What We Can Learn From The Cologne Incident: Political Feminism Is Vindicated, and Religion is Highly Relevant to Culture


The mass sexual assaults in Cologne by North African migrants have elicited criticisms of the relatively muted reaction by feminists. The sound of silence in this case, however, is most likely the result of stunned shock as much as political correctness. Women who identify as feminists and are conscious of the various ways in which the patriarchy oppresses women naturally identify and empathise with other  oppressed groups. Hence feminists will generally lend their support to those who suffer from other forms of oppression, whether it be associated with race, religion or economic circumstances.

I believe, however, that in this instance feminist identified women (and men) must show moral courage and stand together in solidarity without fear  of the inevitable accusations of racism. This is because the Cologne assaults clearly demonstrate that multiculturalism is a deeply flawed doctrine and not for the most obvious reasons.

Firstly, this was not an event that can be blamed on either the race or nationality of the perpetrators, though it cannot be denied that there is a religious/cultural dimension to it. Religion, whether we realise it or not, significantly impacts on a culture even in the secular West where church and state have been pretty well separate since the revolutions of the eighteenth century. These influences can be both healthy and unhealthy; Irish people, for example, were indoctrinated to feel guilty about sex up until the 90s, and certainly any Irish person over 40 bears a fair share of the burden of that renowned phenomenon known as Catholic sexual guilt. So it is perhaps easier for us Irish than the people of other Western cultures to understand the cultural mentality that Islam fosters in its adherents since we lived until the 90s in a society that was as close to a theocracy as made no difference. In addition, of the three Abrahamic faiths, the two more junior religions – Christianity and Islam – are noted for particularly strict sexual mores. Judaism, from which the latter are derived, has a more positive attitude towards sexuality. Of the three, Islam has by far the strictest sexual mores and the most stringent norms where female modesty is concerned. Does this mean that the inevitable sexual frustration caused to men in a society where women are covered from head to toe and sex outside marriage is strictly forbidden can be held responsible for episodes such as the one in Cologne or the dreadful mob assault perpetrated on American reporter Lara Logan in Cairo’s Tahrir Square in 2011? If this is the case, then the underlying cause of such behaviour is at least partly  religious/cultural. Let’s turn for a moment now to the mindset of the men who perpetrated the assault and try to understand that mindset.

I  argued above that race and nationality cannot be blamed for the assaults: now I am going to suggest something that at first glance might seem controversial. This is that, strictly speaking, these were not sexual assaults as commonly understood in the West though this is irrelevant to their heinousness. Why do I say this? Well, underlying the religious/cultural scenario is, I would suggest, simple sexism in the form of the double standard, which is best conceptualised in terms of the distinction between women who are professional prostitutes and the majority who bestow their sexual favours on a man or men they have chosen. Men who go into a brothel in search of sexual gratification will not treat the women they encounter there as they would treat female family members or prospective wives and girlfriends. They will feel free to eye up and touch what to them is the ‘merchandise’: these women are openly touting for sex. Just because a woman is not a professional prostitute, however, doesn’t mean she can’t be treated like one. Women have to run a social gauntlet, unknown to men, to avoid being typecast as ‘sluts’, which means to behave in a way perceived as whorish  even though you are not a professional prostitute. If a woman habitually dresses in a way considered overly revealing, or is considered ‘easy’, men may consider her suitable for sex or affairs, but not as a potential wife. Men, of course are exempt from having to walk this sexual tightrope since the longer their list of conquests, the more they will be admired and celebrated by their peers .  Until very recently in Ireland, women who had children out of wedlock could be stigmatised for life, and worse. It goes without saying that one of the main aims of political feminism in the West has been to challenge such stereotypes in order to ultimately destroy them. Political feminism in the West, which properly began with Mary Wollstonecraft’s A Vindication of the Rights of Woman in the eighteenth century, has succeeded in gaining sufficient rights and freedoms for women to greatly dilute – if not fully defeat – the effects of the double standard, as we will shortly see.

