The decline of the Catholic Church in Ireland has included a steep drop in vocations to the priesthood. While Ireland once exported its surplus of priests across the world just 13 men began training for the priesthood here last year. Added to that, the average age of priests is 70. Many parishes are staffed by elderly men who would be enjoying retirement in other professions.
Priestly vocations have often been described as a ‘calling’. Is there something about this secularising island, including the impact of clerical abuse scandals, that makes God’s voice hard to hear? Research points to a counter-narrative, one in which some people believe that God still speaks. Anne Francis’s study of women in ministry in Ireland was simply titled Called to emphasize women’s deep conviction that they were responding to a supernatural prompting to serve.
It is a conviction shared by Soline Humbert, who has felt called to the priesthood since she was a student at Trinity College Dublin in the 1970s. While she quietly stifled her call for decades, she celebrated her first public Eucharist 25 years ago – without, of course, the blessing of the Catholic Church. Humbert’s decision to defy official Church teaching was in part stimulated by a 1994 apostolic letter from Pope John Paul II which condemned even discussing women’s ordination. Hopes that Pope Francis would be more open to women’s ordination have not materialized. “It was a big relief when I could be open about [my vocation]”, said Humber. “Before, it was like being in a tomb – gradually you end up dead inside.’
John Paul II later said that those who continued to discuss women’s ordination ‘were effectively excommunicating themselves’. But women around the world have continued to hear a call, with growing numbers organising their own ordinations, celebrating Eucharist and taking responsibilities for parishes, building thriving ministries despite their excommunication.
Across the island, there are around 400 women ‘ministering as their main life choice’, including Protestant clergy, Catholic Religious and laity with formal roles in church structures. While these women reported feeling fulfilled by their calling, 70% across all Christian traditions believed gender issues had negatively impacted their life or work.
Almost all Catholic women thought that a patriarchal Church culture prevented women’s ordination and felt their contributions to ministry were not valued by authorities. Similarly, some Presbyterian clergy believed the validity of female ordination was under attack by conservative elements in their church. Between 2013 and 2020, Rev Dr Stafford Carson, who opposes women’s ordination, was principal of Union Theological College, where ministers for the Presbyterian Church are trained.
Female clergy in the Church of Ireland and Methodist churches were most likely to feel valued. But women remain under-represented among their clergy and in positions of leadership. Pat Storey, Bishop of Meath and Kildare, is the only female bishop in the Church of Ireland; while Rev Dr Heather Morris, a former President of the Methodist Church, serves as the church’s General Secretary. A study found that while 20% of clergy in the Church of Ireland are women, they are less likely than their male counterparts to be employed as rectors of a parish and more likely to be serving in part-time or non-stipendiary posts.
Honouring the contribution of women?
In March 2021, the Irish Catholic Bishops Conference announced a ‘synodal pathway’, which will lead to a National Synodal Assembly in the next five years. Pope Francis has enthusiastically promoted synods as mechanisms for the Church to discern the will of the Holy Spirit, including contributions from lay and ordained.
As part of the process, the Bishops Conference has identified seven areas for ‘listening to what the Holy Spirit is saying to the Church in Ireland’, one of which is ‘honouring the contribution of women’. Dr Nicola Brady, a lay Catholic who as General Secretary of the Irish Council of Churches is responsible for administering the island’s national-level ecumenical structures, has been named chair of the synodal steering committee. Her appointment reflects her expertise – and raises expectations that the synod will take women’s perspectives seriously.
Women’s inclusion is an urgent issue. While women are more likely to be regular churchgoers and pray more often than men, they feel undervalued by the Catholic Church. A study found that a stunning 74% of Irish Catholic women believed that the Church did not treat them with ‘a lot of respect’, compared to just 6% of Protestant women. It also found that 84% of Catholic and 95% of Protestant women were in favour of female clergy.
Former President Mary McAleese has captured the mood, describing the Catholic Church as ‘a primary global carrier of the virus of misogyny’. A 2018 poll found that 55% agreed with McAleese that the Church does not treat women equally and 62% agreed with her support for the ordination of women.
