Seán Fagan, Marist priest, moral theologian, comforter of the afflicted, afflicter of the comfortable, man of grace, mentor and friend, died quietly not long after sunrise on 15th July 2016 aged 89. Given the story of his latter years, there was something profoundly fitting that he should come from darkness into the light before he let go of his earthly life.
Over that long life as a dedicated priest and theologian, Seán inhabited completely the description of Marie-Dominque Chenu, who said: “The theologian, unlike the philosopher, works on history. His ‘givens’ are neither the natures of things nor their eternal forms, but events... And events are always tied to time... This, not the abstraction of the philosopher is the real world.” Seán was utterly grounded in the real world and spent a lifetime embodying the gospel he so fervently believed in. There was never discontinuity between his words and actions. He lived his faith, and it was a luminous faith. His God was the prodigal father and mother, boundless in compassion and love. His Church was the mustard tree that had room for everyone to find shelter. Though all who came in contact with him felt the power and light of his faith, those who should have cared and valued him for his evangelical witness, his joy in the Gospel, made a torment of his final years.
Johann Baptist Metz stressed the importance of biography of the theologian for theology. Only when a theologian lives an integrated life, owing one’s past, seeking God, thinking and reflecting on the reality of life as it is lived and does not treat theology as just the “job I do,” will his or her theology be credible and prophetic – and Seán’s was both credible and prophetic.
Seán was born in 1927 and grew up in Mullingar, Co. Westmeath, then a small provincial town of some 5,000 souls. Despite the grim times in Ireland of the 1930s and 1940s, he led an uneventful life in a loving and secure family until age fifteen when his father’s death in a traffic accident, and a period of debilitating illness for his mother, left him, as the eldest of seven children, the father (and sometimes mother) figure to his younger siblings, especially to the two youngest children. This experience had a profound effect on Seán and influenced his theology as he found himself continually placing the care of others at the heart of all his later theological reflection and discussion.
Immediately on leaving school in 1945, Seán joined the Marist Fathers, following a visit to the school by priests who had been on foreign missions – a normal recruiting method at the time. After a year in Milltown, Dublin, he spent a year in spiritual studies in the south of England and then in 1947 he went to continental Europe and spent eight, what he called, ‘marvellous years’ beginning in Rome, living and studying in an international atmosphere. An experience not to be under-estimated at a time when Ireland was intellectually, religiously, spiritually, politically as well as geographically insular.
According to an interview in The Sunday Independent of 16th November, 1975, Seán possessed ‘a sophistication rare in Irish people and probably gained from his many years abroad in various European countries.’ He loved this international experience and gained a deep appreciation, which was reinforced in his later travels, for the role of culture in the formation of the person in society. This international influence was also to profoundly affect his theology.
Seán the theologian and teacher
Though his particular expertise was in the area of sexual morality, Seán has always considered morality in terms of the person situated in society, a society that has a particular history that must be admitted and owned. His broad knowledge of church history, canon law, philosophy, psychology, languages and more importantly, his knowledge and love of scripture, made his work more than the sum of its parts. This holistic approach means that such a theologian never falls out of touch with his constituency. Though the possessor of a superb intellect, Seán never sought academic honour or advancement because he believed that his apostolate was to lighten the burdens (man-made or otherwise) of God’s people, whether that was guilt, fear, loneliness, rejection, desperation or any of the other myriad miseries that beset people. Love rather than the Law was his guiding principle.
Indeed, as a theologian, he never claimed originality but in the words of Austin Flannery: “he has used the findings of the best of the theological backroom boys, has shorn them of their jargon, and has made them accessible to the ordinary pastor, catechist and to the man and woman in the pew.’ This was Seán’s special gift and he has used it to the fullest in writing and broadcasting. It is especially evident in his books Has sin changed? and Does morality change? two extremely important books of adult formation on morality. Has sin changed? was a book of its time. Does morality change? has more a timelessness about it. Friends of Seán in the UK encouraged him to re-publish Has sin changed? But he decided on an update, and it was published as What happened to sin?– it was done in a hurry and it shows. Personally, I believe this book was a mistake. I think the words of the censor for the Dublin archdiocese who said “there are two books here” is correct. And it must be noted the censor hadn’t concerns aboout the effect of the book on the Church membership. Though, sadly it did hasten Seán’s downfall.
