Saturday 16 February 2019

Eilis O'Hanlon: Is it really so strange that the Vatican remains fervently Catholic?

Former President Mary McAleese's right to slap down the Catholic church was defended by some equally rigid ideologues, writes Eilis O'Hanlon

Former President Mary McAleese.
Former President Mary McAleese.

Eilis O'Hanlon

The Pope's visit to Ireland this summer should be cancelled in retaliation for the banning of former President Mary McAleese from a conference at the Vatican.

That, at least, was being said in some quarters when news broke of her exclusion from the event - organised, ironically, by a group seeking to empower women to get "a seat at the table of decision making in the Catholic church".

Last week, the conference took place at a venue in Rome outside the Holy See, allowing Mrs McAleese to participate - but tempers have continued to rise, stoked both by the language that she used during the event, and also by a mawkish patriotic fervour determined to take umbrage at any criticism of our beloved ex-President. The Taoiseach has upped the nationalistic rhetoric when it comes to the North. Now it seems some people want to open a second front against the Vatican too.

Obviously, the attempted barring of McAleese from a conference with the title Voices Of Faith was absurd as well as counter productive. The Association of Catholic Priests had already strongly criticised the decision, taken by one US cardinal because of Mrs McAleese's vocal support for lesbian and gay rights. The word "voices" is plural, suggesting a multiplicity of views, rather than a rigid conformity.

Having said that, is it really so astonishing that some in the Vatican might see the world from a traditional Catholic viewpoint, in which such phenomena as same-sex relationships, sex outside marriage, and so on, are categorically wrong, rather than personal behaviours which are nobody else's business - God's included?

In the event, Mary McAleese's contribution to the debate last week was characteristically spirited, and she deserves credit for exploding the bizarre misconception that Pope Francis is some kind of secret metropolitan libertine on matters of sex. That myth has proved frustratingly difficult to dislodge since his election in 2013, despite repeated pronouncements proving himself to be almost the exact opposite. McAleese effectively challenged the Pontiff to prove that he means what he says when he pontificates vaguely about the church embracing diversity.

Drawing on her deep learning in church history and theology, McAleese went further, declaring that the church was an "empire of misogyny", presided over by an "hermetically sealed cosy male clerical elite" using "pure codology" to prevent the ordination of women, which she regards as historically inevitable. Addressing the Pope directly by name, she said: "The time for change is now."

As stirring as this was, though, it's hard to read accounts of what Mary McAleese said without entertaining the (no doubt heretical) thought that the cardinal who originally wanted to exclude her from the conference may have had a point.

Referring snidely to "350 male celibates" was a cheap shot unworthy of someone with her long engagement with the church. While debates about celibacy, and female clergy, and homosexuality have been going on for centuries, Mary McAleese also criticised the church for being "anti-abortion". Whatever one thinks about abortion, that's hardly an unreasonable position for the Catholic church to adopt - and if the former President wishes to argue otherwise, she will need a more persuasive argument than that this will not make it popular in a "church of the future."

It's not the church's job to be modern, but to safeguard what it regards as eternal truths.

Demanding that the Vatican embraces abortion is expecting too much. Should the Catholic church also be expected to throw open the doors to people advocating, for example, polygamy or promiscuity as things which God intended?

Surely even Mary McAleese would concede that there are some behaviours incompatible with Christian ideals, but it seems that liberal Catholics sometimes want the right to set their own rules of engagement, while denying the church the same privilege.

The Vatican is not the only place from which certain voices are excluded for non-conformity, after all. In January, when it became clear that a group of British radical feminists was planning to come to Ireland under the banner 'We Need To Talk', an open letter was issued from Feminist Ire, a collective of left-wing activists, opposing the visit on the grounds that the group in question was "transphobic" for arguing against the proposed Gender Recognition Act in the UK, which will allow people to self-declare their gender.

The Irish authors complained that the visitors were "behaving with the arrogance of… imperialism", adding: "We have had enough of colonialism in Ireland without needing more of it from you."

The letter ended with a simple message: "We neither want nor need your lecture tour. You're not welcome here." The letter was signed by over 800 Irish women, many prominent in the feminist movement here, as well as by a number of major organisations, including UCD's Centre for Gender, Feminisms and Sexualities.

Where was the outcry at this crude attempt to silence dissenting opinions? There was none, just as there are no protests from self-professed progressives when controversial speakers are "no-platformed", as it's called, at university campuses for not following a particular line. Yet we're still supposed to take lectures on freedom of speech from people who enforce dogmas every bit as inflexible as those coming out of the Vatican. They too, as McAleese said of the church, have "almost no culture of self-critiquing".

There may be a certain amusement in seeing Mary McAleese suddenly hailed a heroine for sticking it to the church - by some of the same people who derided the way her Presidency was marked "by outward expressions of piety" (as an article in the Irish Left Review later put it sniffily).

But the stench of hypocrisy is too overpowering to take seriously their more fevered defences of Mary McAleese's right to speak.

If you only support the right to free speech of those who are saying exactly what you want to hear, that's not principle, it's posturing.

Sunday Independent

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