Mary McAleese responds to criticism

Nov 8, 2019 | 2 comments

Accused of ‘shoddy scholarly treatment’ of Pope John Paul II in a discussion of the role of women in the Catholic Church on Nov 2nd, former President of Ireland Mary McAleese has denied that charge in a letter to the Irish Times of Nov 8th, 2019 – insisting that she had explicitly stated at the Nov 2nd event in Trinity college that she ‘was not talking about the sex act at all‘.

On November 7th, in a letter to the same newspaper, Dr Thomas Finegan had said that the passage quoted by Mrs McAleese from the book ‘Love and Responsibility’ did not summarise the late pope’s teaching on sex within marriage. The latter had clearly been stated in a later passage in the same book that criticised any male indifference to a woman’s feelings.

In her letter of Nov 8th Mrs Aleese writes:

“It is very clear Dr Finegan did not check the context in which I used the passage. It was explicitly stated by me that I was not talking about the sex act at all but by analogy using the passage to describe the position and role of women in the church generally, with men seen as dominant initiators and women as passive receivers. A simple and factually correct statement.”

The podcast of the Trinity College event of Nov 2nd seems to convey the relevant verbal sequence as follows below.

[Following a description by Sister Joan Chittister of the role of women in the Catholic Church as ‘invisible’, Ursula Halligan, chairing the discussion, asks:]

UH: Mary – how would you describe the role of women in the church?

MMcA: Absolutely, but even more than invisible – deliberately made invisible – deliberately meant to stay invisible … Structurally, structurally the architecture of the church is designed to create the invisibility and maintain the invisibility and the powerlessness of women, and to corral us…

If you’ll just bear with me, could I just read a little section from the writings of Pope John the Second. This is a recent pope so we’re not talking about the Dark Ages, so we’re talking about a recent pope, from his book ‘Love and Responsibility’. This is his description of marriage, of sex and marriage, a short thing …

[MMcA reads] “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 in which she has no awareness at all of what is happening – for instance when she is asleep or unconscious.”

[MMcA continues] That is how we are treated in the church – expected to be asleep, unconscious while men get on with what they have to do. And here’s the sequel to that: when Fr Sean Fagan called Pope John Paul out on that and said the obvious. He asked a question. He said: ‘can this really be church teaching?’ He said ‘it sounds like rape’.

What happened? Pope John Paul becomes a saint. Sean Fagan becomes silenced. That’s our church.

UH: (Indistinct) That is, that is shocking… Can we move from that to ideally what should the church look like?

MMcA: Yeah!

JC: Well in the first place there has to be some coherence in the theology …

[The discussion moves elsewhere.]

Sean O’Conaill (8th Nov, 2019)


  1. Joe O'Leary

    I just looked up the relevant passage in “Love and Responsibiliity” — I was bemused as I looked through the text to note how clogged and murky its style was. My memory of the book, which I reviewed in 1979, was quite different — but that may be because it was the French version that I reviewed.

    Other have cited the bit quoted by Mrs McAleese without pointing out that it’s not the future pope’s definitive viewpoint. In fact the passage is one of many where the author writes as a phenomenologist of sexuality or even as a sexologist, in a tone of moral neutrality. On the next page he has more exalted statements about mutuality even on the purely physical level. Nonetheless his way of talking does come across as rather cloddish and sexist. He no doubt saw himself as progressive when he wrote this stuff back in the late 1950s, when our church was totally benighted on such matters. It would certainly be unfair to quote this sentence as an epiphany of the true sentiments of John Paul II on sex and marriage.

  2. Rory Connor

    Just saw this now. Many years I recall reading that, when the future Pope was a seminarian, the prevailing Theology was a rather arid neo-Thomism. As Karol Wojtyła himself was an artistic type, he found this very hard going but felt it his duty to master it and believed he had eventually done so. No doubt the intellectual struggle left its mark on his writing but it’s no excuse to defame him!


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