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Mary McAleese hits back at critics over John Paul II quote

By Sarah Mac Donald - 09 November, 2019

‘The Women the Vatican Couldn’t Silence’ – Professor Siobhan Garrigan of TCD’s School of Religions, Professor Mary McAleese, Chancellor of TCD, Sr Joan Chittister, Benedictine and theologian, Ursula Halligan, journalist, Stephanie Lorenzo, Communications Director of Voices of Faith and Colm Holmes, Spokesperson for We Are Church Ireland. Pic: Sarah Mac Donald.

Former president of Ireland, Professor Mary McAleese, has hit back at those who have accused of her of misrepresenting Pope St John Paul II’s views on sex.

Responding to a letter to the Irish Times from Dr Thomas Finegan of Mary Immaculate College in Limerick, Dr McAleese said it is “very clear Dr Finegan did not check the context in which I used the passage.”

In her own letter to the Irish Times, the incoming Chancellor of TCD said she explicitly stated that she was not talking about the sex act at all but by analogy using the passage to describe the position and role of women in the Church generally with men seen dominant initiators and women as passive receivers.

She said censured Marist priest Fr Sean Fagan “correctly described the passage in its original sex act context as a description of rape. And it is clear Fr Finegan agrees that is a correct description. There is an obvious, inexorable and transferable logic that Dr Finegan has missed entirely and which was sole the point of the reference,” she said.

The backlash against the former head of state was given prominence in this week’s Irish Catholic newspaper with Baroness Nuala O’Loan and moral theologian Fr Vincent Twomey joining Fr Kevin Higgins and Dr Catherine Kavanagh in criticising Mary McAleese, accusing her of using an out-of-context quote from Pope St John Paul II’s 1960 work to give the impression that he condoned rape.

Dr Angelo Bottone of the Iona Institute said in his blog that Dr McAleese did not tell the audience what else Pope John Paul II had said in the same book, ‘Love and Responsibility’.

“While did he said it is physically possible for a man to have sex with a sleeping or unconscious woman, he then said this should never happen. On the contrary, he said both husband and wife must be active and equal participants when making love,” Dr Bottone stated.

At the ‘The Women the Vatican Couldn’t Silence’ event in Trinity College on 2 November 2019, journalist Ursula Halligan asked both Professor McAleese and Sr Joan Chittister, “How would you describe the role of women in the Church today?” Sr Joan Chittister spoke about the “invisibility” of women.

In her reply, Mary McAleese agreed with Sr Joan about women’s invisibility.

“Absolutely. Even more the invisible, deliberately made invisible, deliberately meant to stay invisible structurally. Structurally the architecture of the church is designed to create the invisibility and maintain the invisibility and the powerlessness of women. To corral us. If you just bear with me could I just read a little section from the writings of Pope John Paul ll? This is a recent pope. So we are not talking about the Dark Ages. We’re talking about a recent pope from his book ‘Love and Responsibility’. This is his description of marriage, of sex and marriage. This is a short thing.”

Dr McAleese then quoted from Pope St John Paul II’s book.

“It’s the very nature of the act that the man plays the active role and takes the initiative while the woman is a comparatively passive partner whose function it is to accept and experience. For the purpose of the sexual act it is enough for her to be passive and unresisting, so much so that it can take place without her volition, while she is in a state in which she has no awareness at all of what is happening, for instance when she is asleep or unconscious.”

“That is how we are treated in the church, expected to be asleep, unconscious, while men get on with doing what they have to do. And here’s the sequel to that: When Fr Seán Fagan called Pope John Paul out on that and said the obvious, he asked a question: Can this really be Catholic Church teaching. It sounds like rape. What happened? Pope John Paul becomes a saint. Seán Fagan becomes silenced. That’s our church.”

A spokesman for We Are Church Ireland, one of the co-sponsors of the event at Trinity College Dublin along with Voices of Faith and the School of Religions in TCD said, “What is being totally missed is the context in which Mary McAleese made her statement. She was answering a question on the role of women in the church today.”

Colm Holmes said she used this factually correct extract as an analogy for the unequal role of women in the Church generally, with men dominant and women receivers (of church teachings, governance etc).

“Mary McAleese did not misrepresent Pope John Paul II’s views. It is she who is being misrepresented when her statement is being lifted out of its context and the clear analogy missed,” Colm Holmes criticised.

Speaking at the TCD event about receiving the Alfons Auer Ethics Award for distinguished catholic theologians, Dr McAleese told the 400 people who attended the event, that it meant a lot to her.

“Alfons Auer was a great moral theologian who advised very strongly back in the 1960s – he was a member of the body/commission which advised the Pope on human reproduction – and he advised very strongly against the content of Humanae Vitae, particularly in relation to artificial contraception.”

“He believed it would destroy the church and in that respect I think he probably was right,” Dr McAleese stated.

She explained how her mother was one of 11 children and that she herself was the oldest of 9 children. “My mum and her sisters and brothers between them had 60 children.”

Both women were asked what faith meant to them. Benedictine, Sr Joan, said “faith for me is a very living thing. It walks with Jesus from Galilee to Jerusalem – over and over again – and I am not going to give it up because the structures are not keeping up with Jesus.”

Mary McAleese explained, “There are things that I am sure about in life and there are things that I am not so sure about. One of the things that I am very sure about is that God has my back and I’ve always felt that – that hand of God on my shoulder, guiding, helping and directing.”

“If today I find myself in the position of speaking very strongly, particularly to the clerical governors of my church in terms that they are uncomfortable with, believe me, it will have come from praying about and asking God ‘what do I do here?’”

Elsewhere during the course of the talk, the canon lawyer said that the “kind of people who will complain about Joan and I will probably not complain to us – they will complain to a cardinal. I know this from talking archbishops and other persons about the letters they received referring to me.”

“I remember Cardinal Vincent Nichols, when I was appointed to St Mary’s University, and I saw some of the correspondence – some of it was just so hate filled and vitriolic. He was worried about it enough to show it to me. Those kind of people are cowardly, they hide in the shadows but they go to a bishop or the cardinal.”

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