But dreams that the synod’s pledge to ‘honour’ women might extend to consideration of women’s ordination are likely to be misplaced. Pope Francis has been very clear that synods are not instruments to change church teaching, but rather to apply teaching more pastorally. It is not yet clear how conversations about women will be framed by the synod. Regardless, the women who feel ‘called’ will continue to bear witness to what they regard as the voice of God.
An outspoken US nun who was recently embroiled in a censorship row with Melbourne’s Archbishop has warned Australia’s Catholic Church it faces an inevitable decline unless it stops suppressing rank-and-file members pushing for reform.
The nation’s bishops are under pressure to overhaul the church after years of sex scandals and internal unrest, and one of America’s most prominent Benedictine nuns, Sister Joan Chittister, has now renewed calls for women to be ordained and for laypeople to be given more power over their parishes, declaring that the church needs to “grow up” if it wants to thrive.
Such reforms were meant to be thrashed out at the most significant conference Australian Catholic bishops have held in 80 years, the Plenary Council, which is scheduled to take place in October.
However, working documents prepared for the event have prompted concerns that some of the more contentious issues on the agenda could be cast aside or not addressed properly by the bishops, despite past assurances that “everything is on the table”.
“Everyone knows that the church in Australia needs a major overhaul of its governance, culture and structures, but instead of setting out a clear, concise and coherent blueprint for reform, this document is a ground plan for inertia,” said Catholics for Renewal president Peter Wilkinson. “It is very disappointing.”
Sister Joan, who this month headlined an event by the Australasian Catholic Coalition for Church Reform, told The Age and The Sydney Morning Herald she shared concerns that “suppression by the bishops” would impede much-needed improvements. This, she warned, would prompt more members to abandon their parishes.
“There are one of two ways that this can end. The bishops can embrace the concerns and the need for resolution or they continue to ignore the laity – at which point the church will some day wake up in the morning and find out that the church is in fact gone.”
In a speech to a 3000-strong audience this month, Sister Joan added: “Catholicism must grow up, beyond the parochial to the global, beyond one system and one tradition to a broader way of looking at life … Why not married priests, women priests, or women cardinals?”
Sister Joan is a writer, feminist and theologian who has spent 50 years advocating for social justice and church reform. However, the prominent US nun found herself at the centre of an Australian censorship saga two years ago, when she was disendorsed from speaking at a Catholic education conference soon after Melbourne Archbishop Peter Comensoli learnt of plans to include her.
The snub prompted a fierce backlash from rank-and-file Catholics, but the Archdiocese initially sought to dismiss the matter as a misunderstanding, saying the Archbishop had simply requested “that more names aligned to the themes of a national Catholic education conference be considered”.
Sister Joan disagreed, describing the episode as an “insult” to the Catholic education system.
“Of course it was censorship; there wasn’t any doubt about that,” she said this week. “Nobody has a right to tell anybody else what to think. That is not helpful to any organisation – state or church. You’re only burning it down from the bottom up if you do that.”
Sister Joan’s appearance in Australia comes at a critical moment for the church ahead of October’s Plenary Council. Expectations were high in the wake of the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Abuse, which found the hierarchical nature of the church, coupled with its lack of governance, had created “a culture of deferential obedience” in which the protection of paedophile priests was left unchallenged.
However, rank-and-file Catholics have become increasingly concerned about the church’s will to change. Such fears were compounded in March when a working document prepared for the Plenary Council did not give enough credence to critical issues that members have been seeking to address.
Peter Johnstone, the head of the Australasian Catholic Coalition for Church Reform, urged Australia’s bishops to use the Plenary Council to genuinely tackle the “existential crisis” the church faces.
More than 100 Roman Catholic parishes in Germany offered blessings to gay couples on Monday in defiance of church teaching and their own bishops.
The call for nationwide blessings came in response to a decree issued by the Vatican on March 15, reinforcing the church’s prohibition of priests asking for God’s benevolence for gay couples, stating that God “does not and cannot bless sin.”
