The Papal Whip

Do priests, like politicians, have a duty to toe a party line? Ryan Connolly argues that just as political parties may expect their members to adhere to key beliefs, the Church also has a right to insist that its public representatives give an honest account of its teachings.

Pope Francis has made headlines a great many times since he assumed the role of Pontiff. One day he is in the news thanks to his examples of poverty and humility, such as taking the bus to work or eschewing the Papal apartments in favour of simpler accommodation; the next for taking the time to phone people out of the blue who have written to him. Last month he was on the front page of newspapers around the world for his interview with the Jesuit magazine America. It was, however, for a very different reason that he most recently hit the headlines: his first excommunication.

Australian priest Fr. Greg Reynolds was excommunicated by Pope Francis due to his “public teaching on the ordination of women contrary to the teaching of the Church and his public celebration of the Eucharist when he did not hold faculties to act publicly as a priest”, according to Archbishop Denis Hart of the Archdiocese of Melbourne. Fr. Reynolds also claims that his views on homosexuality contributed to the decision. Excommunication essentially means that a Catholic has been barred from receiving and taking part in sacraments such as Communion and Confession. The purpose of it is first to make the excommunicated Catholic realise that the Church has a serious disagreement with their views or actions, and secondly to make other Catholics aware of this fact. But is this course of action fair? Is the Catholic Church, as Fr. Iggy O’Donovan recently claimed in the Irish Times, using the threat of excommunication to persecute priests who disagree with its teachings?

I don’t believe that it is unfair, or that the Church is being too harsh to priests who disagree with its teachings. To explain why, I’m going to use a recent example from Irish politics: that of the TDs who have been expelled from their parties by the present Fine Gael-Labour government. These members were expelled for defying the party whip. In reality, this means that they disagreed with party leadership on key issues. Several Fine Gael TDs and Senators, such as Lucinda Creighton and Peter Mathews, were recently expelled from the party for defying the Cabinet on the issue of abortion. Labour TD Colm Keaveney was expelled from the parliamentary party for voting against the Social Welfare Bill. This system is in place so that TDs will remain committed to the party line they agreed upon when they signed up for the party.

Similarly, the Church has a system for disciplining and excommunicating priests who refuse to follow and teach the beliefs that they signed up to. These are beliefs which the Church holds to be fundamental to Catholicism, and indeed in many cases critical to the salvation of its members. The Church has a right to have its beliefs represented fairly and accurately by its ministers, who agreed to teach and uphold those same beliefs when they were ordained as Catholic priests. Moreover, both Catholics and those interested in learning about Catholicism have a right to hear the actual teachings of the Church, rather than a personal viewpoint on what those teachings should be.

There is, however, a key difference between Fr. Reynolds and the TDs who have been expelled from Fine Gael and Labour. The expelled TDs were keeping what they saw as their pledge to the people of Ireland before the last general election. In the case of the expelled Fine Gael TDs, they had pledged not to vote for abortion, while Colm Keaveney had promised to protect his constituents from further cuts in certain areas. The TDs were upholding their promises; it was the government that changed its mind. But in the case of Fr. Reynolds, it is not the Catholic Church that has changed its beliefs and left him out in the cold. It is rather he himself who has not upheld the beliefs he signed up to preach when he became a Catholic priest.

Granted, perhaps Fr. Reynolds has changed his mind about Catholicism since he first became a priest. But if his views are now irreconcilable with Catholicism then the most honest and fair response to all involved would be to move outside the Catholic Church, or to found his own denomination as Martin Luther did. To use a political metaphor once more, he should leave the party and set up a new one, or run as an independent, since his views have become incompatible with those of his party. To draw another parallel, it is like a PR consultant who has been hired to promote Microsoft but then writes press releases criticising Microsoft and praising Apple. He’s not doing the job he agreed upon when he was hired, and it would be more honest for him to work for Apple instead.

It is a given that Fr. Reynolds and other priests like him have a right to freedom of speech and freedom of religion. But it is not fair both to the Church and to their congregations for them to present a set of beliefs as Catholic, or as compatible with Catholicism, when they are in fact contrary to the Church’s teachings, and the Church, just like any other organisation, has the right to insist upon its public representatives giving an accurate representation of its viewpoint.