appallingly by men who would have described themselves, somewhat implausibly, as Christians."

His criticism was echoed by another censured Irish priest, Redemptorist Fr. Tony Flannery, who told NCR, "It is a matter of shame for Church authorities, both in the Vatican and Ireland, that he was treated so dreadfully in his later years."

At Fagan's funeral Mass in the Church of St. Columba and St. Gall in Milltown in Dublin, his fellow Marist priest, Fr. Declan Marmion, told the congregation that the elderly cleric's final years "were not easy."

He said the sanctions imposed by Rome as a result of his books, What Happened to Sin? and Does Morality Change?, "hit him particularly hard."

"The great service Sean Fagan did for a generation of Catholics was to help free us from excessive guilt and fear of eternal damnation, and by doing so he opened us up to experiencing more fully the love of God for each one of us," Flannery told NCR.

In 2008, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith silenced Fagan by ordering him to stop writing articles and books and giving interviews to the media. He was threatened with laicization if he wrote anything contrary to the magisterium and forbidden from revealing the terms of his censure to the media.

Fagan was a former superior general of the Marists. The order bought up all remaining copies of his books and many suspect they had them pulped.

Fagan was critical in his writings of the church's position on mandatory celibacy, women's ordination and homosexuality. Over 10 years ago, he called for an inquiry into clerical sexual abuse in every diocese in the Irish church.

In 1998, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, which was then headed by Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger (the future Pope Benedict XVI), wrote to the Marist leadership in Rome urging them to repudiate, as contrary to the church's magisterium, his book Does Morality Change?, which had been published the previous year.

The Irish bishops in 2000 came under pressure from the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith to denounce Fagan's writings but they held off until the book was reprinted in 2004, when they issued a warning about its contents.

In 2008, his book Whatever Happened to Sin? was published and in 2010, he was told by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith he would be stripped of his priestly faculties should he publish anything again which it deemed contrary to church teaching or if he disclosed his censure to the media.

In 2014, the restrictions on him were partially eased following an intervention by the former Irish president, Mary McAleese, who wrote to Pope Francis about the matter.

According to the Marist order, the only sanction removed by the Vatican was the threat of dismissal from priesthood. The ban on Fagan's writing, broadcasting, publishing remained right up to his death.

"Sean died under sanction by the church he loved and served so well," Angela Hanley, a theologian, who edited the work Quench not the Spirit, a book of essays to honor Fagan and became a personal friend of his, told NCR.

In his blog, Daly said that as the friends and family of Fagan laid him to rest "after all the suffering and injustice inflicted on him by the leaders of his own church, it became all too evident how divided the Catholic church has become in Ireland and how so little is being done to heal the wounds of our internal divisions, and this at a time when the church is in grievous difficulties -- many of its own making."

The Augustinian stressed that the Second Vatican Council had made it very clear that diocesan bishops take precedence over curial bureaucrats, even those of prelatical rank.

He said it would mean so much to many Catholics -- to say nothing about the victims of curial injustice - if our bishops and religious superiors were to come to the defense of Catholics being treated with no regard for justice or human rights.

In his writings, Fagan emphasized compassion over rigidity when applying church teaching to pastoral situations. His agenda was to "relativize our false absolutes."

According to Hanley, Fagan's constant mission was to help people understand the prodigal love of God -- "we all matter, we are all loved by God without reference to privilege or status."

"He told me there were times he wept after hearing confessions in the past, to see the damage done by the church to people's sense of self, the poor moral development and the desperate scruples than many suffered," she said. "Sean had no tolerance for clerical privilege. ... He rarely wore the black suit and Roman collar. He had a deep distaste for episcopal robes and pomp and circumstance."

"Sean's censure by the Vatican, in my opinion, would come under the heading of a violation of human rights in any mature and civilized state," Hanley continued. "He was never contacted directly by the CDF, he was never told the names of his accusers so that he could face them and challenge them. His health was badly affected by this lack of a right of reply and the culture of secrecy, which Sean despised."

She added, "His spirit was broken by how he was treated."

For the many supporters of Fagan, the only chink of light in this sorry tale is that books he wrote which were withdrawn and perhaps destroyed by his Marist congregation following his censure by the Vatican may in fact appear in print again.

The silenced priest bequeathed the copyright of What Happened to Sin? and Does Morality Change? to Hanley. For now, she is not willing to discuss her plans as she feels it is too soon after Fagan's death.

At his funeral Mass, Marmion highlighted how one of the books sold online for $300 -- which he said placed Fagan in the company of "a long list of liturgical luminaries" who had paid a high price for imagining how things could be different.

[Sarah Mac Donald is a freelance journalist based in Dublin.]

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