In the days after Seán’s death, I started compiling a list of the sayings and phrases he regularly used to condense an important thought – a pedagogical aid with a venerable history. Very quickly I came up with 15 and over the next few days added to the list to reach 22; a few that many of you will recognise:
- Relativise our false absolutes
- To be happy in your own skin
- No teaching has taken place until the student has learned
- Nobody grows alone – people need people – we are what our relationships allow us to be
- Admit, accept, adjust
- What is the “doing” doing to me?
Seán loved teaching and was an inspirational and highly motivated teacher. A liturgist, who taught here in Milltown, once told me that he had the class immediately after Seán’s, and the students used to come in still buzzing with excitement. My own experience of Seán was as mentor rather than teacher in the classroom setting. Seán loved nothing better than to discuss theology; he loved to challenge others, but – importantly – was willing to be challenged himself. He didn’t need to know it all. He was always willing to listen to the argument made. If it made sense, he accepted it, if not, he’d a very gentle way of leading a person to see the flaw in their own argument. This was perhaps his greatest gift – he was one of the most affirming and encouraging people it has been my blessing to know.
Has sin changed? – Does morality change?
Seán’s first book, Has sin changed? was a publishing sensation in Ireland and elsewhere, capturing something of the post Vatican II zeitgeist. This was at a time when morality was seen much more in terms of sin and retribution and of obeying the rules rather than as a freely-chosen responsibility. This was also a time when it seemed that the only real sin in the Catholic church was sexual sin. Has sin changed? was a book that called for a completely new approach to sin using a well thought out adult assessment that saw it in the context of life choices and behaviour, rather than the childish, simplistic notion of rewards and punishment.
The church Seán envisaged in his book would have ‘much fewer and far less detailed moral rules than in the past, and will focus more on fundamental principles of moral reasoning, deeper insight into human and Christian values, and a heightened sense of personal responsibility among the faithful.’ We seem as far from this hope in 2017 than in 1978, even with Francis as bishop of Rome.
Seán was a great promoter of individual responsibility – not individualism, mind! He wanted people to think deeply about their choices, not just to consult a list of rules. But it wasn’t just about choice as he says in Does Morality Change?:
Morality is about choice… what is the morally right thing to do? …But conscience is more than just decision. …It calls to something deep within our nature, and leaves us with the conviction that we must obey it if we are to be true to ourselves. In this sense, conscience is more than just intellect and will, knowledge and consent. On this deepest of all levels, conscience is the core of our being as free persons.
…Morally mature people know their own limitations and weakness, but are constantly open to new information, new insights, new values and they want to grow in sensitivity and willingness to do good.
Seán’s spirituality was, in reality, quite simple. It reflected the kindness and compassion of Jesus as portrayed in the gospels. With that kindness and compassion there was also a steely determination to call to account those in power who mediated a harsh and unforgiving Church. Seán’s constant mission was to help people understand the prodigality of God’s love – we all matter, we are all loved by God without reference to privilege or status. He told me that there were many times when he wept after hearing confessions in the past – witnessing the damage done by the Church to people’s sense of self, their poor moral development and the desperate scruples that many suffered.
It was this compassion and inclusiveness that informed all Seán’s actions – in his bones he believed utterly that we are all church. For Seán, the exclusion of wider ecclesia from decision-making made a mockery of the inclusiveness articulated at Vatican II. In 1987 he cast a jaundiced eye at the Synod of Bishops on the vocation and mission of laity, pointing out that:
As subjects they are excluded in principle, and no amount of ‘consultation’ can alter this fact. …Consultation is simply not enough. Those consulting decide on the topic, its scope, degree of detail, duration and timing of the consultation, and then filter and summarise the results to fit a pre-decided conclusion. (D&L Jan 1987)
It seems almost counter-intuitive that Seán’s sense of the boundless compassion of God, of the value each one of us has in the sight of that loving God, the Church as mustard tree, the symbol of Christian inclusiveness, should be what brought him into conflict with the Church authorities. But that’s what happened. Seán wasn’t a maverick, who sought attention for its own sake. His outspokenness came not as being an outsider, beating his own drum, but from being very much an insider with a deep understanding of the institution to which he faithfully committed just over 70 years by the time of his death. In 1994 he said:
…An objective study of church history is a sobering experience, showing how often the institutional elements hindered or even stifled the Spirit. It is no service to truth to ignore such attitudes and actions.
