Opposition to the Church is not reflective of my faith – Mary McAleese

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Pope Francis has ‘allowed Church to breathe’
She has emerged as one of the Church’s most trenchant critics, yet Mary McAleese says her Catholic faith is unshakable

Four years, almost to the day, since she retired after 14 momentous years as eighth President of Ireland, Mary McAleese, devout and questioning Catholic, stateswoman, peacemaker, Pope Francis admirer, qualified Canon lawyer, wife, mother and grandmother, is relishing the freedom that comes from being a private citizen again while being forever grateful for the privilege of serving as elected Head of State.

Well, as private as any former president can be, one supposes.

She has more free time with husband Martin and her family including their two year old grandson.

Gone is the 24/7 personal protection, Mrs McAleese is driving herself again although she loves all the walking in Rome where she has spent several periods between other commitments acquiring a Licentiate in Canon Law at the Gregorian University.

She is generous with her time when we meet in the comfortable modest-sized apartment she shares with Martin in Dublin.

In the second half of 2016 she plans to return to the Gregorian to complete her doctoral thesis in Canon Law, entitled ‘The Christening Contract’, which examines what the 1983 Code of Canon Law says about the rights of and obligations to children.

Her research has revealed inter alia how the Church, for all the darkness of recent decades was a champion of children’s rights in medieval times by helping to stamp out arranged marriages which still remain prevalent in some cultures today.


Above all, Mary McAleese is now properly enjoying the freedom to speak her mind in a way a president is constitutionally precluded from doing and to choose “the issues that affect faith I may or may not wish to comment on”.

Ever the academic at heart she is thrilled to have been able to return to her books and accept invitations (from the literally thousands of requests of all sorts she has received from far and near since she left office) to teach at such distinguished Catholic institutions as Boston College and the University of Notre Dame in Indiana.

In January she’ll commence a six months engagement as Distinguished Professor teaching Irish history and law at the Centre for Irish Studies, St Mary’s University, Twickenham, Britain’s largest Catholic university.

She sees seats of Catholic higher learning as places of intellectual ferment where dialogue can thrive between faith and reason, seeking to eradicate the ignorances the religious and secular words often share.

Such is her workrate that within less than a year of leaving office in 2011, as a scholar of Canon Law, she wrote a book “as one of Christ’s faithful”, as she put it in an introductory note (Quo Vadis?, Columba), which examined collegiality – the sharing of power and responsibility between the Pope and the college of bishops.

She showed that while Vatican II defined the Church as the People of God and the Code of Canon Law stipulated that the faithful have “at times the duty to manifest to the sacred pastors their opinion on matters which pertain to the good of the Church” there “is no forum in the Church for determining the views of the People of God on the subject of governance or collegiality or virtually anything else for that matter”.

As eloquent and as compelling as ever her strong faith shines through. “I see myself as a member of the Church trying my best to be a member of that Church, trying to live the faith that I inherited and grew up with and have decided to remain with.”

Yet, despite this and the Church’s strong opposition to same-sex marriage, she believes “it would have been an act of craven and unchristian cowardice” to have stayed out of the referendum debate. Though clearly at odds with Pope Francis and the Church, she insists: “My views are founded emphatically in the Gospel. That’s where they come from. They don’t come from some weird Godless secular world.

“What infuses me, what is the essence of my being, is my faith in Christ. And it is the love of Christ and his offer of mercy to the world, the sense that every single person is a child of God, it is that which infuses me, gives me the outlook I have on the world.”

And that, she goes on, “is the outlook I have on our gay citizens” pointing out that it must have come as no surprise that she became involved on the ‘yes’ side because she has been supporting gay campaigns since she joined David Norris and others campaigning for homosexual law reform 40 years ago.

Her son, Justin, a Ryanair executive who is gay, gave her “an even greater insight” into the prejudices confronting gay persons though she has had numerous gay friends for a long time.

“I am ashamed, frankly, of my Church’s failure to be a champion of gay rights and of women’s rights. I am ashamed of my Church’s involvement historically in anti-Semitism”.

But what would being “a champion of gay rights” look like for the Church?

“That would be very simple. It [the Church] wouldn’t necessarily have to be a champion of gay marriage. I’m quite happy for the Church to stay away from civil marriage and let the State provide for that – that is not the issue.”

It would mean “not adhering to views from the Old Testament about homosexuality, which have long since been discredited by medical science” and being “actively engaged in today’s world with all the information that it has [about homosexuality.]

“It would mean looking at the language that the Church uses to see whether that language is capable of hurt, and of conducing to homophobia, which it most certainly does”.

