Coping with a Christ who does not want women priests
>Mary McAleese, President of Ireland

Coping with a Christ who does not want women priests almost as much as He wants Ulster to remain British

[Response to Ordinatio Sacerdotalis (1994) and statements by Cardinal Ratzinger (1995) that discussion on the ordination of women is closed.]

by Mary McAleese

From Women Sharing Fully, Proceedings of the Seminar, Dublin 1995, pp. 11-21; B.A.S.I.C., Saint Francois, Avoca Avenue, Blackrock, Co. Dublin; with permission of the publisher.

Mary McAleese would later become President of the Republic of Ireland (1997-2011). Among the academic posts she held:

  • Reed Professor of Criminal Law, Trinity College, Dublin (1975)
  • Director of the Institute of Professional Legal Studies (1987)
  • Pro-Vice Chancellor, Queen’s University Belfast (1994)

They say the debate is closed. I think they had better turn up their hearing aids.

Let me say at the start that I love the Church. I love the bones of it; I love the stones of it.

I love my mother and my mother loves me. We are neither of us perfect and from time to time we feel compelled to inform each other about our imperfections in the hope that our relationship will improve. So that is why this morning I come to this talk to tell the Church that I love what I think and why I think the way I think.

I was born in Belfast, between the Passionist monastery and the Orange Hall. In the former God was male; the altar was a male preserve, priests were heroes, every mother wanted a son a hero. My mother too and all her sisters. ‘My son the priest’ had a cachet which even ‘my daughter the nun’ could never hope to emulate. I understood that without ever being told. It seemed to seep into my open pores somehow.

It was understood. God was male father, male son and male Holy Spirit. From the Orange Hall came another image of God, God the protector of Protestants who had ordained that the north-west corner of Northern Ireland would be Protestant and British. A God who seemed curiously capable of hating Catholics.

And then there was also of course the Catholic God, the Catholic Ireland. That God seemed curiously capable also of despising Protestants. Two Gods carrying their crosses like lances in a jousting tournament. Two Gods of narrow perspective and parochial obsessiveness. Fidgety Gods who brooded over small bits of the world with a warm embrace for the chosen few only and not the wide embrace of the God I came to know and to need.

In the monastery there were in those days, though not now, over forty men dressed in their flowing black female-type habits.

They dominated the landscape of my thinking and I loved them all. And they dominated the spiritual landscape of my childhood. I owe them a debt that will never be repaid.

But there was and there is also a deficit. Not deliberate and not malintended but a deficit nonetheless. On the day that I for the very first time spoke out loud my ambition to become a lawyer, the first to say “you cannot because you are a woman and because no one belonging to you is in the law”, was the Dublin born parish priest who weekly shared a whiskey or three with my father. It was said with the kind of dismissive authority which is intended to silence protest or debate. The owner of superior knowledge, of real certitude had spoken and that was that.

Now my mother had inculcated in her nine children a respect for the priesthood bordering on awe. I watched therefore in amazement as the chair was pulled out from under the cleric and he was propelled to the front door by my mother before the bottle of baby Powers had even been uncorked. “You”, she said to him, “out”, and “You”, she said to me, “Ignore the oul’ eejit”. I have taken that advice ever since. That was the only advice on careers I ever received from either of my parents.

My schooling was all in convent schools so it would be untrue to say that I had no female role models for working women because in fact my whole life was lived among working women. Between the nuns, my mother and her own sisters, there were very many role models but there were also demarcation lines so clear, so defined that even now decades later, the same mother who so ably despatched the sexist priest is able very lamely to say, “I don’t support women priests but I don’t know why”. I am saddened by the first part but heartened by the second. If she knew why I would really be worried.

Those same demarcation lines on one side of which was authority and on the other deference also allowed me years later when the subject of women and priesthood was broached to say equally lamely, I do not understand the exclusion of women from the priesthood but then I am not a theologian.

The historic parallels with the reasons women could not be lawyers, could not be admitted to universities, could not be admitted to vote, had to surrender their careers on marriage, did not escape me. I simply buried them. Because to challenge the awesome authority of the hierarchy seemed to open up an aptly named Pandora’s Box of things which might be difficult to swallow. If the Church was wrong on an issue like this on which it spoke with such a chilling clarity, then how many other errors might I also unmask? And those of you who have fought for faith and know the dark side of faith, will know how hard it is to fear and to face into doubt.