A group of 16 German priests and volunteers organized a petition that within days collected more than 2,000 signatures. Encouraged by the response, they decided to take their action one step further and declare May 10 — chosen because of its association with Noah, who in the Bible is recognized by God with a rainbow, a symbol that has more recently been adopted by the L.G.B.T.Q. community — as a day to hold blessing ceremonies for any and all couples, but especially those in same-sex unions.
“In view of the refusal of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith to bless homosexual partnerships, we raise our voices and say: We will continue to accompany people who enter into a binding partnership in the future and bless their relationship,” the group said in a statement. “We will not refuse a blessing ceremony.”
The Vatican had no comment on Monday, but the head of the conference of Roman Catholic bishops in Germany, Georg Bätzing, who is also the bishop of Limburg, rejected using public blessing ceremonies as what he called “instruments for symbolic actions on church policy or for protests.”
“It is part of the pastoral ministry of the church to treat all of these people fairly in their respective concrete situations on their life’s journey and to accompany them pastorally,” Bishop Bätzing said in a statement, speaking for the country’s bishops. “In this context, however, I do not consider public actions such as those planned for 10 May to be helpful or a way forward.”
The Roman Catholic Church teaches that marriage can only be between a man and a woman, because that is God’s plan for the creation of life. Church doctrine says that while gay people must be treated with dignity, homosexuality is “intrinsically disordered.” Pope Francis has not changed this teaching, but has occasionally raised the hopes of gay Catholics by speaking of the need to love and welcome gay and transgender people.
The German church is among the most powerful and liberal in the world, and Roman Catholics everywhere were watching the response to the blessings for signals of how the church might respond to attempts at reform from those in the pews and from the priests who are often among those most active in finding ways to include gay men and lesbians in the church.
“There has been this incredible discussion in Germany about same-sex couples specifically that has not taken place anywhere else,” said Francis DeBernardo, the executive director of New Ways Ministry, which represents gay and lesbian Catholics in the United States. “No other group has done something like that.”
A few German parishes held blessing services on Sunday and dozens more took place Monday, many of them in churches in the heavily Roman Catholic western regions of the country, home to many of Germany’s most liberal Catholics. Some were streamed live, while others offered virtual blessings over social media, “whenever and wherever you want.”
By contrast, only a few parishes in the heavily Roman Catholic southern state of Bavaria, the more deeply conservative region where Pope Benedict XVI grew up, held services.
Churches that were not offering ceremonies were encouraged to fly a rainbow flag or other banners recognizing and celebrating love in all of its forms as worthy of God’s graces.
The Rev. Bernd Mönkebüscher, pastor in the Church of St. Agnes in the western town of Hamm and one of the initiators of the campaign, said that every Valentine’s Day, his parish holds blessings for all couples, including those from same-sex unions and those who remarried after a divorce.
“We held a blessing service this Valentine’s Day, but it was important to us in view of this story from Rome to send a clear signal that the church must recognize, honor and appreciate life in all of its many colors,” said Father Mönkebüscher, who identifies as gay. “It is an important gesture toward those people who the church for years, if not decades, has viewed as second-class citizens.”
At least 30 couples had registered to take part in the ceremony in his parish on Monday, he said, adding that the number of participants was limited because of restrictions to prevent the spread of the coronavirus. “We are fully booked out,” he said.
During the ceremony, Father Mönkebüscher walked around the nave, approaching couples who sat in pairs, socially distanced and masked. They rose as he placed a hand on their shoulders and spoke a blessing as they bowed their heads. After one lesbian couple had received their blessing, they dropped their masks and shared a kiss, wiping away tears.
Not everyone has been receptive of the initiative. One parish in Bavaria received threats from members of an arch-conservative Roman Catholic group and had to call the police to ensure the safety of participants at their ceremony.
According to official statistics, 272,771 people formally quit the Church in 2019, a record number that helped to galvanize efforts among the bishops to discuss with the church a series of issues they believe were contributing to the loss of members. Among them were the role of women in the church, its teachings on sexual morality, priestly celibacy and clerical power structures.
In 2019, they began a series of talks on these topics, discussions of which would be off-limits for the church in many other countries. The talks were to take place among the faithful and church leaders over the course of two years but were extended because of restrictions on gatherings that were introduced last year at the outbreak of the pandemic. They are now to continue into February 2022.