“I see my Church as a major conduit for homophobia which is toxic, a form of hatred that has nothing to do with Christ and is unchristian.”


She would “like to see the Church take responsibility for the extent to which its words and its language conduces to homophobia” citing such words as “evil” in relation to homosexual acts and “disordered”. These are not “ancient” words, she says, but were written by Pope Benedict himself: “It is not enough to say we love the sinner but not the sin.”

She drew a parallel between homophobia and sectarianism in Northern Ireland recalling an inter-Church study on sectarianism she co-led which found that words which were not intended to cause hatred or to make people feel hated had that effect.

“The target of such language is entitled to reply and say how they feel when they hear those words and if they say those words make them feel hated, belittled or instil fear in them then those who utter those words in the first place have to listen very carefully”.

Mrs McAleese says it’s not that long ago since the Church “had to acknowledge that its historical teaching on Jews had been atrocious and undoubtedly a major contribution to the cultures of anti-Semitism all over the Christian world”.

She cites, for example, Jews being herded into ghettoes in the Papal States and forced to wear yellow markings in Rome.

In her view there are parallels between Catholic treatment of the Jews that fuelled anti-Semitism and teaching on homosexuality that still contributes to homophobia today.

“The Church has to be able to say that at times, in God’s name, we got some things badly wrong and bad things happened. The Church is not good at saying we managed to get things wrong and doing something about it.”

She defends and elaborates on her recent statement that Church teaching on homosexuality is “wrong”.

“I believe the Church’s teaching on homosexuality to be wrong. Period. I am not going to fudge my language just because somebody doesn’t like the language I am going to use. I am as entitled to stand up and state it to be wrong just as someone else is entitled to stand up and say that I am wrong. That is fine.”

Freedom of speech

Asked about journalist Bruce Arnold’s criticism during the referendum, that she had broken the convention that former presidents don’t get involved “on any matter that affects the public”, she is dismissive: “I firmly believe in freedom of speech as long as I have power of speech.”

Mary McAleese is a great admirer of Pope Francis because he is encouraging debate in the Church that, she believes, has not been seen since Vatican II, more than half a century ago.

“We thought there was room for debate after Vatican II but then came John Paul II and Benedict and we got this line about obedience and not challenging the Magisterium, without it being explained to us that obedience is not the same as abject and craven silence in the face of things that are manifestly incorrect.”

In support she cites the criticism Pope Francis himself has levelled against the Roman Curia and the Synod of Bishops.

Mrs McAleese describes Francis as “by far the most intriguing Pope of my lifetime” and after just two and a half years “his greatest legacy to the Church has been his welcoming of debate after the stultifying and suffocating imposed silence” of his two immediate predecessors.

Their time saw “this culture of imposed silence, this idea that unless you conformed 100% to the Church’s Magisterium in everything you said, you were expected to remain silent.”

“The Catholic intellectual world has been suffocated by this inability to talk, debate, and discuss, to push the envelope without being seen as being heretical or schismatic.”

She said Francis’ “wonderful gift to the Church is to welcome the debate that has been going on any way in all the quiet spaces where two or more were gathered, and festering in frustration, and he has just let it out and that is a joy”.

“I am more comfortable with the chaos of debate than in the festering suffocation of silence. I think Francis is allowing the Church to breathe and that is a wonderful thing. I don’t agree with him on everything but I really like the man.”

Mrs McAleese recalled that with her husband Martin she watched Pope Francis come out on the balcony of St Peter’s Basilica for the first time – as this writer did – and was won over “by his big smile and buona sera”.

“I think from that moment he won over the world and people love him. I love him. I like the fact that I could have a rattling good argument with him, he doesn’t mind argument at all.”

When it is put to her that there are some who fear that Francis’ openness to debate may sow seeds of confusion in the Church, she replies: “I wouldn’t worry too much about that. They probably said that about Christ too.”

She also praises Francis for his humble and earthy style.

“He’s not afraid to admit mistakes and is not trying to look like a walking saint every day of the week.”

Mrs McAleese commends his ecological encyclical Laudato Si’ as “a wonderful document that set an agenda for the care of the earth as a Christian duty” and his setting up of the Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors.

I wondered had she been in touch with the Pope since her letter to him two years ago which some believe contributed to the lifting of all sanctions on Marist priest Fr Sean Fagan.

“I communicate with the Pope occasionally. For example, I have raised with him the problem of youth suicide and self-harm since the Church provides educational services to a majority of children in Ireland and some 50 million worldwide.

