Dissenting Voices Silenced

Dissenting Voices Silenced May 29, 2012

Kevin Hargaden works for a small church in the suburbs of Dublin and is preparing for ordination with the Presbyterian Church in Ireland. He blogs at and is a board member of the (IBI).

When my elder brother got married almost ten years ago, the priest who celebrated the service made a lasting impression on my family. Although I am now on track to be a Presbyterian minister, I was raised in an Irish Catholic family. My parents have maintained a faith in the triune God in the face of the dreadful scandals surrounding the Irish Catholic Church. They love the faith that their parents, devout Catholics, passed on to them. This fidelity has been challenged by their confusion following many of the pronouncements of their church leaders. Fr Gerard Maloney however, in his humility and his authenticity, renewed the hope of my parents in their church.

Wide open now: How do we respond to dissent in our churches? When is the time to silence and a time to “permit”?

It was therefore a profound shock when we discovered earlier this month that Fr Maloney, a priest of the Redemptorist Order, who edits a magazine called “Reality“, has been censored by the Roman Catholic Church. Along with his peer, Fr Tony Flannery, he is now limited in what he is free to write . Fr Flannery and Fr Maloney joined the Cistercian priest, Fr Owen O’Sullivan, who received a slap on the wrist in 2010 following an article in a journal of pastoral theology where he mused on how best to care for homosexuals in the church. The sanctioning of Frs Flannery, Maloney and O’Sullivan has now been followed by similar diktats against one of Ireland’s best known priests, Fr Brian D’Arcy who writes a weekly column for a popular newspaper and often broadcasts on BBC radio in Britain and against the moral theologian Fr. Sean Fagan.

There are three serious missional questions that I see arising from this new hardline trend from the Vatican towards “liberal” Irish Catholic clergy.

The first is what does the clampdown on dissent, following the revelations of decades of serious and heinous widespread abuse committed in Catholic institutions teach us about how we as communities respond to sin? Specifically, what does it mean to authentically repent as an institution (can institutions repent or is it limited to individuals?) so that we don’t slip into scapegoating marginal dissidents or initiating crusades that distract us from our sin?

Secondly, how do we respond ecumenically, in love, for church communities and traditions that are really struggling?

Finally, how can we gratefully reflect on the freedom of conscience and speech that Reformation theology provides without slipping into triumphalism or arrogant complacency?

Irish evangelicalism represents just less than 1% of the state’s population! It would be wrong to suggest that the eyes of the nation are on our communities as we react to the apparently draconian methods being implemented from Rome. But nonetheless, the sanctions from the Vatican do remind us that how we tolerate and indeed encourage diversity in our corporate speech, extending patience to views outside the mainstream of evangelicalism, is not just a distinctive of our stream of Christianity but an example for others to follow. We surely should protect that diversity, especially when it makes us uncomfortable, whether in America, Ireland or anywhere else.

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