Unity must not be confused with uniformity

Dear Editor, We have only to read the New Testament to see that its teaching never justifies the gratuitous exclusion of people from membership of the gathering of believers that we call the Christian Church. That is not the way in which Jesus behaved; nor should his followers. Cardinal William Levada had no right to accuse Fr Tony Flannery of heresy – a word that can have dire consequences in today’s Catholic Church (IC 7/11/13).

We are talking about the Church of Jesus Christ, not a military regiment where you are excluded if you do not conform to narrow-minded and arbitrary rules. We often wonder why so many men and women have left the Catholic Church or refuse to enter it today. Cardinal Levada’s unwarranted accusation of heresy against a good priest like Fr Tony Flannery is a plain illustration of why the institutional Catholic Church is in grave need of reform.

I have retired from a lifetime of studying and teaching theology in a university. There are conservatives and liberals in the Catholic Church; and I freely recognise that each has a contribution to make to a properly-functioning Church. What I cannot accept is that the conservative view has the power to declare itself to be the only allowable view, and to impose it upon more liberally-minded Catholics in the name of orthodoxy. Unity should never be confused with uniformity.

Christians are all bound to the tenets and values of the Gospel and to the classical Creeds of the Church; but we should recognise that differences in matters that do not belong to the essence of Catholic faith can legitimately vary, and that these differences enrich rather than threaten the values of Church life. Some Catholics place heavy emphasis on the need for conformity to the rules and regulations imposed by one party in the Church. I have read traditionalist statements that were vicious in their condemnation of fellow Catholics who were trying to make their faith intelligible to modern men and women. These people obviously regard themselves as good Catholics. They need to give some attention to being good Christians.

Cardinal Newman (soon to be canonised) wrote to his friend Bishop William Ullathorne of Birmingham during the First Vatican Council, complaining about the aggressively conservative party at the Council: “Why should an aggressive insolent faction be allowed to ‘make the heart of the just to mourn, whom the Lord hath not made sorrowful?’ Why can’t we be left alone, when we have pursued peace, and thought no evil?”

This noble sentiment from a distinguished Catholic can be applied with justice to the case of Fr Flannery and Cardinal Levada. Why can we not recognise that Church unity is always to be distinguished from the sort of uniformity which demands that Catholics should all think in the same way about the riches of their faith? One does not have to agree with an attitude or viewpoint in order to recognise its right to be freely expressed within the fold of the one Church.

Let’s be very clear about a most important matter: people like Cardinal Levada have every right to express their opinions. So do those who differ from him. Traditionalists, however, have no right to invoke their institutional power to punish those who hold views that they regard as heretical, in spite of the fact that those views do not belong to the essence of the Faith. Differences enrich rather than threaten the unity of the Church. Heresy is a dangerous word to brandish in circumstances that call for love and tolerance, as they are understood in the Gospel.

Yours etc.,

Fr Gabriel Daly OSA,


Dublin 16.