“It has an important role to play in helping create a culture that supports good mental health. I have raised the Church’s support for corporal punishment of children which is set out in the Catechism and which the Committee on the Rights of the Child regards as a violation of children’s rights under the Convention on the Rights of the Child to which the Holy See is a state party.”

She recalls with satisfaction that Pope Francis has set up a working party on corporal punishment chaired by Peter Saunders under the auspices of the Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors.

One issue Pope Francis has so far done nothing on, Mrs McAleese believes, is the issue of women in the Church, apart from saying that the Church must do something about it.

Her starting point is “my Church’s long history of misogyny, it has never been a champion of women” and she traces this back to the legacy of old Roman law’s patria potestas (power of a father) which treated wives and mothers as servile second class persons.


She can think of numerous examples of what she considers misogyny ranging from a 19th-Century ban on women singing in church choirs, to the description of women as “objects of suspicion” in the 1917 Code of Canon Law to a current Vatican rule which gives bishops the power to permit girl altar servers but parish priests the ultimate power to ban them.

Mrs McAleese says Mary, Mother of God, whom she is named after having been born on the Feast of Our Lady of Perpetual Help 64 years ago, “is more complex than the idealised version of the Virgin Mary”.

Rather she was “a terrified 14-year-old child” whose obedience to God expressed in the words “behold, I am the handmaid of the Lord; let it be according to your word” only came after she had plucked up the courage to question the Angel Gabriel and receive his assurance. “There is a process here and we tend to have that process edited out.”

Mrs McAleese is telling us that the Virgin Mary, child and all that she was, was far from silent and there are lessons for us.

She favours the ordination of women priests but I put it to her, as a senior priest told me, St John Paul II came as close as he possibly could to declaring this to be an infallible teaching and did it not have to be accepted?

Mrs McAleese: “It is either infallible or it is not.” She said she “is obliged to accept the infallible teaching of the Church” but she did not accept that the teaching on the exclusion of women from the priesthood is infallible doctrine and pointed out that there are different views on this teaching.

She explained she had “no problem being obedient to the teaching that Christ is the son of God, it wouldn’t occur to me to question it”.


Referring to St John Paul II’s teaching on the ordination of women, Mrs McAleese said: “If he wanted to make that an infallible doctrine he only had to put one line into the text. He knew Canon Law as well as anybody and it says if [a doctrine] is going to be infallible the Pope has to say it is infallible. He didn’t do that.”

The question she asked herself subsequently was ‘if he had been so sure why did he not say it was infallible?’ and she thought the answer is “he wasn’t sure it was infallible”.

“The doctrine of women’s exclusion from priesthood is not an infallible doctrine currently. It may be someday and if that happens I would have serious difficulty with that.”

Asked if she was ever tempted to look to another denomination, she admitted to “looking at options” regularly but “had never found anything to attract me because the Catholic Church is woven into me and I relate to it and for all its messiness it calls me home”.

Pressed why she apparently did not accept the requirement in Canon Law that the Christian faithful follow with obedience the teaching of the Church she replied that some people “erroneously interpreted this as meaning silence” and that “not all the teachings are necessarily correct”.

I wondered what she would tell the Pope if she had five minutes to advise him on how to address the problem she identified in Quo Vadis? – the absence of a forum for the People of God to have their voice heard.

She says the key to finding a voice for the People of God at all levels is to have “formal standing structures that are active and working continually to set agendas.”

The Church has a lot to learn, she says, from, for example, the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child and the ongoing British–Irish Inter-governmental conference enshrined in the 1998 Good Friday Agreement.

Vatican II had “died on the vine” so given the opportunity she’d advise Pope Francis to consider standing advisory synods of priests, religious and laity at diocesan and national level and of bishops, priests, religious and laity at the level of the Universal Church.

Mrs McAleese “accepts the teaching that legislation and governance is always going to be in the hands of the Pope and bishops who are always going to be male until we get over this argument over whether women can or cannot be admitted to the priesthood”.

“But now we need advisory talkback facilities and those are best organised at diocesan, national and of course universal Church level.”

Like everyone else Mary McAleese is awaiting with keen interest Pope Francis’ response to the recent Synod on the Family.

She thinks it unlikely that Francis will simply publish the final synod report as an Apostolic Exhortation, points out that the synod is merely advisory and that the Pope has options that range from publishing his own motu proprio to appointing committees to further advise him.

Does she still meditate, I wonder? Mrs McAleese replies that she meditates for 20 minutes morning and evening every day. She doesn’t usually use texts but sometimes some of her favourite Psalms “as a trigger”.

“The kind of meditation I do is an emptying of the mind and sitting literally in the presence of God. Sometimes it is petitioning, chatting to God about things I need help with. I feel that God is always present, of course, but I use this time to make myself more present to God.”