The Dominican nuns to whom I owe my very happy secondary education taught me about that great intellectual philosophical colossus, St. Thomas Aquinas, who strides over nine centuries of Church thinking like a colossus. But it was 20 years after I left St. Dominic’s on the Falls Road that I discovered that I had been introduced to edited highlights only of St. Thomas, to put not too fine a point on it. When I actually got around to reading the Summa Theologica in the original and when I read the phrase, “woman is defective and misbegotten”, I cannot begin to tell you how betrayed I felt.

I began then to understand the connection of thought, through time, teaching and culture which has shaped and circumscribed the roles permitted to women but it was still easier to feign ignorance than to face doubt. Nonetheless the seed of doubt was planted.

For one simple observation I have come to learn about truth is that it point blank refuses to go away. It finds a crevice to bubble through, it worries the minutest space until it pushes through to the light. The best example I can find in modern times to parallel what I think is happening in relation to the argument about women in the Church is something that is very close to my own heart, the vindication of the Maguire family and of the Birmingham Six and Guildford Four.

The entire establishment, media, courts and public sympathy, were ranged against them like an impenetrable wall. Yet over and through that wall the voices of quiet people, people who heard an insistent truth in their own hearts even though it was not heard in other hearts, powerless people, began to be heard and their persistent scraping literally brought down that enormous wall. How many courts, how many executive letters and dictates were designed to quell forever the growing public debate and concern and how powerless at the end of the day they all were.

And there are parallels between the campaigns for the Maguire family and the campaigns for admitting women to all ministries of the Church. At the beginning, the small number who campaigned were rank outsiders, people of little power and influence. They spoke from outside a very strong and unselfcritical paradigm which was not attuned to voices of dissent from within, never mind from without.

When it heard voices challenging it from without, those with the power and the authority, that select few bristled with contempt. The voices outside sounded raucous, untutored, not the voices of the insiders. And so those voices were labelled bad voices, bad people. And those inside the paradigm grew even deafer and mustered their defences to drown out the questioning voices.

And those outside had to grow even shriller in order to be heard at all. And their very shrillness confirmed the bias of those inside the safe paradigm, that these were indeed, awful, ghastly people, not to be trusted, not worthy of being listened to.

I remember so well the awful things said so confidently about two men whom I admire above all men on this island - Fr. Denis Faul and Fr. Raymond Murray - when they started their lonely battle. And I was in the room at times when things were said about them that were not just libellous, but unchristian to the nth degree. But still they had courage. The flame of truth was in their hearts and would not go away.

And then they made the breakthrough because inside the paradigm Christ works too, even though it is harder for Him. Only when a few courageous souls inside the paradigm decided to listen and having listened decided to act, did the paradigm begin to wonder about the voices outside and then the paradigm joined the voices outside and the monolith crumbled.

The issue of women and their role in the Church is very similar. Let us look for a moment at the shape of the structure that we are debating in and the communication system within that structure. The nearest model that I can think of to create an image, comes from Fisher Price.

Do you remember the children’s toy that has a central stem on which you put rings which diminish in size? If you can, imagine the stem as the body of Christ on which we are putting little plastic rings to represent the people of God gathered around Christ. The biggest ring goes on the bottom and the biggest ring is most of us, men and women of the laity. We have input into our families, Church societies, schools, sodalities and pastoral councils but that input tends to swirl around just within that ring, it seems to me.

There is no official forum that I know of to which you or I can submit feedback for transmission upwards through the system. In fact it is very interesting that when Soline tried to send the petition in favour of the ordination of women to the Cardinal, his Eminence felt unable to receive it. In fairness to his Holiness, the Pope, I have to say that he has always accepted and acknowledged my private correspondence on the same subject.

He does not agree with me, you will be interested to know, but he has on a number of occasions offered to pray for me. I reciprocate.