Now consider the Muslim immigrants who have been conditioned to believe that Western women are decadent and immodest in comparison to ‘their’ women. To such men, the West must appear as one vast brothel, full of females who are dressed in ways and behave in ways that would be unimaginable in their societies; to them, Western women are, literally, asking to be groped, touched up, and treated in a lewd manner.  What we are actually seeing is sexist behaviour that is universal and occurs in all cultures only here writ large: this fact is both highlighted and confirmed by the police and media cover-up of the assaults, and the victim-blaming articulated by the female mayor of Cologne (shame) when she advised German women how to dress and behave in such a way as not to attract the attention of over-excitable migrants. Once again women are instructed to modify their behaviour in response to overt male sexual aggression and called to a higher level of behaviour than that which is expected of men. While it would be unthinkable for Western men to assault women  just because, relatively speaking, they have a great deal of freedom and can dress as they please, when sexism and fashionable, politically correct multiculturalism clashed in Cologne, women came out of it as the lesser humans who must make way for and adjust to the alien behaviour of strangers in their land; those women experienced a double dose of the double standard.

This clash of cultures does, however, have one very important lesson to teach us about the current state of our Judaeo-Christian Western civilisation, and indeed provides a snapshot of its progress: where the treatment of women is concerned, ours is the superior one, and this has implications for the doctrine of multiculturalism.  The general outrage sparked by the Cologne incident  was a reaction to the attitude of the perpetrators as much as to what they actually did. Ironically, those who protested most loudly against the attacks are the very kind of men who, in times past, would have disagreed with women getting the vote and all the other freedoms we have gained. They are also the kind of men who will now be the most likely to defend and protect ‘their’ women , which is something for which we should definitely be grateful. Yet even they can now see, in this clash of civilisations, that the Western one is the more civilised where the treatment of women is concerned. I believe that the Cologne incident will one day be considered  a watershed moment in Europe’s embrace of politically correct multiculturalism; it will be very difficult from now on to convince  the German electorate, for example, that all cultures are equally moral and civilised and can easily coexist with one another. A related implication is perhaps even more important for morality; if multiculturalism is false, so also is the doctrine of moral relativism. There are moral absolutes after all (as is held by all the major religions), and secular society needs to take note.

The superiority of  Western culture to Islamic culture in its attitudes towards and treatment of women begs an interesting question that relates to the religious component of culture as mentioned above: granted that the double standard in the West is generally described in terms of the biblical Madonna/whore divide ( see, for example, my article “Piers, Madonna, and the Double Standard” http://www.fsrinc.org/node/1673) and that Christianity in most of its forms has exacerbated it in terms of the sexual standards to which it holds women, but not men, is it possible to argue that Christianity has had a role in the undoubted fact that Western women’s lives are the freest and most progressive in the world? Before attempting an answer there’s no harm in pointing out that in feminist theory, religions are considered to be generally repressive in their treatment of women and indeed Christianity has produced its own versions of the Taliban down through the centuries. In order therefore to answer that question, it is necessary to go back to the sources, namely the sacred texts and the attitude of the founders towards women. These attitudes must, of course, be understood within the context of their respective eras. Within the context of his time, Islam’s prophet Muhammad is considered to have been notably enlightened towards women, though some of the texts (such as the ones where he gives husbands permission to lightly slap their wives and to have sexual relationships with their female slaves) strike us in the West as unacceptable to say the least. Yet it must be remembered that the great theologian and saint, Paul of Tarsus, approved of slavery and ordered women to obey their husbands, keep silent and cover their hair at mass. What is not in doubt, however, is the the fact that Jesus of Nazareth’s attitude towards women was not only revolutionary for his time and place, but remains radical way beyond anything we have yet achieved either culturally, politically or religiously (see, for example,”Mary Magdalene: The Most Misunderstood Woman in History?”, http://www.middleton14.com). The theologian Rene Laurentin, in his seminal article “Jesus and Women: an Underestimated Revolution” (http://www.bijbel.net/concilium/?b=25361) argues that the revolutionary attitude to women shown by Jesus led, among other things, to the participation of women on an equal footing with men in the fledgling religion’s liturgical services. In other religions women and men tend to be segregated during the liturgy, and this is notably the case in Islam. For Laurentin, this was the beginning of and catalyst for the emancipation of Western women. My years of research in the fields of theology, religious studies and philosophy, together with my gut instinct, convince me that  Laurentin is correct; for similar reasons I am also convinced that the emergence of democracy as a viable political system in the West has its roots in  the Christian assertion that everyone is equal in the eyes of God.

