Fr Seán Fagan: theologian whose compassion challenged church rigidity

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Obituary: Cleric’s books resulted in him being threatened by Rome with laicisation

Fr Seán Fagan: Born– June 10th, 1927. Died – July 15th, 2016

Former president Mary McAleese said, on hearing of Fr Seán Fagan’s death, that “anyone wishing to comprehend the collapse of the Catholic intellectual tradition need only examine Seán Fagan’s tragic story”. His “long and illustrious priestly career was blighted in latter years by being silenced by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith”, she said.

In 2009, he recalled how his ministry since ordination in 1953 “has been primarily in the area of lecturing in theology in 13 different countries, with 12 years in Rome as secretary general of the Marist Fathers. But I was privileged through those years to be closely involved with gay and lesbian people, and with married couples barred from Communion by church law.

“Few church leaders have any idea of the intense suffering of all these people, for whom the church at present does practically nothing. To add insult to injury, clerics sometimes treat them as though their problems are their own fault. But in recent years I have discovered a new ministry, helping Catholics to hold on to their faith even if only by the skin of their teeth.”

Church teaching

He recalled how in December 1998 the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, then headed by Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger (later Pope Benedict), wrote to his superiors in Rome to inform him that his 1997 book Does Morality Change? had been denounced to the CDF “as not in keeping with church teaching”. He believed Rome was contacted by an Irish bishop about the book.

In 2000, the Irish bishops were instructed by Rome to denounce it. They demurred until the book was republished in 2004, when they issued a warning.

In 2009, he was admonished by Rome for a letter he wrote to The Irish Timeson ordaining women to the priesthood. In 2008, his book Whatever Happened to Sin? was published. In 2010, he was told by the CDF he would be laicised should he publish anything again it considered contrary to church teaching and should he disclose this censure to media.

In both books, as well as other writings, he set out to “relativise our false absolutes”, as he put it. All his writings emphasised compassion over rigidity when applying church teaching to pastoral situations.

Good standing

His tragedy was how much in keeping such thinking is with that of the current pope. It was hardly coincidental that Pope Francis restored Fr Fagan to good standing as a priest, albeit late in the day.

Born in Mullingar, Co Westmeath, in1927, Fr Fagan was the eldest of seven children. His father was killed in a traffic accident when he was 15 and his mother suffered a long debilitating illness. Both experiences had a major influence on him.

He joined the Marist Fathers in 1945 and, after a period at Milltown in Dublin, he spent a year studying in England before going to Rome where he spent many happy years in that international milieu.

Widely admired and respected as a courageous theologian and compassionate pastor, his latter decades were marred by bad health and his treatment by Rome.

Irish Times; 23 July 2016