Monday, November 4, 2019


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The event was titled The Women the Vatican Couldn't Silence. This sounds pretty dramatic. So, who are these women and why could the Vatican (CDF) not silence them?

In chronological order there is:

Sister Joan Chittester

An American Benedictine nun with impeccable credentials, she had been invited to be one of the main speakers at the international conference in Dublin of Women’s Ordination Worldwide in June 2001.

The Vatican stepped in and told her superior to forbid her attendance, but Christine Vladimiroff was made of sterner stuff than the superiors of the Redemptorist and Marist orders of priests. She told the CDF to bugger off, politely and shrouded in appropriate religious protocols of discernment etc.

And what happened?


Sr. Joan has been campaigning on a wide front of human rights to this day.

Dr. Mary McAleese

Mary needs no introduction to an Irish audience. Formed in the cauldron of the Ardoyne (Belfast), she has been twice President of Ireland and has gone on to arm herself with a doctorate in Canon Law before seriously taking on the Vatican on a number of fronts.

She was invited to speak at a conference in the Vatican, organised by the NGO Voices of Faith when her holy passport was revoked/refused by none other than Dubliner Cardinal Farrell. The organiser, Chantal Götz, bless her, snubbed Cardinal Farrell and, quite late in the day, moved the conference to a neutral venue, out of the clutches of the Vatican, and Mary got to say her piece.

Women 2 : Vatican 0

Mary is at the top of the current event's banner (above) and Joan at the bottom.

The event itself was organised to celebrate Mary McAleese having been awarded the Alfons Auer Award for Ethics by the University of Tubingen on 30 October 2019.

Colm Holmes

There were three co-sponsors of this event, which was held in the Edmund Burke Theatre in Trinity College: We Are Church Ireland, TCD School of Religion, and Voices of Faith.

Colm, from We Are Church Ireland, was our Master of Ceremonies.

I should tell you that the event was live-streamed and, if you like, you can read no further and go straight to the video (2h20m).

Given that you now have access to the full version, I will confine myself here to commenting on a few aspects of the event which particularly resonated with me.

Prof. Siobhán Garrigan.

Siobhán, from the Trinity School of Religion, welcomed the unsilenced women, the other sponsors, and the audience, to the hallowed precincts of Trinity. She stressed the need for sound scholarship in areas of concern in the world today. The location is particularly appropriate as Mary McAleese has been named as the next Chancellor of the university.

There is also a deeper resonance in the location for me. The Archbishop of Dublin, John Charles McQuaid, in his day, forbade Catholics to attend Trinity on pain of sin. Any exceptions had to be personally authorised by himself. Trinity offered to appoint a Catholic chaplain to attend to the spiritual needs of any Catholic students but the Archbishop remained steadfast. He clearly felt that the faith of his young flock was not sufficiently robust to withstand the proselytising efforts of this most Protestant institution. Needless to say increasing numbers of students defied the ban which is now irrelevant.

The Archbishop could not do here what he could in University College Dublin, where his vassal President Michael Tierney (to whom I am circuitously related) and a series of priest professors ensured that his writ ran on that campus.

Anyway, all of the above gave an edge to my pleasure in attending this event in this place.

Stephanie Lorenzo, Communications director, Voices of Faith

Stephanie told us that Voices of Faith campaigns to make women's voices heard by church leaders and to help women assert their rights in the church. She left us with the thought that "well behaved women don't make history".

As well as co-sponsoring this event you will recall that Voices also organised the conference at which Cardinal Farrell attempted to block Mary speaking.

Ursula Halligan

Ursula introduced the two women she was to interview and no better person with her background in broadcasting and more recently in advocacy.

l-r Joan, Mary, & Ursula

Just to give you an idea of the stage layout.

Mary kicked off by introducing Joan to former Provost, George Salmon, who opposed Trinity accepting women students. The phrase he used was "over my dead body", and it nearly came to that.

He died in 1904 but three years previously had a "deatbed" conversion when, facing a majority of the Board in favour of admitting women, he agreed in principle to let them in. I hate to spoil a good story.

My picture of George from way back.

If there is one strong formula for action to come from Joan it is: make your voice heard. Blitz the CDF and all its subsidiaries (bishops, nuncios et al?) with correspondence until it's coming out their ears. Make sure they know what's going on. Use all media at your disposal.