One way or another, a strong argument can now be made that multiculturalism is a deeply misguided doctrine, and that we should be both proud and protective of our two thousand year old Judaeo-Christian culture. This will have implications for future European immigration policies and for the development of suitable strategies to encourage the integration of refugees who have already arrived into their new cultural environment. Right now, post-Cologne, German women are being encouraged by the authorities to adjust their behaviour to suit Islamic norms when it should be the other way round; this appeasement must stop, or we will soon find ourselves in a situation where women in the West will start down the slippery slope to losing the freedoms they have gained at such great cost. This is why Western women must stand together in solidarity to protect those hard-earned freedoms; in this instance  the ongoing battle against sexism and the double standard must take precedence over fears of being thought of as  or criticised for being racist. It is up to the new arrivals to integrate into our culture, and not vice versa. This does not mean that we have to abandon our humanity where refugees in dire straits are concerned; what it does mean is that there can be no pussyfooting around or walking on eggshells with regard to protecting and defending our culture; there are, after all, very good reasons why the refugee traffic is flowing in our direction rather than vice versa.  The current situation may, in fact, be a golden opportunity both to influence Islamic cultures for the better and also to make yet more progress in our own Western feminist politics.

The Swiss performance artiste Milo Moire seized the moment when she protested nude outside the cathedral in Cologne (scene of the assaults) making the point that even a naked woman is not fair game for male sexual overtures and that there is nothing disrespectful about a tasteful display of nudity in such hallowed environs. Moire’s protest had the effect of celebrating the beauty of the female form and showing that it has value in and of itself. Such an in-your-face demonstration of female bodily integrity was probably a step too far for many Western men, in particular – and predictably – those who would be most critical of the Muslim attacks. In the circumstances, however, it may just have given them pause for thought and even moved them forward a jot where their prejudices against women are concerned. In this way, Moire was simultaneously shocking and educating both Muslim and Western men albeit that the latter have certainly made a quantum cultural leap where women’s autonomy and freedom is concerned.













Confessions of a Politically Incorrect Feminist Theologian (1)


Faith and Feminism Can Make Strange Bedfellows

 Published in On Religion Magazine Issue 12, Autumn 2015 


Twitter: @OnReligionMag


As someone who was once an atheistic feminist but became something of a ‘born-again’ Christian in my late thirties, I now understand all too well why pioneering feminist theologians like Mary Daly gave up on patriarchal religion altogether. In my youth I believed that all religion was composed of myths and fairy-tales that stereotype women in one way or another, and that institutional religion in particular is simply another means of social control of women. I agreed with the Marxist view that religion is a tool of oppression wielded by elites, and that we’d all be better off without it. I could never understand why women of Daly’s intellectual calibre would seriously engage with religious doctrines and beliefs.

Fast forward twenty years or so, and I found myself teaching Theology and Religious Studies at university level in a denominational institution. How and why that happened is a whole other story, though a typically ‘born-again’ one. A consequence of my late conversion was that I would never again be able to look down my nose at women like Daly who had chosen to engage intellectually with Christianity; I also had to learn the hard way why so many had tried and finally given up. I was far from having lost my feminist principles, and the collision of a somewhat evangelical Christian faith with political feminism led to a situation that was – and continues to be – extremely uncomfortable for me at times. For, in addition to working in such an authoritarian male environment, I have had to confront the inescapable fact that no matter how attractive and unconventional a character Jesus was, no matter how remarkable the way he, a first century Palestinian Jew, related to women, he was male and he referred to God as Father. Feminists generally have serious problems with the idea of a male God almighty (whether Allah, Yahweh, or God the Father) since this God is all too often invoked by men to justify war, tyranny and persecution.