The next ring is made up of religious, priests and nuns. It is a smaller ring but it has a considerable input into the education and training of the ring below to which, of course, its members once all belonged. However a form of what I will charitably call differentially distributed amnesia sets in, the higher up the stem one goes.

In the form of parish priests, and educators the influence of this tier has historically been extensive, and though diminishing as its numbers contract and the laity fill the growing gaps, nonetheless it is an extremely important part of the structure. It has not only effective and well-established links to the ring below occupied by most of us, but it also has reasonably well-established formal and informal links to the tier above.

It is interesting to note that the two tiers I have just mentioned are the only tiers of mixed gender. The tiers I am about to discuss now are exclusively male.

From this point on when we take the next set of rings and place them on the stand, two things mark them out - they are exclusively male and they hold virtually all the decision making power within the Church. I am not sure that I even need the word virtually.

The next ring is made up of bishops, the next of cardinals and the last ring of course is his Holiness the Pope. It is ironic that it is of course the smallest ring.

The conduits for communication between these last three powerful all-male groups are long-standing and varied. Of all the tiers they have the most formalised structures for transmission of information up and down their own information highway. But there is not a perfect match between the highway that goes up and the one that comes down.

The one which goes up starts with the bishops, goes up through the cardinals as far as the Pope. The one which comes down comes down from Pope to laity. But that one is mostly one way traffic apart from the occasional correspondence from the likes of myself. This means that within the power structures of the Church the voice of the laity generally and of women in particular is very rarely heard through any formal in-house conduit, for none of any significance exists.

There are informal and ad hoc contacts of course - occasional working parties, Church commissions, lay participation in some selected councils and so on. But since membership of these bodies is selected by those higher up, mostly by those in the top three parts of the stem, they can effectively decide the voices they want to hear and even the very message they want brought by those voices.

The net effect of this structure is that for women to make their voices heard it inevitably means shouting upwards through unofficial channels using the press, meetings like this, lobby groups, letters, campaigns, always appearing to shout from the outside. And the effect is the same as it was for Fr. Faul, Fr. Murray and for those who campaigned in the early days of the Maguire family, Birmingham Six and Guildford Four campaigns.

The people they wanted to address, the people to whom the message of truth was being addressed formed what I am going to describe as a hermetically sealed group, almost a sub-culture, made up of very successful, confident and at times very arrogant people, the movers and the shakers. Not the type of people to take criticism particularly criticism of themselves lightly. And in particular, not likely to take it from the rabble outside the charmed circle.

For that is very often what campaigners look like to those who are inside. The very absence of effective in-house structures for debate and for communication upwards force a confrontational interface which simply builds up resentment, bolsters positions and inhibits dialogue. And I have to ask the question whether the absence of a forum for communication and debate, the forcing of people into debates in a forum like this for example with almost an undercurrent of subversion, is not in itself a failure of the commandment to fully love one another.

It has seemed at times that the hermetic circle has no weak spots and God knows it has presented an image of having no weak spots on this subject among others. Just as it seemed that the Pope’s stern rebuke to campaigners to stop their campaigning, together with the threats made last year by one of our cardinals, that those who continued this debate would place themselves out of communion with the Church, had solidified the circle’s outer defences, there are signs, important signs, that the battle may be already ‘halfway won’!

Much of the running has of course been made in our sister Christian Churches where the argument at least is virtually over bar a rapidly evaporating entrenched minority. There is much to learn from the step by step approach of those sister Churches.

For a long time the theological imperative which excluded women from ministry seemed to have an extended halo which did not just exclude them from priesthood but from being altar girls and of course from the diaconate. And whatever Christ’s implied or stated view of women priests, it became increasingly difficult to sustain the exclusion of altar girls on the grounds of either tradition or doctrine. That looked like what it was: age-old and biased assumptions about the proper spheres of men and women translated into fixed perceptions, fixed rules and fixed roles. And under pressure which has grown increasingly sensitised and educated about equal opportunity issues, the rule went. A small first victory for Christian feminists within the Catholic Church among whom, it is worth pointing out, are a highly educated generation of young men and women who will no longer suffer sexist fools gladly.

The next issue on the agenda, it seems to me, has got to be women as deacons. Here the biblical support is on our side. Not that I think that it is not on our side in relation to women priests but let us take these people a little at a time. They move very slowly.