Joan was also very strong on the subject of deference. She reminded us of Pope Francis's criticism of clericalism but said that this was fueled by deference and people would just have to get out of the habit of automatically deferring to clerics of whatever status.

This reminded me of Pope Benedict's disgraceful letter to the Irish people, in March 2010, where he seemed to be spreading the blame for clerical child sex abuse as widely as possible:
a tendency in society to favour the clergy and other authority figures; and a misplaced concern for the reputation of the Church and the avoidance of scandal
I was so incensed by that letter at the time that I wrote an angry and intemperate reply which, I am sad to say, I still stand over today.

Mary picked up on the deference theme and told a story of when she was in Rome in the company of two clerics who she knew to be critical of Cardinal Law. When they met the Cardinal he proferred his ring to be kissed. Mary refused but the two clerics complied.

Some of us will remember that Mary has a history with this particular disgraced Cardinal dating from as far back as 1998: The President and the Prince.

Not a lady to be trifled with.

She really put the boot into Pope John Paul II, quoting a passage from his book, Love and Responsibility, published in 1960 just after he had been consecrated bishop:
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.
This clearly harks back to Aquinas and the male seed being the sole progenitor of llfe. Or to put it in more current terms it advocates, or facilitates, behaviour for which men are currently being locked up, ie rape.

[Update: It now appears that the quote above, while taken from Pope John Paul II's book, were not his own views but his illustration of a prevailing view with which he did not agree. Needless to say this has now provoked serious controversy in the media which I expand on at the bottom of this post.]

On top of this, when he became pope, John Paul II protected the serial abuser, Maciel, and decreed infallibly that women could never be priests and the matter could not even be discussed. For all of this he was made a saint.

Meanwhile, Fr. Seán Fagan questioned the origins of a male celibate priesthood and promulgated the supremacy of the truly informed conscience, even over church teaching, a view held by Ratzinger himself before les événements and the Red Brigade scared the shit out of him. Seán was silenced and his book "burned". He died with a broken heart. Shame on them.

I have long thought that the church's knee-jerk negative reaction to Martin Luther ill advised and extreme. I have a suspicion that Joan would go down some of the road with me here. She might also at least partly agree with me that the church's outright rejection of the Modernists was another mistake. I ended up reading some of their stuff by accident and thought it was the sort of thing much on the mind of today's reformers. Joan would certainly agree that Vatican II has been hijacked.

She threw out the date 1827 at us and challenged us as to its significance?

Well, that was the year of the discovery of the ovum, which blew a large hole in the Aquinas understanding of conception, revealing that the woman was not a passive vessel in the process but an equal partner in the creation of life. The implications of this clearly passed the church by and there was no excuse for its standing by Aquinas regardless.

The Q&A session was by lottery. You wrote out your question on a page originally left on your seat, these were collected and Mary & Joan pulled a few at random out of a big basket. This system was adopted because it would have been difficult to manage a roving mic in such a large crowd and the lottery also avoided any perception of bias in choosing questioners.

My question, which did not surface, concerned the Real Presence. I have come to the conclusion that the theology here is outdated both in terms of terminology & interpretation. For me it has become a litmus test of whether there is a willingness to undertake the necessary review of doctrine generally. [See my unsubmitted paper to IEC2012].

But I have only recently found out that it is one of the battery of rubbish arguments against women's ordination.

My question was really looking for a reaction to these thoughts. The CDF have certainly used belief in, or doubt about, the Real Presence in its armoury of techniques to oppress reformers.

The above is just a tiny selection from the topics covered at this most interesting event. If you have read this far and your curiosity is aroused, you might like to view the full video (2h20m).

At the end of the session there were some presentations, which included a picture of an inclusive Pentecost for Mary,

flowers for Ursula,

and a picture of an inclusive Last Supper for Joan.

Full marks to all involved in planning, organising, and presenting this event.

And finally a message from li'l ole me:
Calling all Parish Priests - if your content is sufficiently interesting the congregation will materialise.

Update: Controversy over Mary McAleese's remarks

I was certainly under the impression that Mary McAleese was attributing the views quoted to John Paul II. She referred to "a recent Pope", "his book", "his description ..." and then the implication that he had been made a saint despite these appalling views.

