Mary McAleese challenged on ‘misogyny’ of Pope St John Paul II

Nov 4, 2019 | 19 comments

Mary McAleese, former president of Ireland and strong advocate for the rights of women in the Catholic Church, has been challenged on her selection of quotations to illustrate the alleged misogyny of the church, and especially of a former pope, the canonised Pope John Paul II.

On Twitter, the Irish Jesuit philosopher Kevin O’Higgins has insisted that the late pope had in fact, as early as 1981, directly rejected the views attributed to him recently by Mrs McAleese.

Following a lecture in Trinity College on Saturday Nov 2nd, 2019 Mrs McAleese had been quoted in two Irish newspapers as having said that in the church women were “deliberately made invisible. Deliberately meant to stay invisible, and structurally the architecture of the church is designed to create and maintain the invisibility and powerlessness of women.”

To illustrate the point she quoted the late pope John Paul II as having written the following about heterosexual love-making:

“It is 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 even take place without her volition while she is in a state where she has no awareness at all of what is happening – for instance when she is asleep or unconscious.”

According to the Irish Times report, by Patsy McGarry, Mrs McAleese had then said: “that is how we are treated in the church”.

She had gone on to allege, it was reported, that the late Irish theologian, Seán Fagan had asked ‘Can this really be Catholic Church teaching? It sounds like rape.’  Subsequently Fr Fagan had been silenced, she had said, while Pope John Paul had become a saint. “That’s our church.”

Kevin O’Higgins SJ

However, Fr O’Higgins has quoted Pope John Paul II as having written in 1981 as follows, in his book ‘Love and Responsibility‘:

“From the viewpoint of loving another person, from the position of altruism, it must be required that the conjugal act should serve not merely to reach the climax of sexual arousal on one side, i.e., that of a man, but happen in harmony, not at the other person’s expense, but with that person’s involvement. This follows precisely from the position of the principle already thoroughly analyzed, which excludes use and demands love in relation to the person. And love demands in this case that the reactions of the other person, of the partner, be taken fully into consideration.”

(Added on Nov. 6th, 2019) Fr O’Higgins subsequently declared that both passages occurred in the same book, directly after one another – with Mrs McAleese’s chosen excerpt (the first) being simply the pope’s account of what CAN happen in a one-sided way, but clearly not his view of what SHOULD happen in a properly loving relationship (described in the second excerpt).

Fr O’Higgins’s Twitter id is: @kevinohigginssj

A podcast of the Trinity College event on 2nd Sep, 2019 [‘Women the Vatican Couldn’t Silence’], can be found at:

Sean O’Conaill, Nov. 2019


  1. Mary Vallely

    I don’t tweet so hadn’t heard about this but both Mary McAleese and Kevin Higgins are highly intelligent people, one a lawyer and theologian, the other a philosopher and theologian so I will wait for Mary’s refutation or defence of the particular quote used. Is it not possible that both quotations are accurate but made at different times?
    Strikes me as a bit odd all this pontificating about the sexual act from someone who had never experienced it himself as he had taken a vow of celibacy. The language to me, an ordinary unacademic Mary, is convoluted and strange… “ excludes use ( well , of course) and ‘ demands love’ ( does love ‘ demand?’) … ‘ the reactions of the other person to be taken fully into consideration.” He means the woman. Why not say so? ( since the Church forbids the physical expression of homosexual love.)
    I listened to the Talk on Saturday and I don’t think Mary McAleese meant that Fr Sean Fagan was silenced just for one particular viewpoint but his treatment by the CDF and his own Order was appalling, unchristian and mean. “ That’s our Church” to quote Mary McAleese, at least it was then. Is it still the case now? She was trying to make a point and in a conversation, not a lecture with prepared notes, then you have to allow a little leeway.
    Let’s wait and see how this disagreement between these two erudite Catholics develops. Just throwing my opinion into the ring here to spark off a conversation and maybe because, like Joan Chittister and Mary McAleese, I believe that we all need to be “ irritants” in the Church in order to get things moving towards becoming more Christ like!

