VICTORIA WHITE: Catholic Church is not ‘fit for Christ’ without fundamental equality

What should concern Pope Francis much more is that so many Irish Catholics are turning away from Christianity, writes Victoria White

WHEN she was little my daughter turned to me at Mass and said: “I want to be a priest when I grow up.” I hesitated for a few moments before saying, “You can if you want to.” That was one of the moments I was glad I’m a Catholic but not a Roman Catholic.

I don’t care much about the distinction. I’m in the Church of Ireland mostly because I was born into it and I associate the music and some of the prayers with my childhood and my parents.

But I think the lack of women priests would be a deal-breaker for me if I were a Roman Catholic. How could I turn to my little daughter and tell her she could never be a priest because of her gender?

She no longer thinks of being a priest but she is still a Roman Catholic and, like former president Mary McAleese, she is a “Dominican girl”. She told me recently that when she went to a certain church she felt sure that she was in God’s comforting presence.

I love her to have that faith but I wonder will it last as she comes to terms with a Church which won’t even ordain people who happen to have bodies shaped like hers? She could jump ship to her mother’s Church but she could also jump out of any Church at all.

Or she could be like Mary McAleese and 77% of Irish Catholics (figure from 2012) who want women priests but stay in their Church?

Archbishop Diarmuid Martin is so right when he says “the low standing of women in the Catholic Church is the most significant reason for the feeling of alienation towards it in Ireland today”.

Mary McAleese was only speaking the truth when she said in Rome that the Catholic Church had been a carrier of “the virus of misogyny”. The ordination of women is not a detail, it’s fundamental. Without that basic equality in the leadership the Catholic Church is not, to use McAleese’s expression, “fit for Christ”. I am with Mary McAleese in that it is Christ’s gospel which keeps me in the Church. Finding the living-out of that Gospel of unconditional love in my Church is a hit and miss affair, exactly as it is in all Christian Churches.

But every now and then it flares. When a little old lady turned to me once in my Church of Ireland parish church and said: “I hope the new Archbishop manages to change a few things.” I assumed the scope of her ambition would be a new flower-arranging rota.

Until she added: “Jesus was a shit-stirrer.” That’s the “shit-stirring” Jesus that interests me and that Jesus is as common in RC communions as in Anglican ones. Indeed, I agree with McAleese that the RC church “has no equal on the planet in terms of its outreach to the poor, the dispossessed, the marginalised”.

My husband once interrupted one of our sons in a diatribe against the RC church with the words: “What other organisation else would have just brought your autistic brother away to France for a week?” The Lourdes medals he brought back from his diocesan pilgrimage are treasured.

I’m not interested in trumped-up differences between Christian denominations. Most of the time I’m as happy at Mass as I am at service — apart from the terrible singing.

The same Gospel message comes from the pulpits of all Christian denominations, the radical message of love. I don’t care much about the rest. But still, I think that I would find it impossible to be part of a Church in which women were not ordained by virtue of their gender.

Women priests are the same as men priests in that some of them are inspiring and some aren’t.

But there are moments when their gender adds a special dimension for me. When the rector in my parish holds a baby at Christening, for instance, it creates immediately a living, breathing image of maternal love.

It meant so much to me to be married by a woman. We married in Teampall na mBocht, the “church of the poor”, in Toormore outside Schull because my father had loved the place.

It mattered to me that the its famous rector, William Allen Fisher, had built the church as a Famine relief scheme in 1847 and had heard confessions from local, Famine-wracked Catholics.

I was just lucky that a woman had just taken up the “living” in that parish. It helped that she didn’t have a sectarian bone in her body and happily worked on the service with my former altar-boy, Roman Catholic husband-to-be.

But it also helped me that a woman led me in making the commitment to marriage, an institution with a misogynistic history. We also had a Roman Catholic priest (and friend) on the altar though as my husband said, for him it was “an away match”. That was 20 years ago and only eight years after Jane Catterall became, in St Fin Barre’s Cathedral, the first woman Anglican priest to be ordained on this island. Once change began, it happened fast. In 2013 Pat Storey became the first woman bishop in the UK and Ireland.

Anglicans are very often stuffy and conservative and their church structures are often stultifying. But still, they managed that change. In this part of the world, Ireland led.

Rev Pat Storey was appointed as the Church of Ireland’s first woman bishop in Ireland in 2013; she is the Bishop of Meath and Kildare. Picture: Trevor McBride
Rev Pat Storey was appointed as the Church of Ireland’s first woman bishop in Ireland in 2013; she is the Bishop of Meath and Kildare. Picture: Trevor McBride

CLEARLY, the Roman Church’s problem (and strength) is centralised power. The Catholic hierarchy in Ireland is struggling with a church which is simply out of step with the norms of Irish society.

Rome’s defence of its ban on women priests, that Christ only chose male apostles, is idiotic. Christ only chose a woman to wash his feet yet feet washing isn’t forever confined to women.

Jesus was simply living within the norms of his time. Any woman who followed him would have been deemed immoral and would have been destroyed.

McAleese is an expert in canon law and she seems to think that Pope Francis has it in his power to open ordination to women. That may be technically true. What’s undeniable is that the move would split the Catholic Church.

Arguably it is already “calving” like an iceberg in a hot climate. What should concern Pope Francis much more is that so many Irish Catholics are turning away from Christianity of any kind. On May 19 Mary McAleese will take part in a conference organised in Dublin hosted by Colomba Press with the title, “Five Years to save the Irish Church.” As she says: “The time for change is now” and there is no better place to begin than here in Ireland. We provided radical leadership for a struggling Christian Church in the ninth century and we can do it again.

More on this topic

Vatican investigating claim Kenyan man’s father is missionary priestVatican investigating claim Kenyan man’s father is missionary priest

Eamonn Walsh retires as Auxiliary Bishop of DublinEamonn Walsh retires as Auxiliary Bishop of Dublin

A day free of religious persecution: We are all sacredA day free of religious persecution: We are all sacred

Knock Shrine celebrates 140 years since apparitionKnock Shrine celebrates 140 years since apparition


Leopard print midi dresses and sequins swirled beneath glossy goddess hair and golden headbands as the great and the good of Cork gathered for ieStyle Live.Leopard print and sequins to the fore at inaugural #IEStyleLive event

You have a long half-term break ahead of you all, and there’s only so much screen time anyone in the family can handle. Everyone is going to need a book-break at some point or another.We reviewed some of the best new books to keep kids entertained over half-term

Sexual politics, snideput-downs and family rivalries are fuelling the trouble brewing in a small Midlands town.Charlie Murphy and Pat Shortt star in new Irish film 'Dark lies the Island'

Robert Hume tells of the eccentric MP for Athboy, Co. Meath – born 300 years ago this month – who thought he was a teapot, and was afraid his spout might break off.A strange brew of a man: The MP for Meath who believed he was a teapot

More From The Irish Examiner