The New Testament contains a number of interesting references to women as deaconesses, one surprisingly from St. Paul. And while theologians may dispute the biblical context and the historical function of the deacon as a step short of ordination, the issue is fertile ground for a debate about expanding the role of women in the Church.

I am delighted to see the Pope make a major contribution to this debate in a number of recent pronouncements on the need to break down the barriers of enslavement which entrap women worldwide. Unfortunately his perspective seems to be entirely outward.

What I am suggesting now is that we try to initiate a back end debate with him about the problems in his own back yard and to suggest that when he talks in his lovely document about the dignity of women - and I think it is a very beautiful document is many ways - we are entitled to ask the question what about the commandment to love women? Does it contribute to the dignity of women that we are excluded from the priesthood, from the diaconate? Does it contribute to our dignity that in order to promote our own cause which is after all the cause of humanity and of the gospel, to ask if we can participate in this Church fully and whether this Church will share our gifts fully, we are forced outside of the paradigm into unofficial mechanisms, unofficial ways of lobbying which make us sound to their ears, strident?

Here is a perfect opportunity for a real gesture of commitment to women, right in the Church’s own backyard, a gesture backed by biblical precedent and indeed by recent precedent in the Anglican tradition where women were first admitted to the permanent diaconate while the traditional ban on admission to priesthood remained intact.

The Church recognises two forms of diaconate - one is a transitory form on the way to full ordination to the priesthood and the second’one is the permanent diaconate where full ordination is not envisaged. I want to ask the question this morning of those who are not members of our hierarchy, why is it then that the code of canon law opens the permanent diaconate to men only, whether married or single?

It would be interesting to hear the theological and doctrinal underpinnings of that exclusion recited and we could do worse than to mount a campaign in honour of Phoebe, the deaconess whom St. Paul recommends in Romans chapter 16, verse 1. Perhaps we should be calling it Phoebe’s Push.

At a time when numbers seeking admission to the priestly life are dwindling to a negligible trickle, when convents and monasteries are closing down or eking out a recycled existence as conference centres, it seems an extraordinary act of ingratitude to say to those of the female gender who wish to play their role in the future of the Church as pastors, whether deacons or priests, and whose newly released spiritual energy could truly renew the face of a tired and de-energised Church and at times a demoralised Church, that their services are not required.

As the Franciscan theologian Leonardo Boff has said, “At critical moments it is always the women who show the most courage”. Just as it seems the Church has not enough champions to man the barricades under the onslaught of secularism, righteous cynicism and retreat from priesthood, here are women saying let us help. And back comes that all too familiar voice which says No to change, a voice I am all too familiar with in Northern Ireland in a different context. No to change, no to dialogue, no to sharing power, no even to listening and to talking.

Those of you who are very familiar with Northern politics will know the parallel without having it spelt out for you. The God of the mighty No has many curious allies in Ireland and indeed all over the world. How different one wonders is the voice which argues for female circumcision in Africa because that is how tradition would always have it, from the voice once raised in the Far East for the binding of female feet because that is how tradition would always have it, and how different is that from the voice which rejects the admission of women to priesthood because that is how tradition would always have it?

I live in Northern Ireland where tradition got us into a mess which caused 3,000 deaths and untold damage. We are putting a lot of effort into putting that tradition behind us, drawing a line in the sand behind it and creating a new type of tradition. There are some traditions that are only worth putting in the bin.

As for the doctrinal objections, fundamentally the argument is that this is the will of Christ assumed from and implicit in his conduct when on earth. Now I have considerable difficulties coping with a God who is so no-ish, so deliberately wasteful of human resources, a God who for reasons that look suspiciously like dressed up misogyny has confined priesthood to men, a God who never changes His mind even when the tide has turned completely against Him.

The theological arguments and the doctrinal arguments and indeed the traditional arguments when you trouble to look for them, are in the end embarrassingly like the emperor’s new clothes and I have decided rightly or wrongly that I am not going to dignify them with an attempt to address them. I think too many words have been spent and too much emotion vented in taking them seriously. They are bogus, they are silly, they are not to be taken seriously.