If she was not implying these were his views, why did she not say this is the type of attitude he had to deal with? And why the implied negative reference to his canonisation (against which I could muster other reasons)? And she says Seán Fagan called the Pope out on this and asked if it could be Catholic teaching.

Either she misattributed these views to JPII, in which case she should have been up front about it, or the presentation was unbelievably sloppy, and the media can hardly be blamed for misunderstanding her. This piece in the Irish Catholic gives an idea of some of the public reactions to Mary's remarks.

You can judge for yourself below, where I have reproduced, in a comment, both Mary McAleese's letter to the Irish Times "clarifying" her position, and the statement from We Are Church Ireland criticising media reporting of what she said. The statement includes a transcript of the relevant part of the event and a link to the video.


  1. Thanks Pól! Excellent report with added references and analysis.

  2. Thanks Colm. It was a great event.

    Report may be a bit strong for some :-)

  3. Mary McAleese’s letter to the Irish Times
    clarifying her position

    Sir, – Dr Thomas Finegan accuses me of shoddy scholarly treatment of Pope John Paul (Letters, November 7th).
    I am afraid the accusation is more easily and accurately made of his own treatment of my use of a passage from the pope’s book Love and Responsibility. 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.
    Fr Fagan correctly described the passage in its original sex act context as a description of rape. And it is clear Fr Finegan agrees that is a correct description. There is an obvious, inexorable and transferable logic that Dr Finegan has missed entirely and which was the sole point of the reference. – Yours, etc,
    Co Roscommon.

    Statement from We Are Church Ireland
    correcting “distorted” media reports

    Mary McAleese and Pope John Paul ll

    We Are Church Ireland is issuing this statement to correct the distorted reporting by some media outlets of a small part of Mary McAleese’s contribution when she spoke with Sr. Joan Chittister at “The Women the Vatican Couldn’t Silence” event in Trinity College on 2 November 2019.
    Ursula Halligan asked: “How would you describe the role of women in the Church today?"
    Sr. Joan Chittister replied first and spoke about the “invisibility“ of women.
    Mary McAleese then replied:

    “Absolutely. Even more the 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. To corral us. If you just bear with me could I just read a little section from the writings of Pope John Paul ll? This is a recent pope. So we are not talking about the Dark Ages. We’re talking about a recent pope from his book “Love and Responsibility”. This is his description of marriage, of sex and marriage. This is a short thing.
    'It’s 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 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.'
    That is how we are treated in the church, expected to be asleep, unconscious, while men get on with doing what they have to do. And here’s the sequel to that: When Fr Seán Fagan called Pope John Paul out on that and said the obvious, he asked a question: He said: Can this really be Catholic Church teaching he said. It sounds like rape.
    What happened? Pope John Paul becomes a saint. Seán Fagan becomes silenced. That’s our church.”

    What is being totally missed is the context in which Mary McAleese made her statement. She was answering a question on the role of women in the church today.
    She used this factually correct extract as an analogy for the unequal role of women in the Church generally, with men dominant and women receivers (of church teachings, governance etc.).
    Mary McAleese did not misrepresent Pope John Paul ll's views. It is she who is being misrepresented when her statement is being lifted out of its context and the clear analogy missed.
    This can be checked on our recording of the event (from 49th minute).
    Colm Holmes
    We Are Church Ireland

  4. A further letter from Mary McAleese in the Irish Times (11/11/2019):

    Sir, – It is the case that under common law (based on canon law) the crime of rape in many jurisdictions including Ireland was defined as non-consensual sex with a person who was not one’s spouse. The notion of marital rape did not enter our criminal law until 1990.

    Surely Fr Finegan (Letters, November 9th) must accept the fact that at the time of writing Love and Responsibility in 1960 and republishing it in 1981, church teaching was that within marriage consent to sex was presumed and so the concept of marital rape was non-existent.

    Fr Sean Fagan was a champion of the change that led to the redefinition of rape to include marital rape. His view did not sit well with religious authorities for even those who saw non-consensual sex in marriage as problematic to the point of sinful were opposed to extending the definition of rape to such sex within marriage.

    I know of no document at that time where the Holy See suggests that non-consensual sex in marriage should be regarded as and criminalised as marital rape. That includes Love and Responsibility.

    Perhaps Fr Finegan can point us to such references. Or perhaps he can agree he has this argument badly wrong. – Yours, etc,

    Co Roscommon.