Among those leaving the Church in Germany are many same-sex couples, who are tired of feeling they are not accepted for who they are, said the Rev. Reinhard Kleinewiese, who held a blessing at the Church of St. Mary in the western town of Ahlen on Sunday evening. Ten couples attend, all of them heterosexuals.
“We can’t ignore the fact that a lot of homosexual couples have already left the church. There are many who don’t come anymore,” Father Kleinewiese said. “Nevertheless, it is good and important for this situation and beyond that we make clear that we are not in agreement with Rome on certain issues and prohibitions.”
The pop of pepper ball pellets echoed in the night as police converged on demonstrators who gathered in front of a church to protest the death of Daniel Prude.
“Sanctuary!” an activist filming the protest shouted to his peers. “Go inside!”
Protesters streamed into Spiritus Christi Church, a congregation led by the Rev. Myra Brown, one of Rochester’s most vocal advocates for racial justice. That night, she stepped into a new, unofficial role, trying to bridge the divide between a growing group of Rochester residents fed up with city leadership and the officials still struggling to handle a city in crisis
Video of Prude’s March encounter with Rochester police shows him naked, handcuffed and hooded; he died a week later. The images, which were not released until September, sparked days of protest. Prude’s name — along with George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Rayshard Brooks and other Black Americans killed by police this year — is now invoked in the nationwide racial justice movement.
It also galvanized Rochester, an industrial city on Lake Ontario where residents have, for decades, pushed for police reform and fought against racism
A respected community leader whose golden singing voice fills the church, Brown has the ear of both the city’s leadership and its grass-roots advocates. A former nurse whose ministry is as tied to racial justice as it is to God, she emerged as a key channel of reason and understanding as tensions between police and protesters escalated, helping change the trajectory of the protests.
She was at home when she got the call that the church, home to a breakaway Catholic congregation, was being hit by pepper balls and the injured were taking refuge inside.
“I need you to get your officers to stand down,” Brown told then-Police Chief La’Ron Singletary. After some haggling with the top police official — who has since been fired amid revelations that he may have tried to minimize the department’s role in Prude’s death — a line of officers surrounding the building receded and those taking refuge inside began to leave.
The following day, Brown brokered a deal with Mayor Lovely Warren: the police would pull back and activists could march freely. Brown and 100 “elders” from the community and area churches served as a buffer between protesters and police that night.
The protests stayed peaceful. Brown was later thanked by city officials and painted as a partner in their efforts — a role she said she did not play.
She said she felt “used” by the city. Brown believed she was “negotiating a better path and a better response for the community” in her talks with Warren and Singletary, a goal she was easily behind.
The message, she said, should not have been, “Reverend Myra partnering to save the system.”
‘We like to deny’
Brown believes Rochester has not recognized how that system, along with historical wrongs and discriminatory policies that include putting Black children in substandard schools, have contributed to systemic racism in a city that is 40 percent Black.
“We like to shift the narrative here,” Brown said. “We like to deny.”
Raised in Rochester by parents who were farmworkers in the South, Brown, 55, saw the difference up close when she and other members of a racial justice convoy spent a week in 2017 touring six cities that have significance to their mission. Stops included Selma and Montgomery, Ala. They went to Cleveland, where a police officer in 2014 shot and killed Tamir Rice, a 12-year-old playing with a toy gun.
On the trip, the complicated nature of American racism revealed itself through a candid conversation with a parole officer in Ohio who admitted to feeling like “every Black youth is equally dangerous,” Brown recalled
The officer, who was Black, was worn down by the system and was repeatedly troubled by “the boys he was working with,” Brown said.
Brown, in an essay about the trip, said the group learned that they “must work tirelessly to end racism where we live.”
“To become our best selves,” she wrote, “we must humbly hold ourselves accountable and be open to being held to account when we yield to our worst selves.”
For years, Brown has been working to change Rochester from the pulpit of Spiritus Christi. She spent years worshiping and serving in various positions with the Rev. James Callan, a Catholic priest who violated strict Vatican guidelines by blessing same-sex couples and allowing women to perform the functions of priests. The Vatican forced Callan, who made civil rights the centerpiece of his ministry, from his church.