How have I dealt with the latter difficulties? Well, dealing with them is an ongoing theological task. It is helpful that, theologically speaking, God does not have gender; God is neither male nor female, nor some combination of both. The most we can say is that we are made in the image and likeness of God, and that God seems to have some female and some male characteristics. Reading the work of pioneering feminist theologians such as Daly and Elizabeth Johnson also helped. Johnson’s “She Who Is” (International Journal of Orthodox Theology: Issue 1: 2 (2010), with its scholarly highlighting of the many female images and metaphors of God in the Old Testament, has been particularly comforting and enlightening as have the three principles she articulates that must form the basis of all attempts at understanding the nature of God: the incomprehensibility of God, the non-literal nature of religious language, and the need for many divine names. Johnson presents a myriad of biblical texts that depict the ‘Father’ God as female, of which the most striking to me are those that depict God as a woman in labour (see, for example, Isaiah 42:14: Thus says God, the Lord…… “For a long time I have held my peace, I have kept still and restrained myself; now I will cry out like a woman in labour, I will gasp and pant.”)

What, however, can be said about the incontrovertible maleness of Jesus? Plenty, as it turns out. Interestingly, the Trinitarian, creedal depiction of Jesus as ‘begotten’ of the Father is – as the well-known chauvinist St. Augustine pointed out – analogous to the female generation of a child from his or her mother’s womb; Augustine sees it as an intellectual/spiritual version of the physical birth process. Added to this is the fact that according to tradition, Jesus was brought into the world by his mother Mary without any contribution from a human male ‘by the power of the Holy Spirit’; the third person of the Trinity is closely associated with the Old Testament concept of Sophia or God’s Wisdom, a personalised, female figure. So, while Jesus himself may be male, his eternal and human generations are accomplished in a way that is feminine on multiple levels and without any analogous male role. As we understand it in human terms, Jesus actually doesn’t have a ‘Father’. So in using the biblical concept of the Father God it must be remembered that we are using limited human language to describe a God who transcends our limited notions of gender. Yet imaging the divine in a female/feminine way is, in my opinion, one of the two most important tasks for feminist theology today; the other is to present scriptural, theological and pastoral justification for female ministry and authority in all Christian denominations, especially the largest one, Roman Catholicism.

“Imagine…..no religion” sang John Lennon back in the day; but can you imagine a world in which our concepts of the divine have been broadened out to encompass the feminine, one in which conventional images of a stern, authoritarian father figure God have been expanded to include non-hierarchical female behaviours; a world where women exercise religious authority equally with men and in accordance with their female gifts? Ecclesial Christianity in the third millennium may well evolve into a place in which men and women can fully express themselves, with men being able to display their capacity for empathy and compassion, and women allowed to fulfill their administrative and leadership abilities. I don’t believe I’m being over optimistic in my hope that the clash between political feminism and patriarchal religion which gave rise to feminist theology may yet be the defining event of the twenty-first century for religion and, by example, politics.











It’s Not as Bad as You Think: Women in Catholicism

imageIt’s Not as Bad as You Think: Women in Catholicism

The discovery of blogs and blogging has opened up a whole new world for women working and writing in the religious domain. This is due to its openness and speed, the fact that it provides a platform for ecumenical and interreligious dialogue, and the ease with which it facilitates the mutual interpenetration of religious feminism with mainstream, political feminism. It also encourages a dynamic combination of lively narrative non-fiction writing and scholarly research, as various women transform their daily and religious experiences into feminist theology.

