In a remarkable development, the 800-strong Association of Irish Priests told the Vatican they were deeply disturbed over the recent decision by the Holy See to silence one its members for his liberal views.

The Irish group said in a statement: 'At this critical juncture in our history, the ACP believes that this form of intervention - what Archbishop Diarmuid Martin recently called 'heresy-hunting' - is of no service to the Irish Catholic Church and may have the unintended effect of exacerbating a growing perception of a significant 'disconnect' between the Irish Church and Rome.'

Alongside his well known opposition to the Church's ban on contraception and women priests, Father Flannery has also backed Irish Prime Minister Enda Kenny's unprecedented criticism of  the Catholic hierarchy in the aftermath of the Cloyne Report, an investigation into the mishandling by Church authorities of allegations of child sexual abuse, released last year.

Forcing Father Tony Flannery to stop writing for a Redemptorist magazine will only fuel the Irish public's belief in a growing disconnect between Irish Catholics and Rome, the group told the Irish Examiner.

'We believe that such an approach, in its individual focus on Father Flannery and inevitably by implication on the members of the association, is an extremely ill-advised intervention in the present pastoral context in Ireland,' the group said in a hard-hitting statement. 'We wish to make clear our profound view that this intervention is unfair, unwarranted and unwise.'

Father Flannery's monthly column was reportedly pulled on direct orders from Rome, a move by conservative elements in the Vatican that critics say was calculated to silence him. To underline their suddenly hardline stance, a second Irish priest, Father Gerard Moloney, the Redemptorist magazine's editor, has also been ordered to stop writing on certain issues.

Both priests are known to hold liberal views on contraception, celibacy and the ordination of women priests - views at variance with Rome. As the row intensifies between the two camps at least a dozen Irish priests have publicly declared their support for Father Flannery and Father Moloney on the association's website.

Father Flannery's views should neither be interpreted as an attack on or rejection of the Church's teachings the group claims, but instead they should be seen as a reflection of the issues already being debated in parishes nationwide. The group has also dismissed all attempts by conservative elements in the Church to dismiss the group as a 'small coterie of radical priests with a radical agenda.'

Adding to the pressure on the ACP, Pope Benedict warned that the church will not tolerate priests speaking out against Catholic teaching during his Holy Thursday homily at St Peter's Basilica in Rome.