Callan’s ousting and final Mass was front-page news in the Rochester Democrat and Chronicle: “Huge goodbye to Callan,” the headline read. The mayor at the time told Callan, “Wherever they send you, Jim, give ‘em hell
In 1999, Callan helped found Spiritus Christi, where he is now the associate pastor. Brown was ordained a priest in 2017 and started leading the congregation two years ago. Women are not allowed to be Catholic priests, but Spiritus Christi is not recognized by the Vatican
Brown delivers sermons, wearing a stole with “Black Lives Matter” etched in gold, that highlight a moral obligation to address racial injustices. At a Sunday this fall, a White congregant with a long gray beard showed up to church in a “Black Lives Matter” T-shirt. Equality is Spiritus Christi’s mission.
The church is working on building an outdoor museum in Rochester’s Baden Park — a site of unrest in the 1960s — to raise awareness for the area’s history of housing and employment inequality, and what Brown said was Black community’s mistreatment by police.
Brown tells congregants and community members that the political system was established generations ago by the White, male, elite and was built to serve its creators. She says that modern-day policing is derived from Southern slave patrols. The diversity we see now in government and the private sector is “because people pushed their way in,” Brown said.
Brown, who greets both strangers and friends with her inviting smile, believes Rochester is no exception. Yet she has faith she can help enlighten hearts and minds through education, kindness and respect. It will be no easy task.
“We haven’t done anything to change the structure, we’ve simply moved the pieces around,” she said. “That is why you have what happened to Daniel Prude.”
Brown finds herself working within the confines of what she believes is a broken system, and hoping for the best. She spent four hours facilitating a discussion on race in September with 18 guests, mostly candidates for local office.
The group covered, with her guidance, how the legacy of slavery and broader systems of racism in this country applies to issues they face in their lives and work
New York State Assemblyman Harry Bronson (D) said Brown is able to convey the history that informs structural racism because she is willing to listen to others and treats all with respect.
“Even if they don’t agree with her, they’re open to having those conversations,” he said
Bronson, who is White, said he left with a deeper understanding of White guilt and White fragility, as well as how to recognize racism. Candidates also discussed structural, cultural and institutional racism in society.
“Those kind of thoughts and ideas are going to be beneficial as I continue to develop policy,” Bronson said.
Demond Meeks, a Rochester organizer recently elected to the state assembly, said Brown earns trust by showing respect while facilitating judgment-free conversations about difficult issues.
“She’s someone that can speak to both sides and try to get people to come to a consensus of sorts,” Meeks said
Meeks said community relations with the police have been fractured for years. Many protesters are still haunted by the 2002 fatal police shooting of 14-year-Craig Heard. The eighth-grader was allegedly driving a stolen car. According to the Rochester Democrat and Chronicle, police alleged the boy was trying to run an officer over.
“People are quick to speak about George Floyd and other situations that have happened throughout the country,” Meeks said. “But we have a history of these things happening right here in Rochester.”
Warren said it is “no secret” that Rochester — along with every other city in the country — has issues with systemic racism and police brutality.
“The problems of the past cannot be changed or erased, but we can learn from them,” she said in a statement.
A ‘pathway forward,’ despite a broken system
Days after the video of Prude being detained by police was made public, Brown was among the throngs of protesters gathered in front of Rochester’s Public Safety building — a facility that, to many, represented systemic injustice. The group had been blocked from getting close to the building on previous nights, fueling discontent.
Earlier in the day, Brown brokered a deal with Warren to get the police to pull back its roving detail and allow the activists to march freely. She also pushed for the ability to intervene on site, giving her time to try to diffuse a problem before police responded with force.
On the ground, she and about 100 other elders from the community and area churches were serving as a buffer between the police and protesters. It was tense at times, but the tactic worked: That night was the first of many relatively peaceful ones to come.
Throughout the night, Brown fielded calls from Singletary, who believed some in the crowd were getting out of hand. She convinced Singletary and Warren to give her “at least five minutes” to diffuse situations before officers “start to get trigger-happy and nervous,” she said. The officials agreed to work with Brown.