…church leadership, in prayerful consultation with the rest of the faithful, has the task of discerning the gifts, testing the spirits to see if the new initiatives are from God, but their discernment will be seriously defective unless they have a firm conviction that the charismatic reality of religious life is an essential part of the life and holiness of the church. For their part, religious …must remain true to their vocation to be spearheads, pioneers, Kingdom-spotters, even when it means being a thorn in the side of those whose charism is to discern and co-ordinate. …We need each other (RLR, Mar-Apr 1994)
It is worth noting here that two of Seán’s heroes, Bernhard Haring C.S.s.R. and Richard McCormick, S.J. giants of 20th century moral theology, both admitted that they needed to re-think some of their earlier work – Haring, because he felt he’d been too cautions in not wanting to challenge the ruling class within the Church, McCormick because he believed that he’d uncritically followed the laws and teachings of the Church, and experience had taught him that life does not fit neatly into the package of laws and rules. Seán never had to revise his attitudes nor apply corrective vision.
Seán came to the attention of the Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF) (which is a direct descendant of the Roman Inquisition) in 1998 for his second book Does Morality Change? published the previous year. Somebody had denounced the book to the CDF as not in keeping with Catholic teaching. Seán was never given the name of his accuser, nor offered the opportunity to face him/her. Instead his religious superior (was there ever such a person!) was sent a letter accompanied by an eleven-page set of ‘Observations’ on the book, compiled by a consultor to the CDF. When I first read the CDF’s accusations against Seán, in the “Observations,” I simply didn’t recognise Does Morality Change? as the book under scrutiny. Seán was accused of:
- Reductive and pervasive historicism
- Problematic presentation of natural law
- Attitude towards the Magisterium
- Autonomy of conscience without due reference to Catholic teaching
- Proportionalism and rejection of Veritatis Splendor
Seán’s treatment of specific moral questions, such as:
- in-vitro fertilisation
- masturbation for medical reasons
- homosexual acts
- direct sterilization
were all called into question.
In principle, I do not think anybody would argue with the right of the teaching authority of the Church to challenge what it perceives as faulty interpretation of its teaching. However, one would hope that such a challenge would, at a minimum, not attempt to misrepresent that interpretation. The opening sentence of the accusation is: The fundamental aim of this book is to argue for alteration and change in the moral teaching of the Catholic Church. Apart from being a rash judgment, it is manifestly untrue. As Seán himself specifically states on p. 206 of the first edition:
The purpose of this book was not to score points off fellow theologians or to ruffle the feathers of some bishops (who have a difficult enough time at the present), but rather the pastoral concern to help people feel at home in a Church which respects their God-given intelligence as well as calling on their loyalty and piety.
And this is certainly the purpose of the book I, and many thousands of others, read. And indeed what we took from it.
Seán ably rebutted the CDF’s claims, showing how its arguments frequently took statements out of context within the book. For example, Seán makes clear that moral teachings do, in fact, change in time and also explained the shift from a classicist method in theology to an historical consciousness method. But he did not canonize historical consciousness in the process. The CDF document adopts a dismissive attitude to this important change in theological method – a change which was very evident at Vatican II and in the subsequent documents. The CDF document does not make ANY argument as to why historical consciousness is not an acceptable premise for moral evaluation and development. But instead says: “The consequence of the author’s commitment to such an understanding of historical consciousness is a relativistic understanding of truth, including doctrinal truth as taught by the universal magisterium.” And it is “then but a short step to call into questions the notion that there exists a “deposit of faith.”” The document says “a short step”… but what a giant leap it makes in its accusations. Seán makes no such claim in Does Morality Change? Rather, he points out that not everything taught previously belongs to the “deposit of faith.” But this type of unfair claim characterizes the whole case against Seán.
Another example: the consultor quotes Seán out of context on the role of the Bible in moral decision-making. Reading the selected passage, one might think Seán was minimizing the role of Scripture (p.60). Having quoted Seán, the consultor then points out that this is:
“manifestly contrary to the doctrine of the Catholic Church. There are, of course, infallible solutions to our moral problems contained in scripture…
However, if one reads the page immediately prior to the passage selected (p.59), one sees the high value Seán placed on Scripture but with the intelligent caveat that:
These insights will not give us an immediate solution to a concrete moral problem, but they can sensitise us to certain values, and colour our attitude to daily life. We can also be helped by studying how God’s people in both Old and New Testament dealt with particular problems in the past. But their solutions cannot be the last word for us, since we live in a different culture.
