The great misfortune of Mary McAleese
An accident of birth means the former president is ineligible for her ideal role, writes Declan Lynch
Published 22/06/2014 | 02:30
STRANGE though it may seem in the light of all the worldly success that she has enjoyed, I tend to regard the former President Mary McAleese as a tragic figure.
She would have made an excellent archbishop, an even better cardinal, and just about the perfect pope. She should have been all these things, she had the temperament, the vision, she certainly had the ambition.
I was reminded of this again last week when she declared that it was "profoundly wrong and skewed" for the present pope to ask a synod of bishops to advise him on church teaching on "the family". That the idea of consulting "150 male celibates" on this matter was indeed "completely bonkers".
Her audience, of course, would know Mrs McAleese was engaging here in criticism at its most constructive, that she's no Richard Dawkins. That she's saying the sort of thing that, in an ideal world, the pope himself would be saying.
Indeed, there's a long list of the "best managers that England never had", but if there was a list of the best popes the Catholic Church never had, it would contain just one name, in bold capitals – Pope Mary.
There have been few secular leaders of our time who have seemed so completely at their ease in a church – or in a mosque or a synagogue, for that matter, engaging in what she described in another context as "ecumenical endeavour". She is radiant
in her religiosity, and it is all the more powerful for the fact that she is also a creature of the "real world", enough of an operator to rise to the highest echelons of public life.
And yet there is that higher ground which has been denied to her due to the accident of being female. It was almost unbearably sad, during her tenure as President, to see her sitting in the VIP seats at an All-Ireland final next to the actual cardinal. She was the one who exuded moral authority, the deep one, the most learned one. Sadly, the church was stuck with him, and his "male celibate" ilk.
It was poignant too, to learn that after her second term as President, she went to Rome to study canon law, a subject with which she was not unfamiliar in the first place. Not that she was ever going to take to drinking or gambling or generally going to the bad as the rest of us might, but still... to embark on a course of canon law, at that stage of her life, brought to mind the image of someone striving to attain every conceivable qualification for a job that they could never possibly have.
Around that time too she wrote what one commentator described last week as "a very good book on collegiality". Which would probably not be the sort of book you'd pick up at the airport on your way to Torremelinos, unless you're the sort who enjoys lounging by the pool reading about how the Catholic Church has failed to deliver on the kind of collegiality which was promised by the Second Vatican Council.
Yet in her "bonkers" speech last week, she again showed that she is not just a creature of the cloisters. "How many of the men who will gather to advise (the pope) on the family have ever changed a nappy?" she asked.
Now it must be said that these comments, if they were made in most other circumstances, would be regarded as quite ordinary, even banal. You can imagine someone calling Joe Duffy and giving him the "nappy" line, and Joe sounding a bit weary, encouraging the caller to come up with something a bit better, a bit more sophisticated – indeed Mrs McAleese has said much more admirable things about her church's attitude to Jews and homosexuals.
But this was not Liveline, it was an Official Ireland event, so they were loving it all. Mrs McAleese was being interviewed after receiving the highest honour that UCD can bestow, the Ulysses medal – ombudsman supreme Emily O'Reilly also received an honour – and yet the thoughts of McAleese were drifting towards that other great institution which will never bestow its highest honour on her, because she is a woman. That too is completely bonkers.
But then there's a kind of a built-in design flaw here as well. Because if you go down the "completely bonkers" route in this area of endeavour, there's no knowing where it might end.
If you were to say to Fr Dougal, for example, that "150 male celibates" advising the pope on "the family" is completely
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bonkers, Dougal would be relaxed enough about it. He would then start listing a few other aspects of Catholic teaching which are clearly bonkers, and he might well conclude with the unanswerable line, "sure, it's all bonkers, Ted".
As for things that are "completely wrong and skewed", there'd be a bit of that too. But these are relatively small matters next to the great misfortune of McAleese, the cosmic error that made her ineligible for the one role that is truly commensurate with her talents.
There is talk of "a new theology of women", and in any such arrangement there would perhaps be a need for some sort of chief theologian. But that would be a mere consolation.
If God exists, how could he allow such a thing to happen?