    • soconaill

      You are quite right, Mary – these quotations may both have come from the same person, but in different contexts and with different emphases. In the McAleese quote it appears likely that Pope John Paul II was speaking of the sexual act in a purely biological context, as a simply procreative act. In the paragraph quoted by Kevin O’Higgins it is clear that the pope is writing of sex from a perspective founded in Christian ethics – the obligation of mutual love between the partners.

      You are right therefore in calling for the McAleese quote to be given a source reference.

      This is not in any way to question the case for a radical rebalancing of male / female relationships in the church. There is inertia on this as on so much else – and this is causing the deepest frustration and tension. ‘Something’s Got to Give!’

  2. Martin Murray

    I watched this event on YouTube featuring Mary MacAleese and Joan Chittister in conversation for nearly two hours. All I can say is that it was brilliant and wide-ranging and I hope it gets a wide audience. I also hope that people watch or listen to the whole thing. It would be a shame if this alleged quote was the only part of the conversation that gets to be heard.

    Having said that, if it turns out to be a genuine quote then it would be truly shocking regardless of any mitigating quotes. A reference would be useful.

  3. Soline Humbert

    Mary Mc Aleese’s source for this quote by Karol Vojtyla and Seán Fagan’s comment can be found in a chapter by Seán Fagan in the book Responding to the Ryan Report, ed.Tony Flannery, Columba Press, 2009.
    The quote is in chapter 1, The Abuse and Our Bad Theology, p.22.
    Angela Hanley refers to it in her What Happened to Fr. Seán Fagan?, Columba Books, 2019.p.121.

  4. soconaill

    Kevin O’Higgins has this morning messaged me as follows:

    “Both quotes are from the very same book, ‘Love and Responsibility’. The paragraph I quoted follows immediately after the one from which Ms. McAleese extracted her quote (p. 257 in the 2013 English edition).

    “In her quote, he is outlining the blunt fact that one-sided sexual activity of this kind is possible (e.g. in case of rape) because of differences in male/female biological, or physiological, make-up.

    “But that is most certainly NOT a statement re. his view of marriage!”

  5. Martin Murray

    Its looking like she got it wrong.

  6. Soline Humbert

    What is being completely missed out is the CONTEXT in which Mary McAleese made this statement. It is very clear she was using this quote as an ANALOGY and not as a comment on John Paul 2’s view on sexual intercourse. This factually correct extract was used by her as an ANALOGY for the unequal role of women in the church, with men as dominant initiators and women passive receivers (of church teaching, governance etc.)
    That’s how I understood it when I heard it first and checked it again from the recording.

  7. Mary Vallely

    Yes, Soline, that analogy makes perfect sense. Women are indeed expected to be passive receivers and not initiators in this Church of ours. We cannot even read the Gospel or give a homily no matter how well educated we are in theology or how deeply spiritually gifted. I hadn’t thought of this analogy as was so flummoxed by the idea of a pope or celibate male writing about sex, not just the physical act but the giving and receiving of this gift by two equal people in an act of selfless love. It distracted me from the real context.

    The deep rooted misogyny in the Catholic Church is so insidious that it can affect women too. Mea culpa! Heaven forbid that we continue to acquiesce and to deny our own God given charisms. We need to keep challenging old patriarchal mindsets, often imbued with our mothers’ milk. It is heartbreakingly sad to think of generations of women, our mothers and grandmothers, who accepted the status quo or who tried to speak out but were shamefully silenced along with those ordained who supported them. I also accept that many women have to waken up, cast fear aside and support their sisters in this struggle. (Fear of being thought “opinionated”, “arrogant”, not be sufficiently humble and meek as a woman is expected to be.)

    I read Fr Joe McDonald’s comment in the I. T. about the constant vitriol Mary McAleese receives and that it emanates from men, generally clerics. It is shameful, wicked, and unjust and again stems from that deep rooted misogyny that is a beam in the eye of so many. The Church of Christ, of the Nazarene, who showed by his life that he respected women and treated them as equals…? My God but we have a long way to go to become that community of Christ followers!