In the quotation selected by the consultor, Seán was really pointing out that a fundamentalist reading of Scripture will not help us to moral maturity. His dependence on scripture was not the provision of a few proof-text quotes – scripture was Seán’s enacting authority. He didn’t need to selectively quote – scripture informed his whole outlook.
Seán’s mission pastorally and pedagogically was to “relative our false absolutes.” This was not to say there were no absolutes, he never claimed that, but that those absolutes are few, fundamental and should be handled with care. As Seán pointed out to the consultor in his reply:
The inspired word of God can give us guidance, values and principles for the analysis and solution of these problems, but if the concrete solution could be found simply be reading the bible, there would be no need for moral discernment by the individual conscience, the Christian community or the teaching of the Church.
This propensity to selectively quote from Does Moraltiy Change? and then accuse Seán on this basis is a consistent feature of the consultor’s Obersvations. The same thing happens on Seán’s treatment of conscience. The consultor accuses Seán of encouraging “an autonomous understanding of conscience detached from proper formation in objective morality as known through recourse to Catholic teaching.” This is complete misrepresentation of Seán’s purpose. He consistently spoke of a “formed” conscience, which required plenty of effort and hard work on the part of the individual and not just relying on “what the Church says” because as anyone with any interest in Church history and doctrinal development and change knows, rules do change. There may be those who refuse to admit this fact, and engage in reform by amnesia – but as another of Seán’s sayings tells us “contra factum, non argumentum.”
It is worth noting here that there was never any response to Seán’s point-by-point rebuttal of the consultor’s accusations in the Observations. But there are major theological and ecclesiological issues here that are not acknowledged by the CDF – there are two distinct strands within the Church’s thinking – the classicist and the historical consciousness. To ignore or dismiss historical consciousness just because it does not fit into the worldview of the consultor is not acceptable. To judge one method by the propositions of the other is untenable - intellectually, theologically and practically. They are as different as trying to judge the culture and norms of one country by the culture and norms of another (and colonial history has shown how disastrous that is).
This mis-judgement enables the consultor to accuse Seán, unfairly, of calling the “...Church’s understanding of revelation, human nature and natural law ... into question” and doing this “in order to dismiss the authentic teaching of the Magisterium on the existence of moral absolutes, and finally on the basis of this rejection, specific moral teachings of the Catholic Church are called into question.” This is an appalling accusation. The very many intelligent Catholics I know who read Does Morality Change? did not interpret the book thus. Rather, they were comforted and consoled by it. It helped them to “relativise their false absolutes” and give them a renewed enthusiasm for their Church. An enthusiasm that has been relentlessly beaten down by the Church, both from Rome and within Ireland, in the years since the book’s publication in 1997.
It is relevant here to ask the question: “Who was this consultor? As with Seán’s accuser, the consultor was also anonymous. Was the he a practising theologian? (and it was surely a he!) Did he have a track record of teaching and/or publishing? Did he have any pastoral experience? We do not know. Was there more than one consultor? Was a person expert in the field invited to give an opinion?
In the CDF’s own Regulations for Doctrinal Examination (29th August 1997) article 4, states that the collaboration of “one or more consultors or other experts in the particular area” may be involved in an investigation. How many people were involved in the examination of Seán’s book? Was the opinion offered that of just one person? Again, we do not know – it’s all shrouded in secrecy. Yet this person (or persons) stood in anonymous judgement on a man who spent his life working in the light and not in the darkness of anonymity and secrecy. Furthermore, Article 10 of Regulations states that in the course of an examination, a person is appointed “who has the task of illustrating in a spirit of truth the positive aspects of the teaching and the merits of the author, of cooperating in the authentic interpretation of his thought within the overall theological context and of expressing a judgment regarding the influence of the author’s opinions.” Was such a person (relator pro auctore) appointed in Seán Fagan’s case? Again we do not know. And if not, then why not – given that it’s part of the examination process? What I do know is that there was never reference in any of the correspondence available that such an advocate was ever appointed to contextualise Seán’s work, as laid down by the CDF’s own rules.
