When I heard that the Redemptorist priest Fr Tony Flannery was under some kind of Vatican probe, I thought it was an April fools day joke. It couldn't be true, my thinking went, because such a move would be seen as unnecessarily interventionist, and given his position with the Association of Catholic Priests (ACP), it would inevitably be seen as something more than just an examination of theological orthodoxy.
And all respect to Fr Tony and Reality magazine, but Ive never met anyone who said to me did you see what Fr Flannery wrote in Reality?
As a Vatican II liberal, Fr Flannery's views are well known and hardly startling. So I assumed the Vatican, so lucky to recover some goodwill after the Taoiseach's speech last year, would show prudence and not shoot itself in the foot. I was wrong.
Surely there is a more transparent and gentle way of dealing with priests who express a contrary but sincerely held view on Church teaching?
It is ironic that it was the Redemptorists who a generation ago were the loyal foot soldiers of theological orthodoxy and kept people awake in their beds at night worrying about eternal Hell fire.
Times have changed. However, many of those who disagree with some areas of discipline and/or teaching have earned the right to be heard. A lifetime in service as a priest or religious does give, and should give, some pause to the quick-draw reflexes of Vatican officials.
So what is the Vatican trying to do? It seems clear enough; there is an attempt to stabilise a declining priesthood (in crisis?) by reforming seminaries and ironing out clerical agitators for change on the issues of womens ordination and clerical celibacy or changing the teaching on homosexuality.
The Pope believes authentic renewal will come when everybody gets in step towards a common goal. Fair enough, but how can you ask the baptised people of God to get in step without creating some trust and communicating to them?
Its a bit like the banking sector telling everyone that you can trust us now without demonstrating a road map for reform and communicating how this will be executed.
Strategically taking out liberal voices like some kind of theological assassination programme is no way to run a Church, a communion of believers. God knows we Christians have been arguing since Paul said it was okay to eat pork and Peter said it wasn't. (Paul did his fair share of assassinations too!)
However, because we have a liberal media that is mostly ignorant of the Church, there is an easy editorial line that everything the Vatican says is wrong and oppressive.
One paper reported a priest likening the silencing of Fr Flannery and Reality magazine to the Nazis coming for the Jews. What a ludicrous analogy which is offensive in the extreme to Jews and the memory of Nazi victims.
Simply put, Catholics haven't learned to speak respectfully or listen respectfully to each other. Intolerance is common to the Catholic right and left in Ireland and isn't the sole preserve of the Vatican.
In fact, there is something more at play than just right and left, liberal or conservative, and it is simply clericalism. I wonder how tolerant Irelands best known liberal clerics would be, were they bishops, of Catholics who expressed views against women's ordination and the preservation of celibacy?
Tolerance is a two-way street and my experience is that clericalism and intolerance is by no means the preserve of the right.
There should be no forbidden topics in the Church and those who argue for change should make their case in cogent and intelligent arguments. Those who disagree should not rush to stifle debate but also appeal to rational and fact based argument.
On the issue of women priests, there is a very strong argument to be made that the Church is not ready, even if it wanted to, to ordain women.
On celibacy, there is a very strong argument to be made that priests are extremely badly paid and if the celibacy rule was changed the laity would have to significantly raise their contributions to support a priest and his family. Yet laity don't hear the contrary arguments because the Vatican prefers to quell discussion. The laity then are force-fed a one-sided argument from the liberal secular media.
So by not engaging in debate, and silencing those who have a differing view, the Vatican is actually pulling the carpet from underneath itself by allowing the secular media to be the only voice.
What has been clear to me for a long time is that the Church as an institution cannot, has not and is incapable of genuine communications as understood in our modern society.
Few institutions allow unfettered media exposure to their adherents and we should acknowledge this in the Church.
What clergy and laity need, to have a healthy Church, is a strong independent Catholic media which cannot be censored by Vatican officials but is subject to the democratic mandate of a paying public.
The Intercom saga, and now Reality affair, demonstrate this clearly. Rather than fight the tide in in-house media, we should stand back and promote a vision for a new Church where checks and balances are met by an independent Catholic media that represents a truly Catholic attitude to a wide spectrum of views.
Otherwise, we will just continue to have an in-Church media where left-wing clerics argue with right-wing clerics about power and control while the ship is listing and the passengers are fleeing in the lifeboats.
Spero columnist Garry O'Sullivan is the editor of the Irish Catholic, which has the largest circulation of any Catholic newspaper in the Republic of Ireland.