Mary McAleese’s challenge to Vatican is a cause for female celebration

It’s an unlikely pairing, I know, but my mind has been drifting between former president Mary McAleese and former footballer Jamie Carragher.

Mary McAleese’s challenge to Vatican is a cause for female celebration

Mrs McAleese has made the most magnificently kick-ass comments about the role of women in the Catholic Church describing it as a “global carrier of the virus of misogyny”, while former Liverpool defender Jamie Carragher was suspended by Sky Sports after being caught on camera spitting at a man and his teenage daughter in a car.

Carragher’s disgusting behaviour has been rightly condemned. He has apologised, doubly contrite he says, because of the presence of the young girl in the car.

But it will likely be a cold day in hell before Mrs McAleese gets a public apology for her banishment from the Vatican where she was, in effect, metaphorically spat at in public.

As has been well aired the former president delivered the opening address at a ‘Why Women Matter’ conference in Rome which was organised to mark International Women’s Day. It had been scheduled to take place at the Vatican but had to be moved when Cardinal Kevin Farrell, a native of Drimnagh in Dublin, prefect of the Dicastery for Laity, Family and Life, refused to allow Mrs McAleese as a panellist.

There’s been some speculation in recent days that maybe Pope Frances, who recently celebrated his fifth anniversary as Pope, might in the near future make some gesture in an effort to make up for the wrong done by this extraordinary banishment to a woman who is our former president and one of the most prominent female Catholics in the world.

Such an act might make what happened a little less offensive. However it would hardly mask the fact that while the Pope may have the top job, and be viewed as kindly and tolerant, it was one of his henchmen that carried it out.

You’d want to be fairly sure of your ground and your position to deliver such a bullseye insult to someone with Mrs McAleese’s global standing. Clearly Cardinal Farrell felt just that confidence.

Still it was a glorious day for women who are fighting to be recognised as equals within the Catholic Church when Mrs McAleese let rip, speaking as she did about “misogynist codology dressed up as theology”.

Listening to some people afterwards describe her comments as over the top would leave you bewildered given the record of the Catholic Church on gender equality, and its absolute refusal to even consider the ordination of women.

Doubly mysterious are the women, the practising Catholics, who believed that she should have reined it in. How can they continue to be happy as second class citizens within the Catholic Church, holding the hem of the priest’s soutane as he holds on to the reins of power?

To believe the men at the top of the Catholic Church will give up their exclusive ownership without a mighty battle is delusional.

The misogyny that Mrs McAleese talks about, as well as the Church’s homophobia and its response to child abuse, provide the foundation for so many lapsed Catholics. But she, for her own reasons, is not willing to give up on what she

sees as her Church.

Without obviously knowing her motivation it hardly seems a coincidence that she went to Rome to complete a doctorate in theology after finishing her second successful term in the Áras.

Not only does that give her the necessary knowledge and authority to challenge the Church on the issues that matter to her, but living in Rome would also have given a clear insight into the power structures of the Vatican and how it operates.

It was obvious from her interview earlier this week with Sean O’Rourke on Radio One that she counts Cardinal Kevin Farrell, the most senior Irish man at the Vatican, as a significant foe. Wouldn’t it be quite the spectacle to see Cardinal Farrell emerge from the gilded halls of the Vatican to publicly debate Mrs McAleese on the issue of the position of women’s within the Church.

Mrs McAleese says that if women priests have been emphatically ruled out she wants to know how it is the Church actually does propose to include women. That is hardly an unreasonable question.

Listening to Mrs McAleese being put through her paces by one of our best and most experienced Irish broadcast interviewers was also a reminder of how formidable she is in circumstances where she feels under challenge.

It was clear she was not happy to be questioned on how she had expressed her views, or how some people believed them to be over the top. O’Rourke at one point spoke about the “strength of language used”.

She rather archly replied in a questioning tone: “Like for example”. As if that were not immediately obvious given the furore caused by her comments on misogyny and the Church.

Or her seemingly stunned reaction when asked if she respected the authority of the Pope, a very valid question in the circumstances. “Of course I accept the authority of the Pope. I’m a Catholic, of course I do.”

But why, I couldn’t help wondering does she accept that Papal authority, given how grievously the current Pope and his predecessors have treated women.

If you believe that Pope Frances and the senior men surrounding him in the Vatican treat women heinously, does it not then perpetuate that wrong to accept that this person has supreme authority.

Each individual’s faith is a personal matter, but in this instance Mrs McAleese has not just put her own faith into the public arena but also has a well earned authority to speak on Church matters.

“Do I believe absolutely everything the Pope says,” she said. “I don’t have to no, because only very occasionally does he speak with what we call infallible authority, a lot of the time he doesn’t.”

What an odd logic for such an exceptionally intelligent person. To be fair she did also speak of how she admires other work done by Pope Frances.

It is a cause for female celebration that Mrs McAleese continues to speak out on the treatment of women in the Church and appears to have no intention of toning down her criticisms.

It will be interesting then to see what happens during the visit of Pope Frances here in August for the World Meeting of Families 2018.

As one of our most prominent Catholics, and a former president, surely Mrs McAleese will make a few guest lists for that trip, and could reasonably expect to meet Pope Frances at some point during his visit. Of course it is Cardinal Farrell who is the Vatican official with responsibility for co-ordinating the event.

An added piquancy is that when it emerged a number of weeks ago that she was not to be allowed to speak at that Rome conference if it was to be held in the Vatican, Mrs McAleese wrote to Pope Frances. As of this week she had received “neither an acknowledgement of my letter nor a reply”.

Such a meeting then, as the young people might say, is likely to be “totes awks”.

More in this section

Lunchtime News Wrap

A lunchtime summary of content highlights on the Irish Examiner website. Delivered at 1pm each day.

Sign up

Our Covid-free newsletter brings together some of the best bits from, as chosen by our editor, direct to your inbox every Monday.

Sign up