I believe there is reason to assume that no relator pro auctore was appointed, and it refers to a point I made earlier. There is a fundamental, critical flaw in the ‘Observations’ supplied by the anonymous consultor to the CDF which were presented to Seán, always indirectly, through his religious superior. It is clear the person was operating out of the classicist model of theology, which is propositional and deductive. Seán’s theology, deeply influenced by Vatican II operated within the model of historical consciousness which allows for the contingency of time and culture. It is mostly inductive, but accepts there are fundamental truths to be upheld. This difference in theological perspective is akin to speaking in two different languages. They are fundamentally incompatible and attempting to judge one by the propositions of the other simply makes no sense. Any competent relator would have understood this immediately and suggested that consultors/experts from a historical-consciousness method of theology be invited to submit opinions on Seán’s book on the critical issues of method and context.
The CDF’s attention to Seán waxed and waned from 1998 to July 2004 (but never directly with Seán. In 2003 Does Morality Change? was republished because it was on reading lists in most theological courses. The anonymous accuser was on point because in short order, the CDF became aware of its existence and Joseph Ratzinger personally demanded that the Irish Episcopal Conference issue a statement about Does Morality Change? which eventually appeared on its website, in a very circumspect way, in July 2004. Matters then settled for a few years.
But in 2008 the CDF reacted severely to a letter by Seán to The Irish Times. This letter included an opinion on the ordination of women and acceptance of married priests in the Church and a photocopy was sent to the CDF within 2 weeks of its publication. This, combined with the appearance of his book What happened to Sin? (a revision of his highly-acclaimed 1977 book Has Sin Changed?) caused ever-increasing negative reaction from the CDF. When in 2009 Seán wrote an introductory chapter for a book, Responding to the Ryan Report, edited by Fr. Tony Flannery, the CDF issued another condemnation to Seán’s religious superior – never dealing directly with Seán, never naming his accuser. As this was before the book could have possibly been available for sale in Rome (if that were likely), the anonymous delator was still very active in Ireland.
As late as March 2010, a person close to the case advised Seán “be vigilant.” He believed that the CDF could not have all the information it possessed without it coming from those “with easy access to your thinking and writing.” Given the fact that between 2008 and 2010 Seán was mainly talking to closed groups of various reform-minded Catholics, this warning raised the ugly prospect that someone who pretended to share his hope for reform was a wolf in sheep’s clothing, secretly reporting to the CDF either directly or, as Seán himself suspected, with the aid of a senior cleric based in Ireland.
Quite apart from the mis-reading, mis-quoting and misunderstanding of Does Morality Change? by the CDF’s unnamed consultor and the consequent injustice done to the text, there was a far greater injustice perpetrated upon Seán as a person. His religious superior was called to the offices of the CDF in January 2010 to be told of the penalty to be laid upon Seán. And it was made clear to him, that if he did not deal with Seán, they would appoint a new Father General who would. There was no mention of canonical procedures for Seán, nor the licitness of the CDF demanding acquiescence in unjust procedures under threat of imposing a leader of their choice to the Marist Fathers. The parallels that brings to mind are the regular political purges that happened in the old Soviet Union and Mao’s China.
Seán was eventually forced to deny his charism as a theologian, without the justice of due process. From 4th March 2010 Seán Fagan was under threat of being dismissed by the CDF not only from priesthood but from his congregation (essentially, a dismissal from his family and home at his then age of 83). He thus felt obliged to undertake a vow to silence imposed by this Vatican dicastery through his religious superior. To get some idea of this punishment – think of forbidding a musician to play or a poet not to compose.
Not only that, he was also forced to accept that the penalty laid upon him be kept secret from the media and that he would be considered responsible if the media got hold of the story, even without Seán’s knowledge or consent. One cannot emphasise enough the sense of fear this instilled in Seán – a man not easily intimated. However, it is heartening to note that those in the media who got wind of the story, had the integrity to hold back to protect an elderly man from eviction from his home- they didn’t collude in elder abuse for the sake of a story. The Marist Congregation was obliged to buy up all remaining copies of his book What happened to Sin? to remove them from the public forum. Despite several requests, Seán was never told what happened to these books, which was a source of immense hurt to him – he felt he was being treated like a child by the Marists.