Brown said her goal was to create a “pathway forward to make sure the community was safe to grieve,” that they “were not attacked by police and not re-traumatized.”
Elders, she reasoned, could provide the life experience and patience that some of the young people needed. They should also be willing to listen.
That night, a young Black man she encountered was visibly hurting, his voice shrill and intense. As others fell silent, he continued to chant by himself in a way that was “coming out sideways,” she said.
Hi sweetie, how you doing?” Brown asked the young man. She saw an opportunity to show him love and see that his hurt did not get the best of him, leading to conflict. She said she asked him in her “softest and gentlest voice” to please lower his volume so she could hear the speaker on the megaphone.
The young man said he was sorry.
“You don’t need to apologize,” Brown said. “I hear the pain in your voice, and I know its real for you, and I’m sorry about whatever you have gone through.”
Ashley Gantt, one of the main organizers of the Black Lives Matter movement in Rochester, said Brown has a reputation for doing good in the area.
“She’s like a mentor, slash activist, slash spiritual counselor,” she said. “And she can sing.”
Activists in Rochester have paused protest activity as coronavirus infection rates rise. They have turned their attention to advocating for a law that would remove police officers from mental health crisis calls like Prude’s, mirroring similar efforts around the country, Gantt said.
Brown’s negotiation with Singletary and Warren resulted in a news conference where she was thanked for her role. In public statements after the meeting, she was painted as a “partner” of those in power, a role she did not agree with. There was also confusion over Brown’s role in bringing elders to the protest; Gantt said others deserve credit for organizing their presence.
“Myra just let the mayor know what was happening, and then the mayor co-opted it,” Gantt said.
Brown was also unhappy with the city’s portrayal of her role as one that denoted a community partnership, which was not her intention.
“I felt used in that,” Brown said. “I never want to be framed as somebody working with the system that’s oppressive for people
In a statement, Warren said those considered to be elders are the most trusted and respected voices in the community and have been “instrumental in bringing together opposing sides.
“The presence of our city’s elders during recent protests and periods of unrest has been vital to the well-being of the Rochester community,” Warren said.
Brown told a Rochester television station that she was ultimately happy to have helped secure “a pathway forward” for the city, and acknowledged it would not have happened without Warren pushing Singletary to stand down.
“I can establish relationships with people without being tied to the oppression,” Brown said.
Fr Tony Flannery started laughing as soon as he read what he was expected to sign.
The outspoken priest, who was suspended by the Vatican in 2012, received a letter in September that suggested he could return to ministry if he signed a document vowing to obey the church’s teaching on women and LGBT+ people.
He had been effectively banned for publicly saying the church should change its position on such issues. “What kind of crazy people are they?” he laughed. Fr Flannery and others had hoped that Pope Francis had ushered in a more open era for the Catholic Church, but the Vatican still takes a hard line with those who challenge it.
Fr Flannery is aware of others who had taken on the Vatican and had died “because of the stress of the thing”.
“I’ve said to myself, the one thing I have to avoid is becoming embittered. Because if I become embittered I will destroy myself,” he says. “There are a lot of people in the church who think like me. Why don’t they go public? Some of them would be afraid, yes.”
The 72-year-old has taken advantage of his position in the pews, rather than at the altar, to write a new book called From the Outside: Rethinking Church Doctrine. It calls for sweeping reform of the Catholic Church, including its attitudes to women and sexuality.
“The church is so locked into old doctrines and old ideas, even though the world has completely moved on and left all of that behind,” he says.
He has little faith in those who are at the top of the church at the moment, and says the Vatican is full of “pathetic” careerism. The Irish Catholic bishops don’t inspire him either, and he notes that Archbishop Diarmuid Martin was the only senior Irish cleric to publicly welcome Pope Francis’s recent comments condoning civil partnerships for same-sex couples.
“What Pope Francis said was that homosexual people are human beings, who are as entitled to love and relationships as anyone else and should be respected as such. That is a huge leap forward. Church teaching is still very reliant on the old, awful discrimination against gay people.”