It is the latter aspect of online feminist blogging that, as a theologian, I have found most necessary and fulfilling. Reading and writing blogs provides a much needed outlet for the intensity of the experiences of women who are new to the religious domain. Within Christianity this category includes ordained ministers and female theologians. In my own Roman Catholic denomination, the opening of the seminaries to women post Vatican II has allowed female theological input for the first time in two thousand years. We are also beginning to understand the inner workings of this patriarchal organisation; I have no doubt that Pope John XXIII knew exactly what the impact on the Church would be of allowing lay people and lay women in particular into the seminaries. This has brought about a radically new situation as regards relationships between the clerical dimension of the Church, and the laity; the encounter between the male clergy and women within an academic context has, and will continue to have, ever more radical implications. The Irish situation is, in my opinion, a sort of microcosm of Catholicism as a whole since Vatican 11. This is because Catholic Ireland has had no tradition of theology as a university subject, meaning that when it became available to the laity, it necessitated the opening of the seminaries; this proved to be the catalyst for what I can only describe as a new type of encounter between clergy and laity, as well as between male celibates and women of all ages and types. As someone who spent several years studying theology in St. Patrick’s Seminary in Maynooth, I can vouch for the impact on the institutional Church of its encounter in this new context with lay Catholics and particularly with lay women Catholics. From a laywoman’s perspective, it was interesting to observe the mutual adjustments that had to be made; it was also reassuring to see the high calibre of the dedicated and idealistic young men who were training for the priesthood. While some of the older priests found our presence a bit uncomfortable, the overall result was greater mutual understanding and a relaxing of the boundaries between the clerical and lay groupings in the Church, one of the main aims of Vatican II. And even though there seems to be no question at the moment of women being admitted to the Catholic priesthood, the growing impact of female and feminist theologians should not be underestimated; I also believe that the entry of women into seminaries and Catholic universities where they are meeting and interacting with seminarians has made the eventual relaxing of the celibacy rule inevitable, though I know from experience that there are many in the clerical realm who have the gift of celibacy and would prefer not to marry. If the rule is relaxed, however – and again I think Pope John XXIII had this in mind when he opened the seminaries – it will provide another gateway for women to be assimilated into the institutional Church and exert influence within it. I have no doubt that the bestowal of religious authority on women in some major Protestant denominations is partly due to the fact that male priests and ministers were allowed to marry, hence making their institutions more comfortable with female input and gifts.

As regards women in the academic sphere, the theology of pioneering feminist theologians is all the more effective and authentic because it has been informed by the difficulties associated with being a woman in such a dense patriarchal space.  Experience has always been a popular theological category, and women’s experiences in religious universities and departments not only affects their theological and political opinions, but also constitute a powerful catalyst for both theological speculation and activism in the feminist cause.

The cumulative effect of women’s experiences in religion has now given rise in fact to what amounts to a tidal wave of feminist scholarship and activism in the religious domain. Blogging in particular has the power to break through all boundaries and I have every hope that it will soon burst through the ecclesiastical dam behind which institutional gatekeepers – both ecclesiastical and scholarly – who fear change are keeping their fingers grimly plugged into the ever-widening channels through which the healing water is ready to gush. After two thousand years of male dominated Christianity, I am convinced that feminist theology and scholarly feminist blogs have the alchemic power to transform women’s experiences in the religious and secular domains into theological and ecclesiastical gold. Theology is being formulated by women now at a very fast pace, and online blogs allow it to be communicated almost instantly. It is giving us the means to make up the ground that we have lost over the past two millennia.

Non-Religious Women in the Church: In my last post I mentioned that, as a feminist theologian, I often find myself between a rock and a hard place. The same could be said of all or most women who spend a significant amount of time within an environment where male power and authority are even more pervasive than in the secular world.

However, female theologians from the secular sphere face their own particular challenges, and these challenges are both new and unique in the context of Church history and indeed history in general. We are a type of hybrid who must, at least some of the time, come across as upstarts in an environment that has managed to do without us for two thousand years. We are not bound by the strict vows and rules  of obedience by which those in the religious life must abide; yet we feel free to comment upon,  and criticise  (negatively as well as positively) the theological doctrines and speculations of some of the greatest minds that Western civilisation has produced. To return to our hybrid status, if we sometimes come across as impertinent to our colleagues in the religious life we are influenced by them and by the theology and philosophy we have studied. This can cause changes in our behaviour and outlook on life that spouses, children, relatives and friends can find disconcerting.

I am often surprised by the media focus on the question of women priests, as though this is the only role that women can play within the Church. Most Irish theologians are now women, and far more female than male students are studying theology. The opening of the seminaries to lay (or secular, a term I prefer) Catholics on foot of Vatican 2 was revolutionary, especially in relation to female participation in the life of the institutional Church. It has been a quiet revolution so far, probably out of respect for our colleagues who devote their whole lives to God and the Church. It is a revolution nonetheless; despite criticism that Vatican 2 has not borne the fruit that was expected of it, the genie is well and truly out of the bottle. Who can say how things will look in a few generations as a result of the pioneering work of this one?

