Still in the back pew

The Mother Mary Aikenhead centenary mass at St Patrick's Hospital, Wellington Rd, Cork, in 1958.

Over 50 years ago, a cardinal asked the Vatican Council: ‘Where’s the other half of humanity?’ In her own inimitable way, Mary McAleese last week posed the same question, writes TP O’ Mahony.

ON October 11, 1962, in front of a phalanx of photographers, 2,400 bishops from all over the globe filed into St Peter’s Basilica in Rome for the opening session of the Second Vatican Council. Inside the vast basilica, Cardinal Leon-Joseph Suenens of Belgium watched as the bishops took their seats. Then he turned to a colleague and asked: “Where is the other half of humanity?”

He was remarking on the total absence of women from the Council, and their exclusion from the decision-making processes that would determine the future of the Catholic Church. Half a century later, and as the Church prepares for a Synod of Bishops in October, the question posed by Cardinal Suenens still resonates.

It formed the background to the controversial comment last week by former President Mary McAleese, when she described Pope Francis’s plans to hold a Synod consisting of only male celibates to advise him on family life as “completely bonkers”.

Speaking in a public interview at UCD, where she received the university’s Ulysses medal, Mrs McAleese said there was “something profoundly wrong and skewed” about asking male celibates to review the Church’s teaching on family life.

“The very idea of 150 people who have decided they are not going to have any children, not going to have families, not going to be fathers and not going to be spouses — so they have no adult experience of family life as the rest of us know it — but they are going to advise the Pope on family life: It is completely bonkers,” she said. The counter-argument from the Vatican is that, last year, in preparation for the forthcoming Synod, it circulated a detailed questionnaire to Catholics worldwide asking for their views of pastoral issues of marriage and family life.

In her UCD interview, Mrs McAleese said: “I wrote back and said I’ve got a much simpler questionnaire, and it’s only got one question, and here it is: ‘How many of the men who will gather to advise you as Pope have ever changed a baby’s nappy?’ I regard that as a very, very serious question.”

Later in the week, in the first public response by a bishop to the former President’s controversial remarks, the Archbishop of Dublin, Diarmuid Martin, took issue with her description of the Pope’s plan to ask “150 male celibates” to review the Church’s teaching on marriage and family life as “completely bonkers”.

He said: “The language isn’t the language of public debate but I know and respect Mary McAleese very well.” I suspect Mrs McAleese, on mature reflection, would have preferred not to use the word “bonkers” in the context in which she did, without in any way deviating from her criticisms of the Synod.

The Archbishop, not surprisingly, said he didn’t agree with the criticism. “I don’t,” he said. “I will be at the Synod. I have been at other Synods. There will be lots of married people at the Synod. The bishops are the formal delegates but there will be lots of married people there.”

I have also covered previous Synods — indeed, I first met Diarmuid Martin (long before he became Archbishop) when he was handling the English-language press briefings at one such Synod — and while there are always people on the periphery of the Synods, they have no formal role. This is especially true of women.

This is precisely Mrs McAleese’s point, and it goes to the core of Church governance in the 21st century and the way authority is exercised within the Church. The reality is the institution, in all its decision-making manifestations and procedures, is male-dominated — and by celibate males at that. Like his four predecessors since Vatican II ended in 1965, it doesn’t seem at all likely that Pope Francis, despite the many good things he has done in a relatively short time, will change any of this. A profound mistrust of lay people, and of women in particular, is deep-wired into the mind-set of a Church hierarchy who for ages assumed that the role of the laity was to “pray, pay, and obey”.

All of that has changed today — and the change can really be dated from the worldwide rejection of Pope Paul VI’s 1968 anti-contraception encyclical Humanae Vitae by Catholic married couples. Today Pope and bishops are no longer dealing with a submissive, acquiescent laity.

Writing in the English Catholic weekly in March 1997, before she was nominated for the Irish Presidency, Mrs McAleese sounded a warning about today’s laity. “Do the faithful lie down and take it? Do they humbly submit to an edict which purports to bind in perpetuity? Not in Ireland they don’t. Nowadays, they argue back, armed with the insights of fresh, modern scholarship which puts conservative dogmatic theologians under a harsh and unforgiving spotlight.

“Nowadays, women of profound faith can be heard to say that they feel called to the priesthood. They speak with a new-found confidence and are listened to with a new-found respect.” In many places, perhaps here and abroad, but not, crucially, in Rome. The voices of women go largely unheeded.

Yes, it is true that in 1988 Pope John Paul II issued an apostolic exhortation entitled Mulieris Dignitatem (On the Dignity and Vocation of Women), containing what he characterised as his “new feminism”. In his book The Pope in Winter, John Cornwell had this to say about it: “He congratulated women on the great revolution in their lives and opportunities. He approved of them working, and praised their ‘special sensitivity’. But they must accept, he wrote, their God-given role as mother [whether they have children or not], and they must not resist the ‘authenticity’ of their God-given gender — namely, their divinely ordained acquiescence”.

SIX years later, in 1994, John Paul II took that gender issue a stage further when he issued a statement in which he definitively, and for all time, ensured that women in the Catholic Church would be excluded from the ministerial priesthood. In November 2013, Pope Francis, in his apostolic exhortation Evangelii Gaudium (The Joy of the Gospel), reiterated John Paul II’s ban on the ordination of women.

“Demands that the legitimate rights of women be respected, based on the firm conviction that men and women are equal in dignity, present the Church with profound and challenging questions which cannot be lightly evaded. The reservation of the priesthood to males, as a sign of Christ the Spouse who gives himself in the Eucharist, is not a question open to discussion...”

Equality in dignity clearly has its limits in the eyes of Rome. This is part of the problem that the forthcoming Synod of Bishops faces. Pope Francis has said “we need to create still broader opportunities for a more incisive female presence in the Church”, including “settings where important decisions are made, both in the Church and in social structures”.

But how is this to be accomplished? Create some female Cardinals (cardinals do not have to be ordained)? Appoint some women to key posts within the Roman Curia (central bureaucracy)? Choose some women to serve as papal nuncios? Holding a Pastoral Synod on family life, with equal clerical and lay participation?

Any or all of the above would herald a significant change in the status and role of women in the Church. Calling a new Council (Vatican III) and placing the question of the ordination of women high on its agenda would be a much more profound move. Meanwhile, and in the absence of any of these initiatives, the substance of former President McAleese’s criticisms (minus the word “bonkers”) cannot just be brushed aside.


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