My Thoughts on the Mary McAleese Affair

As a theologian I found myself particularly interested in Mary McAleese’s statement about the hierarchy having reduced Christ “to this rather unattractive politician who is just misogynistic and homophobic and anti-abortion”. This has been misinterpreted by the usual suspects as meaning that McAleese is attempting to singlehandedly change Church doctrine. That this is not the case is clear from her most recent statement that she has not yet decided how she will vote in the abortion referendum due to the complexity of the issues involved. McAleese’s point refers to the depressing habit that the hierarchy has of remaking Jesus of Nazareth into their own misogynistic, dogma obsessed image and likeness, something that couldn’t be further from the truth. I defy any woman to read the Gospels and not be struck by the revolutionary attitude of Jesus towards women, all the more remarkable considering the time and place in which he lived and the notably patriarchal and sexist attitudes towards the female sex displayed in the Old Testament. Indeed his treatment of women was so radical that it transcends time and place.

I also defy anyone, man or woman, to read the Gospels and not be struck by the fact that as regards moral teaching, Jesus was in no way judgmental, nor did he leave behind a list of ‘thou shalt nots’ . On the contrary, his emphasis was positive, concerned with love of others, especially those on the margins of society, or considered ‘other’. This included the very kind of women who have been so mistreated in Ireland for falling foul of Ireland’s deeply embedded double standards towards women, women who all too often found themselves shunned or even worse condemned to places like the Magdalene Laundries or Tuam style mother and baby homes. In misrepresenting Jesus in this way, the hierarchy is, as McAleese pointed out, “keeping Christ out and letting bigotry in”. I have no doubt that Jesus would have opposed abortion in non-medical circumstances, but he would also have strongly condemned the way in which women are universally made to carry the can for male sexual irresponsibility. The ultimate answer to the problem of abortion is not to penalize women, but to transform male/female relationships for the better.

McAleese also makes a very important point about the clericalism endemic in the Church, and the exclusion of women from all authority and decision making. While I personally am not hung up on the view that the only solution to this is to ordain women to the priesthood (which could exacerbate clericalism since women would have to fit in with male power structures) it would certainly be possible to create forms of authoritative ministry that would unleash female gifts and female perspectives into the hitherto male-dominated Church. This could only have a revolutionary effect for the good. For me, equality between the sexes should not mean sameness, but complementarity. Equal representation of women in the Church should ideally bring about a harmonious balance between the best male and female characteristics, with women keeping male clerical egoism and arrogance in check. I am also of the opinion that it is time for feminist theological insights into the life and ministry of Jesus to be brought to the fore. It was his female disciples who stood bravely and loyally with Jesus during his passion and crucifixion, while his male disciples including even Peter deserted him. The men were incapable of seeing strength in weakness, whereas the women fully understood his sacrifice in a way that I’m convinced only women can. I am therefore fully in agreement with McAleese’s opinion that the Church cannot move on and progress without female insights and authority, and I would extend this to the theological sphere.

Interestingly, the fact that McAleese has the power, influence and status to mount such a critique of the institutional Church is due to the great political gains that Western women have made, albeit that there is a long way to go. Women’s voices are being heard publicly, and this can have a significant impact on the Church, as our former President is demonstrating. Ironically, this raises the astounding possibility that the Church could be the new powerhouse as regards the true liberation of women. It has the power to appoint women to influential positions, they don’t have to be voted in. If such a process was undertaken in good faith, Catholicism could be a beacon to the world in demonstrating what a world in which women have an equal voice could look like. As McAleese said, quoting Ban Ki -Moon, it is ‘the pulpit of the world’, powerfully influential. Guided by authentic Gospel values, it could transform itself from acting as “a powerful brake in dismantling the architecture of misogyny” into the direct opposite, and become a vehicle for defeating women’s oppression that would be a true reflection of the spirit of its founder. The liberation of women from unjust structures will also of course bring about the liberation of men, an important feminist goal. Hard as it may be to imagine now, we may be on the brink of a politically inspired ecclesiastical revolution that will have a reciprocally transformative effect on the political domain.

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… 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.

After the Hooley is Over: Reflecting On Paddy’s Day

When St. Patrick set about converting them, the Irish took to Christianity like ducks to water. They have stayed true to their religion through good times and bad; despite the child abuse scandals, and even though Ireland is, morally speaking, a liberal Western secular democracy, levels of practice and stated allegiance on census forms remain high. Even those who aren’t regular attenders at Mass show up for the major sacramental rites of passage. Seven sacraments, seven excuses for an alcohol fuelled hooley. As Celts we are mystical, as Irish we love conviviality and craic. Is Catholic Christianity the most compatible religion possible with the Irish temperament? If the answer is yes, can we truly call ourselves Christians?imageu

Mary Mary Quite Contrary: McAleese is Right Again

Ireland’s ex-president Mary McAleese said, in relation to preliminary discussions for the upcoming Synod on the family, that it was ‘bonkers’ for such weighty matters to be discussed by elderly celibate men. That observation has been proven right by the Pope’s assertion that slapping children is ok and even ‘beautiful’. McAleese, currently completing her doctorate in canon law in Rome, has sharply criticised that statement, from legal and personal perspectives. It is infuriating to think that a woman of McAleese’s calibre – a world class politician, diplomat, lawyer and also a wife and mother who has successfully reared her family and is in a long and clearly happy marriage – is to hand in Rome and has not been asked to contribute. It makes you think that the bias against women so deeply rooted in the Vatican is implacable and powerful. Are we witnessing an irresistible force (McAleese) meeting an immovable object (the Curia) ? If Pope Francis is as humble as he portrays himself to be, surely he could mediate and ask McAleese for help and advice? On a purely practical basis, it’s sad to see someone who comes across as kindly making such a faux pas with regard to corporal punishment, but if he were to approach McAleese (biretta in hand) it would do more for the Vatican’s image than all the doctrinal change in the world.