I was reading recently of the bravery of the Irish Catholic priest, Fr. Tony Flannery, who, at 66, is being threatened by the Vatican.
No! I thought. The Vatican never threatens anyone!
The history of Christianity, and not just in Catholicism but in all Christian denominations, is similar. The Church has found that it thrives best not in a world it sacrifices itself to redeem -- not in a world it lays down its life in order to give life to others -- but, instead, it survives best by demanding coercion, by making itself into a "god" and insisting this God can only be known "our" way; by making its beliefs into an idol that the faithful must bow the knee. The church has found that, by drawing lines in theological and doctrinal sands, battle lines between "us," the theologically "correct" and "them," the doctrinally "wrong," that, by doing so, the church wins.
But does it really?
Of course, it does not, as history has repeatedly demonstrated. Unfortunately, however, history, at least as far as the church is concerned, has never been a very good teacher for church leaders.
For all the good the church has done, and it has done much good, the history of Christianity is in large measure the history of madness. This morning's story is simply another case-in-point.
Last year, for example, the Vatican suspended Flannery's ministry. And, today, Flannery is being threatened with charges of "heresy" and possible "excommunication" from the church.
Flannery has been an advocate for many years for more openness in the Catholic understanding of faith and practice. Although he is a popular writer all over the world, the fact is, however, to the male-dominated and frightened hierarchy of the Catholic Church, Flannery has become -- and is -- a threat too serious to ignore any longer. So much so, the Vatican recently told Flannery that they would return his ministry but only "if he agreed to write, sign, and publish a statement agreeing, among other things, that women should never be ordained as priests and that he would adhere to church orthodoxy on matters like contraception and homosexuality."
But, Flannery asks, "How can I put my name to such a document when it goes against everything I believe in?"
I would ask, "How contradictory can the Church be?" On one hand, the Church teaches people, and priests, to follow their conscience. When, on the other hand, they do, they are threatened.
Of course, Flannery could sign the bogus document and so get his ministry back. To capitulate to Church hierarchy would place him in the company of many other clerics who've compromised their character already. I know many, many priests, for example, who just "go along to get along." I coach and counsel many of them, as well as countless Protestant and evangelical ministers across the country. Many of them do not share the same religious views as their denominational leaders or even other colleagues. Furthermore, many of them share neither the theological views nor the doctrinal beliefs of those congregations that pay their salaries. But to get along, they go along.
In other words, the Flannery's of the Christian world are far too few. Many religious leaders have sacrificed who they really are on the altar of professional survival. They are silent when they should speak. They are themselves the fulfillment of the prophesy that the day would come when people would prefer ministers who preach what they want to hear and to do so pleasingly. The way the Apostle Paul put it is, "having itching ears, these pew warmers seek preachers who..."
Who know how to be good "ear scratchers." Where I come from, such people are called "butt kissers"!
And these ministers have found plenty of justification for kissing ass. Please pardon the blunt honesty, but isn't it true? Ministers today have found plenty of reason why they should remain quiet -- go along to get along -- plenty of reason for attempting to hoist their sail just high enough to carry their career to the shore of retirement where there, they can be done with the charade that is their life -- their ministry -- once-and-for-all.
It might surprise you but I know colleagues in church consulting, which is what I do, who live with the same kind of internal discord I tried to live with for years -- a discord that is created whenever who you really are, as well as what you really believe, you hide from others. You do this for what you mistakenly think is career survival. Find yourself experiencing a little success and the illusion thrives. Inside you, however, you know you are a lie. You feel imprisoned. And that's precisely because, you are. You're a phony and you know it.
I am no fortune-teller but I suspect the hopes of the Vatican to put pressure on Flannery and others in the Church like him, the other priests and Catholics who advocate for change, I suspect that the Church's demand that the faithful line up, straighten up and give blind obedience to church doctrine will only and finally succeed in backfiring on them. You see, if I've learned anything from my own history, once you've tasted the sweet cup of freedom -- the freedom to be and so believe as your conscience dictates, as God directs you -- anything else is, well, just plain bitter to the tongue and to the soul.
The day I decided I would no longer live my life pretending to be someone I'm not, saying I believed things I really did not, and all because I needed and wanted come congregation's approval, some denomination's endorsement or the next consulting contract, the day I decided I wanted the applause of heaven over the compliments of a congregant, colleague, or cleric, that's the day I became free. On the occasion of Martin Luther King, Jr. day, what could be more important upon which to reflect?
When it comes to integrity and character, when I decided that being like Flannery is infinitely more important than living for flattery, well, on that day, I experienced what the Gospel of John calls, "the New Birth."
The real New Birth.
The Roman Church and its misguided leaders may seek to "kill" the reputation and ministry of Flannery. But, they will succeed only in giving birth to other Flannerys, to other Martin Luther Kings, and perhaps to ______________. Well, could your name go there?
Oprah asked Lance Armstrong, "Do you know what I hope the lesson in all of this will be for you?"
"What's that?" he asked.
"That the truth shall make you free."
The truth always makes you free. And what is the truth? For any of us?
Look inside. It's the person you really are.
Who you really are just waits to be born.