See Joys and Hopes, Grief and Anxieties: Catholic Women Since Vatican II by Susan Ross in New Theology Review (available online).

The X Factor Pope


When I read in the New York Times that Rolling Stone magazine had premiered a pop/rock track from an album to be released shortly by the Pope, I assumed it was a joke. Having checked it out, however, I discovered it to be true (see here). It seems that our Western celebrity culture has engulfed everything, even the Vatican: Simon Cowell has a lot to answer for.

I find it a little disappointing that the Pope should seek to bask in the reflected, superficial glow of showbiz. It would be far more meaningful and popular in the best way if he were to make real, doctrinal changes in relation to, for example, the requirement for priestly celibacy and the need for female religious authority within Catholicism. At the upcoming Synod on the family, he will be presented with the opportunity to relax stringent Church moral norms regarding contraception, homosexuality and divorce. Will he be prepared to make the hard choices, or is a nod to celebrity culture as far as he is prepared to go in keeping up with the zeitgeist? Francis talks the talk, but will he walk the walk?

Of course there is always the chance that the Pope’s pop debut is a shrewd and calculated effort to get public opinion behind him before attempting doctrinal change. If this is the case, then the Pope will have transcended anodyne pop culture: is this the precursor of meaningful change? Now that would  be real rock’n roll!