And what is Mary McAleese’s concept of God? “I believe in God, a phenomenal source of this great renewable energy that is love that leads to mercy and forgiveness and the good things in this world. The force that can redeem and reach into the hardest of hearts and soften them, turn their faces to the sun and away from the darkness.

“I’d like to think God is some way beyond gender.

“God, the author in some way of creation, helps me to reach into parts of my being that sometimes I’d like not to confront, helps me to live with the messes, helps me to construct a vision for the present moment and for the future, and gives me strength to speak. It is important that God is not cross with me about the things I want to say.”


Mary and Martin McAleese are both Redemptorist Oblates and the only non-family picture in their living room is that of one of Mary’s heroes, Fr Alec Reid CSsR, the late and great peacemaker.

“Fr Alec means so much to me and remains my inspiration, a great witness to Christ.”

His picture reminds Mary McAleese of his part and that of all the others who contributed to the ceasefires and Good Friday Agreement and of how significant an achievement they were against all the odds.

Mrs McAleese’s own contribution, with her husband, to creating conditions which have helped anchor the peace is recognised in the Mary McAleese Boyne Valley Bridge, a permanent memorial to her phenomenal efforts to promote peace and reconciliation through her mission of “Building Bridges” – the theme of her presidency.

“I never expected anything like this and I am very grateful.”

She hopes that all who cross the bridge “will remember the emotional, mental, and cultural bridges we have to cross to get beyond all the hatreds and prejudice.”

Reflecting on her presidential theme she says: “My view was that God placed me in this role to do something local for the place that I live”.

Mrs McAleese’s mission of building bridges had its apogee when she hosted the historic visit of Britain’s Queen Elizabeth II whom she praises for wanting to contribute to the peace process “out of her deep sense of Christian conviction”.

“We both hoped that it would be a very healing time and it was. It was four days of healing.”

On the failure of the Stormont parties to make the Good Friday Agreement work well after 17 years, she’s anxious that people don’t lose perspective saying she never believed Sinn Féin and the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) would govern together in her lifetime.

She singles out Bertie Ahern and Tony Blair, while recognising the work of Albert Reynolds and John Major before them, and others, “for the leadership it took to galvanise the yesness that was lurking in people’s souls but couldn’t get out”.

Mrs McAleese says “of course there will be further difficulties given the history” but the “frustration and impatience of people is a good thing because it sits on the backs of politicians who can overcome the latest problems”.

Looking ahead, Mary McAleese’s diary is full well into 2017 and her immediate priority is to undertake her engagement at St Mary’s University in London and then return to Rome to complete her doctoral thesis and publish accompanying books.

Retired heads of state or government of the calibre of Mary McAleese – once described by Forbes as one of the most powerful women in the world – receive numerous requests. So I was curious why Mrs McAleese, anxious as she is to finish her thesis, said yes to a request from Francis Campbell, Newry-born Vice-Chancellor of St Mary’s University and former British ambassador to the Holy See to join his campus at Twickenham.

There turns out to be more to it than the fact that Mr Campbell is an old friend and has persuaded many big names, hers being the biggest, to join St Mary’s.

There is on Mrs McAleese’s part significant family connections and an admiration for a Catholic seat of learning with close Irish links and a record of service to both parts of our island.


Her cousin, Dr Jim O’Hara, who was brought up in the same street in Belfast founded the Centre for Irish Studies St Mary’s, Strawberry Hill, as it was then known and “this was the start of Irish history being taken very seriously by the British establishment scholarship system”.

Two other cousins, brothers John and Henry McGreevy, who became Christian Brothers, Br Bede and Br Fidelis, and educationists in Belfast and South Africa respectively, qualified in St Mary’s.

“I developed a heart for St Mary’s, it was always associated with Ireland, with education and with teaching and we owe so much to its teachers like Br Bede and Br Fidelis who transformed so many lives.”

As Ireland prepares for the respective centenaries of the Easter Rising and the Battle of the Somme, Prof. McAleese is preparing to teach a history course in St Mary’s examining the 1916 period and “how the 1914-18 War has been brought into modern consciousness in Ireland and what kind of a contribution that may have made to the peace process”.

She’ll likely recall to students how she made history as president by honouring the too-long-forgotten Irish Great War dead both at Messines, Belgium (with Elizabeth II) and Gallipoli, Turkey. One expects there’ll be many students in St Mary’s University feeling excited to have such an eminent teacher at such an evocative time.

 Martin O'Brien; Irish Catholic; 12 November 2015