  8. Raymond McIntyre

    Re the abundant comments about how a male celibate can write about the sex act.
    Firstly the massive assumption is that any “male celibate” is also a virgin.
    In the rush to judge a figure that many contributors on this site detest with a vengeance this assumption is never given the slightest thought.
    It is regularly proposed that those pushing for so called “liberal” change in our church are “the sophisticated thinking folk” while those of us concerned with trifling matters like the right to life of innocent, voiceless human beings yet to draw a breath are dullards – ignorant, knuckle-dragging lemmings who follow without an independent thought.
    Personally I’ve had enough of this mutual grenade lobbing from one trench-like silo of certainty to the other.
    Hence my contribution and a hand of peace.
    It may be news to many but JP2 in his book “Love and Responsibility” drew heavily on his deep friendship with a Polish woman whose name escapes me just now. They exchanged many letters throughout his life. And for input on sexual love and the mutual consideration of partners during sex he drew heavily on his open and frank discussions with his best lifelong female friend.
    Are we going to continue lobbing smug rhetorical grenades and Molotov cocktails from silo to silo to the back slapping applause of our own trench buddies or are we going to strive to be honest, informed and at least charitable to the motives of those in the opposite trench.
    The sly, devious bad-Jesuitical manner that JP2 is now inextricably linked with condoning rape on web searches by those privileged to live on massive tax payer funded pensions is simply disgusting. You see passive aggression is so easy to identify. In the world of employment passive aggression is called bullying.

    • soconaill

      Your appeal for an end to fruitless ‘trench warfare’ in the church is well timed, Raymond. If you see evidence in any article on this site of any lack of honesty or charity, please report that to us. From Monday Nov. 4th we reported here the strong exception taken by well-informed sources to what had been said on Nov. 2nd in Trinity College, Dublin, re Pope St John Paul II and marriage – and we then published a transcript of that full controversial sequence from the podcast of that event. You will agree, I am sure, that there is also a lot of unfairness ‘out there’ re Pope Francis, and that this too needs to be ‘called out’.

  9. Jo O'Sullivan

    I’m very much in favour of Mary McAleese and what she’s doing for Catholicism. I wish her every success. However, I attended last week’s Trinity event, and feel that, in this instance, she DID overstep a mark. I’m not unintelligent (I hope!) but I did not “get” the fact that she was using the JP quote as an analogy. To me, and I think to a lot of the audience, she DID leave the impression that the quote was an indication of JP’s beliefs. Perhaps it would have been wiser had she followed it with “Of course, that wasn’t JP’s own view of sex”. The whole episode doesn’t take anything away from the huge respect and admiration I have for Mary McAleese – I’m right behind her – but maybe she got it wrong in this instance and could acknowledge that? We don’t always have to believe we’re in the right, do we?

  10. Joe O'Leary

    Love and Responsibility was published in Polish in 1960 and comes from the pre-Vatican II church.

    The future pope writes purely as a sexologist or phenomenologist of sex in parts of the book, where morality is not in play.

    The work is described as ‘a defence of the traditional Church teachings on marriage from a new philosophical standpoint’. It was intended to be an enlightened and progressive book.

    “Fr. Wojtyła writes that marital sexual intercourse is the best image of God who is love, for he sees the human body as the only one capable of making the invisible — the spiritual and the divine — visible. He says that human beings were created by God for a purpose: to be persons who freely choose to love, to give themselves as persons who express their self-giving through their bodies. Thus, sexual intercourse between husband and wife is a symbol of their total mutual self-donation, and further fosters, strengthens and enriches it not just for the present but also for the future. ‘Marriage is an act of will that signifies and involves a mutual gift, which unites the spouses and binds them to their eventual souls, with whom they make up a sole family – a domestic church’.”

    So why does a celibate priest pontificate about marital sex? Why did his enthusiastic lay auditors encourage this? Well, that was the church of the time, the church of “Father knows best.”