Marriage Equality, Pope Francis and Mary McAleese

rainbow IrelandThe resounding ‘yes’ to marriage equality that resulted from Ireland’s referendum on the subject has provoked a great deal of comment, much of it on the implications for Catholic Church authority in Ireland. Some commentators are suggesting that the rejection of Church teaching on homosexuality, despite the Bishops’ request for a ‘no’ vote, is the sound of the death knell for the institutional Irish Church; Mary Hunt certainly sees it as the death knell for “a top-down, clergy-heavy model of church….” Other commentators have pointed to a somewhat surprising fact of which I, for one, was ignorant until now: this is the link between the political acceptance of same-sex marriage and Catholicism. Frank Bruni, in his New York Times article on the referendum ( On Same–Sex Marriage, Catholics are Leading the Way) remarks that Belgium, Canada, Spain, Argentina, Portugal, Brazil, France, Uruguay, Luxembourg and now Ireland – all countries with a Catholic majority – are ‘in the vanguard’ of those 20 nations that have legalised marriage between two men and two women. For Bruni, this is a sign that Catholics are not so much defying Church authority as following their informed, Catholic Christian consciences. Cynthia Garrity-Bond, a feminist theologian and social ethicist makes a similar point in her “Ireland’s Same-Sex Referendum & The Necessity for Reconstructing Sexual Ethics in the Catholic Church” when she says that the ‘yes’ vote is a manifestation of the sensus fidei (sense of the faithful); the latter is “a spiritual instinct that enables the [non-ordained] believer to judge spontaneously whether a particular teaching or practice is or is not in conformity with the Gospel and with apostolic faith”. If Bruni and Garrity-Bond are right (and I find myself in agreement with them) this is not a case of religion versus politics, but of religion and politics in reciprocal, positive relationship. In the Irish case there were, I believe, other factors that influenced the sensus fidei: these were Pope Francis’s more flexible and personal approach to Church moral teachings, which permitted a breaking of ranks in the priesthood on the issue; several well-known and influential priests came out in favour of a ‘yes’ vote (see, for example, the Independent article Ireland’s Same-Sex marriage vote). Behind the Argentinian Pope’s more sensitive attitude is the influence of liberation theology, by which he admits to having been profoundly affected. Liberation theology emerged from the Latin American experience of poverty and political oppression; its main influence is Marxist philosophy and, in particular, a key Marxist insight: this is that the prevailing world view or system of knowledge of a society in any particular time or place supports the interest of the ruling class by justifying and concealing the reality of domination. In Marxism, all existing claims to knowledge are therefore considered to be ‘ideological’: they are distorted representations of reality that create a ‘false consciousness’. A related claim of Marxist epistemology is the claim that people who are oppressed have a clearer view of reality than their oppressors. Pope Francis has certainly shown himself to be on the side of those who suffer from various forms of oppression, and while there has as yet been no doctrinal change, his inclusive statements and refusal to judge a person’s sexual morality have been as influential in Ireland as they have elsewhere. Even more influential in the Irish context, however, was the input of former Irish President Mary McAleese, a lifelong devout Catholic who, when her term as President was over, went to Rome to study for a doctorate in canon law. The reason she gave for this is her desire to understand why Church canon law never helped the victims of abuse in any of the cases she had studied; when she was President, McAleese herself went to great lengths to be kind and supportive to those who had been abused by Church personnel. While initially sceptical of McAleese as someone who has always appeared to be a successful pillar of the establishment, I have grown to admire the ex-President tremendously over the years. Unlike many of those who achieve power and influence, McAleese has never grown smug or arrogant; she consistently shows empathy for those who are abused or oppressed, and her solidarity with women is especially noteworthy. She has criticised the hierarchy for refusing to allow women to become priests, and in 1998 was told by Cardinal Bernard Law, Archbishop of Boston, that he was “Sorry for Catholic Ireland to have you as President”. More recently she has declared that the upcoming Synod on the Family is ‘bonkers’ due to the fact that a celibate male caste will be discussing and pronouncing on matters of which they have absolutely no experience. In response to a questionnaire seeking feedback on marriage and the family circulated worldwide on behalf of the Pope, McAleese posed the following question: “How many of the men who will gather to advise you as pope on the family have ever changed a baby’s nappy? I regard that as a very, very serious question”. One of McAleese’s sons is gay, and she gave several moving interviews during the referendum campaign that described his teenage struggles in coming to terms with his sexuality and the bullying he had to endure. All of this was made even more traumatic by the fact that Justin was an altar boy and committed Catholic, who discovered in adolescence that his Church considered him to have a tendency towards ‘intrinsic evil’. Her declaration that she would be voting for equality is considered to have influenced older voters and conservative Catholics to vote ‘yes’. Mary McAleese’s testimony to her son’s experiences as well as her admonishment of the hierarchy for refusing to take women’s experience into account in their Synod on the Family put me in mind – and not for the first time – of two great feminist theologians and the theological category that they pioneered. Rosemary Radford Ruether and Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza are two Catholic-identified theologians who have preferred to work within rather than outside the Christian tradition. Their work shows influences of both post-modernist philosophy, and liberation theology’s Marxist analysis. They expanded the theological category of experience to emphasise women’s experience and the human experience of oppression, with particular emphasis on women’s experience of oppression. Their basic argument is that in patriarchal Christian cultures women’s voices and experiences were not heard or considered when canonical texts were being chosen and moral doctrines formulated; their theological category seeks to transform the way in which Scripture and Tradition are interpreted. Both theologians argue that women’s experience must be the ultimate norm in accepting, rejecting, or otherwise criticising texts, traditions and norms. Both recommend the establishment of ‘women-churches’, similar to the communidades de base of liberation theology, as locations from which to engage in praxis. Praxis is a Marxist concept that refers to human rational activity that is directed towards the transformation of the world; it encompasses physical work, political revolution, criticism and theoretical activity. Schüssler Fiorenza, for example, has attempted to develop a theological hermeneutics grounded in the ideological suspicion of Marxist critical theory. Her hermeneutics adopts an advocacy stance for women, critiquing the androcentric bias of, for example, previous biblical scholarship and seeking to uncover women’s contribution to the early Christian churches. In Bread Not Stone: The Challenge of Feminist Biblical Interpretation (p. x) she states that her aim is “to develop a feminist biblical hermeneutics…..a theory, method or perspective for understanding and interpretation……in doing so….. [to] contribute to the feminist articulation of a new scholarly paradigm of biblical interpretation and theology”. Like Schüssler Fiorenza, Rosemary Radford Ruether takes women’s experience as the critical principle of feminist theology, although her focus is more on women’s experience generally than on the experience of oppression. Women’s experience has been largely absent from theological reflection in the past; as a result, the use of women’s experience in feminist theology “explodes as a critical force, exposing classical theology as based on male experience rather than on universal human experience”. The latter sentence has always struck me as a perfect description of McAleese’s impact within the Irish ecclesial context. I have been reminded of my college studies on the work of Schüssler Fiorenza and Ruether many times in relation to McAleese’s various confrontations with the hierarchy. Though religious and a canon lawyer, she is not a theologian, and probably has no idea that there is a formal theological category to describe what she is attempting to do; yet the resonance of her actions with feminist theology is hardly mere coincidence. The fact is that gains for women brought about by mainstream feminism are allowing women’s voices to be heard in increasing numbers in the public sphere; McAleese’s voice was not the only influential female one to be heard during the referendum campaign. The powerful testimony of young Irish Times journalist Una Mullally and television journalist Ursula Halligan on their experiences of growing up gay in Catholic Ireland also caused a major stir. Halligan, devoutly religious as a young girl, actually came out publicly during the campaign at the age of 54. The impact and example of such women highlights the prophetic aspect of the work of theologians such as Schüssler Fiorenza and Ruether. Their work offers theological support and validation for such interventions which, in turn, provide a real life illustration of their theoretical formulations. Interestingly, the critical and praxical theological category of women’s experience is perhaps one whose time has come, as a result both of feminist progress and the fact that the present Pope has an understanding of and appreciation for liberation theology, which has been a major source of inspiration for feminist theology. The Archbishop of Dublin, Diarmuid Martin, remarked that the overwhelming ‘yes’ vote is a ‘reality check’ for the Church. There is now every hope that the Irish referendum will be a force for positive change where Church teaching on human sexuality is concerned. It is already being reported that the referendum’s implications will be on the agenda of next October’s Synod on the Family in the Vatican. Moreover, McAleese’s input in particular has been vindicated, and this vindication casts a favourable light on her past protests against patriarchal pomposity and arrogance within the Church as well as lending weight to any future pronouncements she may make. If change comes, it will surely be thanks in no small part to lay Irish Catholicism in general, and to the persistent activism and growing influence of lay woman Mary McAleese in particular.   This article was originally published at http://www.fsrinc.org/blog/irish-marriage-equality-referendum-liberation-theology-and-womens-experience

