From the Outside: Rethinking Church Doctrine
by Fr Tony Flannery (Red Stripe/Orpen Press, €15/£13.99)
Fr Tony Flannery CSsR has been barred from his public ministry for nine years and was most recently in the public eye having declined to sign a document from the Congregation for the Doctrine of Faith (CDF) that would have led to his reinstatement. In it he was asked to assent to Catholic teachings regarding the ordination of women, same-sex marriage, homosexuality, and gender theory. In his own words: “I will not, indeed I could not, sign any of these propositions.”
In titling this work From the Outside: Rethinking Church Doctrine, Fr Flannery was setting out quite a challenging project. The thesis of the book is that, in being exiled, Fr Flannery was freed from the homogenising force of the Church and can look at Catholic doctrine “from the outside”. In theory, this affords him the opportunity to go much further in his analyses of the ills of the Church and its teachings than those “on the inside”.
This is not how it works in practice. The book leaves much to be desired regarding any diagnosis of the problems besetting Church doctrine, of which no doubt there are plenty. For a start, it is only 115 pages long, which given that it proposes to rethink Church doctrine from the ground up is not enough.
Fr Flannery begins by calling into question the Nicene Creed and its viability as a dogmatic pronouncement because, he says, it doesn’t correspond to modern sensibilities and knowledge regarding religion and Christianity. According to Fr Flannery, the Church’s foundational statement is too precise in its definition of God and the Trinity, “trying to impose unity – which can be a rather futile exercise” (p18).
By declaring the Creed a dogmatic pronouncement, the Church limited the possibility of looking at these declarations again and recognising they are “time-limited”. They claim a full knowledge of the nature of God, when in truth we have none, he suggests. From there, Fr Flannery goes on to question Church teaching on the divinity of Christ, denies the existence of original sin and argues that Mary’s birth was not exceptional as we are all immaculately born.
The substance of his argument is that times have changed and people today do not think the same as the early Christians. Or Christ for that matter – passages in the Gospels he disagrees with are fortunately later additions and not the words of Christ himself, Fr Flannery writes. He makes a worrying claim that we no longer take the Bible literally, as though we once did. Whether he was taught this or misunderstood, it puts into question the points he wishes to make, such as modern science’s disproving the Genesis story’s factual basis. His view is ultimately that we are just more enlightened then the poor souls in the past who believed the world was flat, that the Earth was the centre of the universe and that Jesus truly was the Son of God.
It is true that over-explanation can suffocate divine truths, and that the element of mystery that Fr Flannery wants to reclaim is integral to the Faith. But the mystery of the Faith is defined to ensure unity, coherence and the very existence of the Church, not merely to shut down opposition. In writing a book that seeks to rethink Church doctrine from the ground up, Fr Flannery demonstrates what this entails – it means dismantling the Creeds and beliefs of the Catholic Church and replacing them with something of your own. Fr Flannery’s sincerity and concern for the Faith is obvious, but this book does little to support his theological vision.