An Irish priest, Tony Flannery, CSsR, has announced that he plans to defy the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith's silencing of him. An article from today's New York Times appears accurate, but since there will probably be a great deal of discussion about this topic, and since the discussion about such matters is often misinformed, here is some context.
Fr. Tony Flannery is a Redemptorist priest, a popular writer and someone who has also been an outspoken critic of the church's handling of the sex abuse crisis in Ireland. As a member of a religious order, Fr. Flannery took a vow of obedience to his Redemptorist superiors, through whom he believes God will act. (The vow that members of religious orders take is in addition to the normal religious vows of poverty and chastity; and, in the case of a priest, that vow is in addition to his ordination promise of obedience to his local bishop.) When a priest who is a member of a religious order (a "religious priest") says, writes or does something that is judged by church authorities to be outside the bounds of orthodoxy or otherwise impermissible, restrictions on him are often communicated to him from the Vatican, through his superiors. Usually, those orders is communicated to the order's superior general in Rome, and then to the man's local superiors. (Sometimes, though, the religious order itself acts on its own accord.) Here, it seems, the Vatican directed the Redemptorists to remove Fr. Flannery from active ministry; ask him to step down from the leadership of the Association of Catholic Priests; direct him to cease publishing and public speaking; and sign a document stating that he adheres to the church's teaching about women's ordination and homosexuality, among other matters.
Normally, in these cases the issue begins to turns on obedience. The priest will be called by his religious superiors (who themselves are under the governance of the universal church) to adhere to the vows he made long ago. The conflict for the member of the religious order, then, comes down to a conflict between two sacred matters: one's conscience and one's vows, or, as my moral theology once professor put it, between justice and fidelity. Sometimes (Thomas Merton, OCSO, John Courtney Murray, SJ, Yves Congar, OP) the choice is for fidelity, and the person assents to his or her silencing, because they believe that God will work through their vows of obedience. Their faith in their promises to God means that they also have faith in God's promise to them. Or, as Merton said, "out of love of God who is using these things to attain ends which I myself cannot at the moment see or comprehend." (One difference today is that the Vatican is now requiring formal, written, and often public, statements of compliance and agreement. Merton, for example, was not asked to make any public statements about his agreement with the reasons behind the silencing.) In other cases (Roy Bourgeois and many others), the choice is for justice, because they believe that God is calling them through their conscience to speak out. Often, in cases where the silencing is not adhered to, and thus the vow of obedience is broken, the priest is dismissed from the religious order and, in some rare cases, excommunicated. Father Flannery fears, he said today, that his situation might lead to his excommunication. (Here is the statement from the Redemptorists.)
The key in these cases is this: It is never an easy choice. One can say that in a perfect world justice and fidelity would always be one, but we see in some cases they are not: the person's conscience does not allow him (or her) to live out the vow of obedience and so he speaks out; or the person's vow of obedience does not allow him to speak out so he remains silent. Remember that an informed conscience is the ultimate arbiter in the moral life, and one should never violate one's conscience, where, as the Second Vatican Council taught, we hear the echo of God's voice. (Clearly Fr. Flannery, an educated and thoughtful priest, knows what a formed conscience is.)
Let us pray for him, for all those who live in obedience, and for all those who seek justice.