  11. Gerald Donnelly

    There seems to be an ongoing attempt to to divide the Church between men and women. The Church is made up of 51% women and 49% men give or take. In the Dublin Diocese there are approximately 2,500 priests to 2/3 million or 1 to 1.1/2 million males. At least half of these men are married or in relationships. All of these men are also excluded from the same priestly duties/honours as women. Only a small number of men have been chosen to be Christs representatives. While some men may be misogynistic including priests, I believe the vast majority of us are kind and considerate but not perfect. It may be a disservice to the Male population to generalise and add to our alienation.
    God bless.

  12. Eddie Finnegan

    For years I’ve admired Jo O’Sullivan’s readiness to stand back and think. In this case to dare suggest that someone she has admired in most other talks, lectures etc (Dr McAleese) may in the so-called “conversation” have got it wrong. Because of my rapidly deteriorating hearing, not helped by the God-awful microphone system, I watched large chunks of this YouTube video three times. I thought perhaps the pseudo-conversation format might have led this Criminal & Canon Lawyer, Trinity & QUB Professor, pro-vice-chancellor and now chancellor, not to mention 14 years in the Park, into a casual slip-up. Not at all. Her misuse of Bishop Wojtyla’s argument and her ignoring of the context of that particular quotation was no slip-up. It was clearly prepared, excerpted and set up with the Chair, Josepha Madigan, for delivery at a particular point in the “conversation”. Nobody has suggested that she should not draw an analogy from something written by Wojtyla, but how does that excuse her misuse of the writer’s argument in the first place? Dr McAleese’s self-serving grandstanding to wow her like-minded audience has almost made me a fan of Karol Wojtyla for the first time in 42 years.

    • soconaill

      Note, Eddie, Soline Humbert’s contention in an earlier comment here that MMcA had found the quoted excerpt not in the original 1960 book ‘Love and Responsibility’ but in an article from the 2009 ‘Responding to the Ryan Report’, edited by Tony Flannery. There that excerpt appears on its own, without the contextual subsequent paragraph that makes clear the pope’s very different view of the ethics of sexual intercourse within a loving Christian relationship. And Sean Fagan introduces it in that article as relating merely to ‘intercourse’, not ‘marriage’.

      So it is likely that there was no deliberate intention to misrepresent Wojtyla, merely a failure to double check the original context. However, if that is the explanation for what transpired the air could most quickly be cleared by saying so.

  13. Eddie Finnegan

    First, my apologies to both Josepha Madigan and Ursula Halligan for my confusing them in my comment above. No! women, even activist Catholic Dublin women, don’t “all look the same to me”. Blame it on my being a very deaf expatriate for the past 52 years, though I will blame it on the terrible acoustics or microphones in Trinity College. Let’s hope their new Chancellor can do something about that!
    Thanks Sean. I had read Soline’s comment about the very restricted source for Dr McAleese’s acquaintance with the context-free and second-hand quote, liberated by the late Fr Sean Fagan from its original home in Fr or Bishop Wojtyla’s 1960 or 1981 edition. Soline’s clarification does not fill one with confidence as to how moral theologians or legal luminaries enlighten the rest of us poor ignoramuses. I think, in fairness to the Late Revv Wojtyla and Fagan, and to her own reputation, Dr McAleese should now make a very belated apology for all the alarm and misleading she has caused, for no good purpose. By all means let her have her analogy, but this presupposes an attempt to understand and respect the original subject or analog before going ramstam for the target. All Dr McAleese’s talk of her analogy, however, does not explain her ‘JPII was canonised / Sean Fagan was silenced’ line. Like, I think, Jo O’Sullivan’s comment above, I’m still struggling to believe that the real Mary McAleese spoke most effectively at the Jesuit place in Rome on 8th March 2018, not at this “conversation” at Trinity College on 2nd November 2019. She should not go on defending the indefensible or throwing a red herring in the way of sincere challenge.

    • Pól Ó Duibhir

      I was there and I agree with Eddie.

      She should stop digging and come clean.


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