The Surrogacy Red Herring: Referendum on Marriage Equality

She Needs Her Mother For Life, Not Just For Nine Months

Why is the the ‘No’ side in the marriage equality referendum obscuring the real issue at stake by covering the city lampposts with misty-eyed photos of beautiful babies and toddlers who, it is implied, may be cruelly snatched from their adoring mothers and fathers by gay couples if the referendum is passed? Considering that the ‘no’ campaign is being spearheaded by the Iona Institute – a Roman Catholic organisation -this is either a deliberate fudging of the real issue at stake, or the campaigners are genuinely ignorant of what they are campaigning against. According to the Catholic Church, third party assisted human reproduction (AHR), which requires either donor sperm, donor egg, a donor uterus as in surrogacy or a combination, is against its natural law teaching. A child must be the result of a physical act of sexual intercourse between a man and a woman; to create a child in laboratory conditions is to turn that child into a product. Moreover, to deliberately create a child who will be brought up apart from one or both of its biological parents is to infringe the rights of the child. This teaching applies to both heterosexual and homosexual individuals whether married or not, so the no campaign’s  gay-straight polarisation on the surrogacy issue is not alone an inaccurate representation of Church teaching, but is irrelevant to the marriage equality issue, since marriage does not grant an automatic entitlement to avail of third party AHR. The AHR issue is a separate one; if it’s ok for heterosexual couples to avail of it, however, then it has to be ok for homosexual couples since the core ethical issue relates to the creation of a child who will be brought up apart from one or both of his/her parents. In jurisdictions such as France, Spain, Italy and Germany, where AHR is legally regulated, third party involvement is forbidden, since children must be brought up by their biological parents. 

Were the ‘no’ campaign  to be judged by the major thrust of its arguments, you could be forgiven for thinking that it’s a campaign against third party AHR for gay couples rather than marriage equality; if this is the case, then they must be ignorant of Church teaching, since it applies to heterosexuals also. If, on the other hand, the Iona institute is deliberately fear-mongering, then it is  being deceitful by confusing the issue. In which case they cannot identify themselves as followers of Jesus Christ, who described himself as the way, the truth, and the life.