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Eilis O'Hanlon: If the Catholic Church really is evil, why not get the hell out?

Mary McAleese still commands huge respect in Ireland, but her latest spat with the Pope is unseemly and puzzling, writes Eilis O'Hanlon


CRITICISM: Mary McAleese says the Church has promoted ‘evil’. Photo: Alberto Pizzoli

CRITICISM: Mary McAleese says the Church has promoted ‘evil’. Photo: Alberto Pizzoli

CRITICISM: Mary McAleese says the Church has promoted ‘evil’. Photo: Alberto Pizzoli

All things considered, it's probably just as well that Michael D Higgins has chosen to seek a second term in the Aras, because strange things seem to happen to former holders of the post once they stop being president.

First Mary Robinson decided to become the world's conscience at the UN, regardless of whether the world wanted her to or not. Now her successor, instead of enjoying a quiet, well-earned retirement, has picked another scrap with the Vatican, after earlier this year being barred from speaking at an official event at the Vatican to mark International Women's Day.

The meeting was moved to a different venue so that McAleese and other guests who'd been singled out for exclusion by the Holy See could speak. She took the opportunity to denounce the Catholic Church as an "empire of misogyny" and to describe theological objections to women priests as "pure codology." Her feelings in the intervening months have clearly not mellowed. This week she accused Pope Francis of "bad manners" for not replying to a letter that she sent to him about it all six months ago.

The Irish public appear to be siding largely with McAleese on the substantive issues over which she's clashed with the hierarchy.

More than 60pc in the latest Sunday Independent/Kantar Millward Brown poll are in favour of women being allowed to be priests, with just one in five against, and a massive two in three believe that priests should be allowed to marry.

That the Church doesn't treat women equally is also a statement with which 55pc of people surveyed agree. Only 15pc disagree with the former president on that one, though it's significant that almost a third answered either that "it depends" (15pc) or that they "didn't know" (a further 15pc), because the question is complicated, to say the least.

Anyone still tempted, strong public support notwithstanding, to wonder if the former president has lost the run of herself somewhat would certainly not have been persuaded otherwise by McAleese's remarks earlier this week at an LGBT film festival in Dublin, where, deservedly, she picked up an award for her long-standing advocacy of gay rights.

The event began routinely enough. The Church's teaching on homosexuality, she told the gathering, was "very hard on gay men and women, gay children and gay adolescents", adding that "it has made their lives, for some of them, actually intolerable". As the mother of a gay son, she was a lioness. That's only natural.

But to go on to say, as she did, that the Church's traditional teaching on homosexuality is actually "evil" is quite the escalation in hostilities. Most people could not be part of an organisation whose teachings they regarded not simply as wrong or misguided or based in a misreading of canon law, but literally wicked. McAleese, though, has continued to keep faith with it, telling RTE's Sean O'Rourke back in March that she is "comfortably a member of the Catholic Church".

She did admit to being "uncomfortably comfortable sometimes", but it was, she said, her "spiritual home". That probably describes where the vast majority of Catholics in Ireland find themselves too.

But while it's defensible to stay in an institution for a certain period to challenge those currently in authority, at what point, having failed to bring about change, does it become unconscionable to stay?

There's no getting away from that word "evil". Evil is not something with which one can compromise. Most Catholics, however angry with their Church, don't face that dilemma because they don't think of its teachings as actually evil. McAleese says she does.

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She is not a hypocrite. She's never hidden her personal views on gay issues, and spoke out frequently as president against all forms of discrimination and homophobic bullying. That helps explain why she still commands such wide respect in Ireland, as evidenced in this poll. It's still something of a mystery why, if she genuinely believed this whole time that she was a member of an organisation which was promoting "evil", she didn't speak out even more strongly, especially considering everything else that was going on in the Church at the time. The Catholic Church's appalling treatment of child abuse victims is much more worthy of that four-letter epithet than its attitude to same-sex intercourse.

Revelations about what priests had done to vulnerable children, and the lengths to which the hierarchy had gone to cover up their crimes, dominated the period covered by McAleese's presidency. There were two high-profile inquiries established during that time. In the final months of her presidency, McAleese's own husband, Martin, would be appointed chairman of a further committee charged with assessing the extent of the Irish State's involvement with the Magdalene Laundries. (The report, when finally published, was widely criticised by victims and human rights groups and even the UN, which said it "lacked many elements of... (an) independent and thorough investigation".)

Throughout these long years of anguish and soul searching, Mary McAleese managed to stay engaged with the Church without ever using language as harsh and uncompromising as that she has now used to describe its teachings on homosexuality. She may have a persuasive explanation for that. If so, she's not chosen to share it.

In an interview with The Irish Times this week, McAleese even described the moment in 2003 when, on a State visit to Italy, she alleges that an official Vatican representative sought reassurances that the Irish Government would not seek access to confidential Church documents on child abuse. She says that she immediately told him the request was "inappropriate" and would be "very, very dangerous" for the Church's standing in Ireland "if it was pursued", and now calls it "one of the most devastating moments of my presidency".

Again, one must wonder why she waited a further 15 years before revealing publicly that her Church had acted in this way, and only did so two weeks before the visit to the country of a man whose failure to answer a letter she decries as a "deliberate personal insult".

Victims of clerical abuse are hoping to make their voices heard during Pope Francis's impending visit. They deserve every sympathy in their continuing struggle to get justice. The former president's spat with him is just an unseemly distraction to that still vital story.

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