If I truly believed that Christ was the authority for the proposition that women are to be excluded from priesthood by virtue simply of their gender, I would have to say emphatically that this is a Christ in whose divinity I do not and will not and cannot believe. And that is a very important thing for me to have to say. That is not said lightly.

This Christ is too small of mind, too mean of heart to be the Christ of the gospel whom I believe in and whom I know, I like to think, at least as well as the Pope might know Him. He is after all my Father and Mother too.

That Christ is small enough to believe that Catholics are inferior, that blacks are not racially pure, that Jews are worthy of contempt, because he has been called in aid by all those followers of His who claimed on His behalf that that is what He emphatically believes because He talked to them and told them so exclusively. A God made in the image and likeness of some of the most reprehensible ideas and personalities ever to darken this earth, whose actions and thoughts taken to their inevitable conclusions have twisted, distorted and filled the earth full of misery - not hope, not joy, not love.

But happily I do not believe in that size or shape of Christ. This Christ, this God, celebrated all of humanity and brought one simple uncomplicated message, that love of God and of one’s neighbour really lived, fully lived, could and would transform the world. It was a commandment, not an invitation, a commandment, nothing less. And one has now to ask, if the Church in its attitude to women is not daily at the highest level breaking that commandment.

There is a demonisation taking place of those who propound the right of women to full dignity in the Church. I notice in Fr. Kevin Donlon’s editorial in this month’s edition of Intercom a reference to the school of resentment. And I could not help but wonder at whom is this article targeted. He says “What the Church does not need, nobody does, is a relentless gnawing comment with little sign of warmth and every sign of doing immense damage to the faith and the truth of younger generations”.

I cannot tell you again how depressed I got when I read that editorial. It is a call to silence in many ways and I hope that I am misinterpreting Fr. Donlon. I hope that’s not what he meant. But that is how it reads. That those of us who critique the Church belong simply to a school of resentment, there to break down with no sense of building up and I say that I personally resent that particular label.

I want to build up. I want a Church that I can hand on happily and with a heart and a half to my children. That demonisation to my Northern ears sounds awfully like what the great Presbyterian poet W.R. Rodgers described in his poem Home Thoughts from Abroad. W. R. Rodgers was a Presbyterian minister who died unfortunately in the early part of 1969, before the troubles fully broke out. He had been living in California in the early part of the sixties and from afar he had heard what was going on in Northern Ireland as the Reverend Ian Paisley stoked up the sectarian dragon and then declared himself St. George.

In his poem Home Thoughts from Abroad he wrote this quite prophetically:

Hearing this June day the thin thunder
of far off invective and old denunciation
Lambasting and Lambegging the homeland,
I think of that brave man Paisley, eyeless
In Gaza with a daisy chain of millstones
Round his neck; groping like blind Samson
For the soapy pillars and greased poles of lightning
To pull them down in rains and borborymic roars
Of rhetoric. There but for the grace of God goes God.....
Some day of course he’ll be one
With the old Giants of Ireland..
filed safely away on the shelves
Of memory; preserved in ink, oak gall
Alcohol, aspic, piety, wit....
In fond memory of his last stand
I dedicate this contraceptive pill
Of poetry to his unborn followers
And I place
This bunch of beget-me-nots on his grave".

I think that poem could just as easily be written of some of the pronouncements on the subject of women and priesthood from very high up the stem of the Fisher Price toy. It could just as easily be an epitaph to the god of misogyny as to the god of sectarianism. Because at their root they are the same.

They are about deciding to dislike, hold in contempt, hate and exercise control over some part of God’s creation.

Let me end with two final quotations from Rodgers’ great poem “Resurrection” so apt this Lenten day as it describes Mary Magdalene lamenting for the loss of Christ just as we lament for the loss of the full gift women flowing through the blocked up veins of the Church bureaucrat. Let us pray for the by-pass which is soon to come.

It is always the women who are the Watchers and the Wakeners
Slowly his darkened voice, that seemed like doubt
Morninged into noon; the summering bees
Mounted and boiled over in the bell flowers.
Come out of your jail Mary, he said. the doors are open.

Mary McAleese

Go to Mary McAleese It Won’t Wash With Women?

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