Fr Flannery was a founder of the Association of Catholic Priests, and at the height of the clerical child sex abuse scandal found himself bombarded with requests for help from accused clergy.
As a child, he was a victim of sexual abuse himself. He recoils at the word “survivor”, because he does not believe that his experience of abuse has had a devastating effect on his life.
In 2014, he upset survivors of institutional abuse and advocacy groups when he suggested that priests accused of child abuse should be forgiven and allowed to return to the ministry. He still believes, and argues in his book, that child abusers are not entirely bad people, and claims that they deserve forgiveness.
“The idea that the person who abuses a child is inherently a bad person, I don’t go along with that. I think that we are all inherently a mixture of good and bad,” he says.
I ask if he is aware this is a very upsetting thing to say? First of all, because of the possible perception that those within the church are once again shielding paedophiles from the consequences of their actions, and secondly because many people see child sex abuse as an evil thing that they could not possibly forgive. “There is an element of evil to child sex abuse, it is an awfully evil thing,” he agrees. “But I’d be fully aware that what I’m saying is not in line with the popular consensus, but that’s what has me where I am.”
Fr Flannery tries to broach the thorny issue of the incidence of paedophilia among Catholic clergy. He explains that making priests “superior” people with closer relationships to God is “dreadfully dangerous”. He believes that this, combined with forced celibacy and the church’s regressive attitudes to sexuality, can manifest itself in abusive behaviour.
But isn’t that also a deeply controversial thing to say? Not least because it suggests that anyone could be capable of the monstrosity of child abuse if they existed in certain circumstances. It also appears to lay the blame for abuse on the institution rather than the individual carrying it out.
“It is, I know,” he says. “And I’ve dealt with that many times over the last 10 years. I’d be fully aware of that. But that is the truth as I see it.”
For most of the last decade, he has been attacked by right-wing Catholic commentators.
He says it’s “probably true” that groups such as the Iona Institute have put people off Catholicism. He singles out the American Catholic Church for its “appalling” support of Donald Trump.
A number of prominent US Catholics chose to back Trump over Joe Biden, a devout Catholic, because the Republican candidate claimed to be anti-abortion while the Democrat supports pro-choice policies.
“Pope John Paul and Pope Benedict put the most right-wing, narrow-minded and reactionary people into office in the church in the United States,” Fr Flannery says.
“Abortion is a single issue, and life is much more complicated than that. The ironic thing is that Trump was doing feck all about abortion. He couldn’t care less about abortion.”
Fr Flannery said that he finds the issue of abortion “very, very difficult” but after much internal wrangling voted ‘yes‘ in the 2018 referendum — the most difficult vote of his life.
“I don’t have any connection with the emotion and the distress and everything else of pregnancy, the whole world is foreign to me. Here I would be again, another male celibate priest, telling women how they should live their lives. And I said, we’ve had more than enough of that,” he says.
The banned priest says that the more he has thought about it, the more convinced he is that the church’s attitudes to and exclusion of women has been a “biggest blight” on the institution since the beginning.
“It has to change, and it will change,” he said, dismissing attempts by Pope John Paul and Pope Benedict to shut down discussion on the issue as a “total failure”.
Even the current pope, who Fr Flannery refers to sympathetically as “poor aul’ Francis” for his uphill struggle for reform, has disappointed him.
“Some of the things he says about women are so patronising. Oh God, I go mad at times,” he says.
Fr Flannery’s arguments for church reform are clear and unapologetic.
But was there ever any fleeting doubt? Did he ever worry that the Vatican might be right, and that God might disapprove of what he was calling for?
“No,” he said, firmly. “I’d have no doubt that the Vatican and the way it operates has nothing to do with God.”
Much like Mary McAleese, Fr Flannery’s calls for the Catholic Church to be better have been regularly met with derision from some right-wing Catholics and the suggestion that he should “go off and become a Protestant”.
Well, why wouldn’t he? Surely after everything he’s been through with the Vatican, he must have considered it, even briefly?
“Arah, no,” he says. “Catholicism is part of what I am and has been all my life. I couldn’t even conceive of it.”