Seán Fagan did not lack courage, but it was his own cultural conditioning that prevented him from refusing to abide by the unjust burden laid upon him. He was, first and foremost, a loyal and devoted Marist. And secondly, he worried about the shame his own family would likely experience if he were dismissed, not from only from priesthood but from his Marist family. There would be a deep shadow cast over his good name. But, there was also the fact that Seán was a priest to his marrow. He truly did not know how to be anything else. By 2010, aged 83, he had given the Church and ‘God’s Holy People’ almost 60 years of faithful ministry. This fidelity was not reciprocated in the application of due process by the Church’s administration to Seán’s case. If a condemned man cannot hope for justice within the Church he served so faithfully and so well, where does he turn? For Seán Fagan, the answer was an emphatic “nowhere” except for the support of friends, with which he was abundantly blest. They attenuated but could not remove the shattering effect of the CDF’s sanction on him.
And what of the vocation of the theologian?
In 1990 the CDF promulgated an Instruction on the ecclesial vocation of the theologian- Donum Veritatis – the gift of truth. It is 12 pages long, containing 43 articles and can be summed up in one sentence: that the theologian’s job is to present what the Magisterium’s teaches. There is lip service paid to freedom of academic research, but when all is said and done, “creeping infallibility” is the hallmark of this document. Everything is linked in some way to revelation, and as the magisterium claims full competence with regard to revelation – the source of “creeping infallibility,” therefore, by association it claims competence over all theology. For all that it acknowledges in a.31:
It can also happen that at the conclusion of a serious study, undertaken with the desire to heed the magisterium’s teaching without hesitation, the theologian’s difficulty remains because the arguments to the contrary seem more persuasive to him. Faced with a proposition to which he feels he cannot give his intellectual assent, the theologian nevertheless has the duty to remain open to a deeper examination of the question.
it then states:
For a loyal spirit, animated by love for the Church, such a situation can certainly prove a difficult trial. It can be a call to suffer for the truth, in silence and in prayer, but with the certainty, that if the truth is really at stake, it will ultimately prevail.
Here we can see, unmasked, the embedded dysfunction in the Church – it is a tacit acknowledgment that they can get it wrong – but if so, they have no intention of admitting it. It will be up to the Church of the future to deal with that. In the meantime, it consciously and willingly forces sincere, faithful men and women to suffer in silence so that they, the authorities, do not have to admit they are wrong. There isn’t the slightest hint anywhere in the document that the magisterium of the Church has anything to learn from the skill, competence and faithfulness of theologians. Not only that, but it claims in article 37 that:
“The fact that these procedures (the investigations) can be improved does not mean that they are contrary to justice and right. To speak in this instance of a violation of human rights is out of place for it indicates a failure to recognize the proper hierarchy of these rights as well as the nature of the ecclesial community and her common good.” (DV a.37)
Fundamental human rights with regard to due process simply do not apply.
There is no redeeming quality, no good end, to this story. Perhaps it is best summed up in Seán’s own words to his Marist Father General on 22nd March 2010. The CDF: “...has the power to reduce me from a human person with a name, personality and a history, to a piece of trash of no importance, to be squashed like a fly on a window pane.” This power needs to be halted in the name not only of secular justice, but of gospel values. When one reads many of the CDF documents, especially Donum Veritatis one thinks of Seán’s phrase “What is the doing, doing to me? In ignoring the fundamentals of natural justice in its claims to be the sole keeper of the will of God, the CDF seems perilously close to claiming the knowledge of good and evil for themselves.
The CDF in its abusive exercise of power, did not break the spirit of the man – Seán was too earthed, too happy in his own skin for that, but the spirit of Seán Fagan the theologian was certainly broken – I witnessed that disintegration on an almost daily basis between 2008 and 2013. And yet given the man Seán was and the witness he gave to his faith through his actions, the CDF must not have the last word. In a moment’s inspiration I looked up the meaning of the name John on a website of Hebrew names: It says of Yohannon (John) :
In the Bible this verb "depicts a heartfelt response by someone who has something to give to one who has a need"
Which truly sums up Seán Fagan – a man of grace, who shared with an abundant heart, the grace in the man.
13 November 2017