Mrs McAleese was speaking at the Voices of Faith conference in Rome, at which she said the patriarchy, misogyny, and homophobia of the hierarchy of the Catholic Church “has drained respect” from the Church as an institution and also threatened to drain respect from the Gospel itself.
She made the comments at a panel discussion, having earlier claimed it was “pure codology” that women cannot be ordained as priests. She also ignited international debate with her comments about the Catholic Church being an “empire of misogyny”.
The Voices of Faith conference was scheduled to take place in the Vatican on International Women’s Day, as has been the case for the past four years, but it was instead moved to the Aula of the Jesuit Curia in Rome.
It was reported last month that Cardinal Kevin Farrell, the prefect of the Vatican’s Dicastery for Laity, Family, and Life, objected to three speakers at the event, including Ms McAleese, a keynote speaker.
It has turned attention on the dicastery, which is the main organiser of the World Meeting of Families, which will be held in Dublin on August 21-26.
Mrs McAleese told delegates that the Church was now a “primary global carrier of the toxic virus of misogyny” and “a male bastion of patronising platitudes to which Pope Francis has added his own quota”.
She challenged Pope Francis to bring about “real, practical action on behalf of women”.
Commenting away from the main event, she said: “I believe that women should be ordained, I believe the theology on which that is based in pure codology.”
She also queried how the Church could tackle issues such as inequalities if at the same time excluding women “in perpetuity” from decision-making.
At the subsequent panel discussion, she was asked if the Church would survive the 21st century.
“It is a question many of us are posing,” she said. “Bishops are posing it, we will have a conference in May which poses the question whether the Church in Ireland has even five more years left.”
She referred to her own background, being raised as a Catholic in a part of Belfast during the Troubles and of being raised through the values propounded in the Gospel — values she said underpinned her presidency.
However, she said the Church became “an empire”, a patriarchal and misogynistic one which was only now being dismantled. She said the gravitational pull exerted by that patriarchy, misogyny and homophobia “has drained respect” from the Church, and also threatened to do likewise to the Gospel and its message of love and forgiveness.
“We are now at a moment where the most educated generation in history in Ireland are demanding that as the Church they want,” she said of the calls for change, “and if that is not available, they will walk away.”
She said she had done her best and that the people “who let me down are not very far from here”.