How Dr McAleese laid down canon law to her detractors in Vatican

The former president stands defiant with interrogators in Rome and points the way forward for Catholic women, writes Paddy Agnew

MATTER OF FAITH: Former president Mary McAleese with her husband Martin, the Archbishop of Dublin, Diarmuid Martin, Professor Robert Geisinger and Professor Ulrich Rhode (right) after her doctoral defence at the Pontifical Gregorian University in Rome last Friday evening

Paddy Agnew

So, have the Catholic Church's "walls of misogyny" begun to show the odd crack, even if they are far from falling? That question asks itself in the wake of the decision of Rome's Pontifical Gregorian (Jesuit) University to award former president Mary McAleese a doctorate in canon law last Friday.

In a now celebrated speech on Women's Day in Rome last March, Ms McAleese had proudly declared that, like the Israelites under Joshua's command outside the walls of Jericho, Catholic women were getting ready to bring down the walls of the Holy See with their "voices of faith".

When last seen, the Holy See walls were looking very stable, stubbornly and determinedly so. Yet, it is at least intriguing to reflect on the fact that someone who in recent times has called the Catholic Church "homophobic and misogynist", who has publicly campaigned for same-sex marriage and who has said that she voted 'Yes' in this summer's abortion referendum is now a Doctor in Canon Law, the Church's own all-important and all-powerful code of law.

In classic university practice, the former president was summoned to publicly defend her 500,000-word thesis, entitled 'Children's Rights and Obligations on Canon Law'. Faced with a three-person panel (all male, of course), she was closely questioned for approximately an hour and a half about aspects of her complex thesis in an atmosphere that, whilst formal, was distinctly friendly.

In front of an audience that included the Archbishop of Dublin, Diarmuid Martin, the Rector of the Irish Pontifical College, Ciaran O'Carroll, and the Irish Ambassador to the Italian state, Colm O Floinn, as well as members of the Irish clerical community in Rome, the former president was well supported. Given that her 'defence', interrogation if you like, was held exclusively in Italian, she needed all the support that she could get.

By tradition, the defence of a canon law doctoral thesis in Rome is done in either Latin or Italian. Talking to the Sunday Independent, Ms McAleese said she had made no objection to this requirement, despite the obvious extra problems it created for someone whose Italian, in her own words, is "all spoken in the present tense". She did not want any special favours and she did not want to be a "whinger", she said.

One of her examiners, American professor Robert Geisinger, started off by asking her how long it had taken (four years in fact), telling her that he much approved of her thesis and adding that he found it "creative, rich and very provocative, that is provocative in the best sense".

There then followed a somewhat absurd exchange as Ms McAleese was forced to struggle through some very complex issues in her faltering Italian with a native English speaker. He could have saved her a lot of trouble but that, of course, would have been to ignore that de facto official language of the Catholic Church is Italian.

Prof Geisinger, however, appeared to understand and agree with much of the thesis. One issue, though, puzzled him. Who was this Pat Kenny person mentioned at one point? We have never heard of him around here, he added.

In fact, this was a reference to a 2002 interview given by the former justice minister and attorney general Michael McDowell to Pat Kenny (then of RTE), in which he had said that in Ireland, canon law had the same legal standing as the rules and regulations of a golf club. The professor shrugged his shoulders, adding that he was sure that "in Ireland golf club rules are well respected".

Ms McAleese's other examiner, German professor Ulrich Rhode, seemed rather more severe, criticising the former president for having identified problems, but not having proposed solutions other than that of goodwill, when it came to the resolution of the dispute between the Holy See and the UN's Committee on the Rights of the Child (CRC) which is one of the major themes of the thesis.

Despite his reservations, however, Prof Rhode also gave Ms McAleese the green light for her thesis.

Speaking afterwards, Ms McAleese confessed her total relief at having finally got to this point "with something that I have been living with for the last four years". In particular, it will come as a liberation to be able to "stop for a cup of coffee or take a weekend break" without a nagging sense of guilt.

This thesis is clearly complex, a 500,000-word work of analysis and critique of the rights and obligations in canon law of child members (under 18) of the Catholic Church. Ms McAleese says she has not criticised infant baptism as an enforced membership of the Catholic Church (given that the baby has no say in the matter), but rather something that needs to be developed and discussed.

She does, however, criticise the Holy See for rejecting the call from the UN's CRC committee for canon law to be updated in order to bring it into line with the principles of the UN's 1989 Convention on the rights of the Child, a convention signed by the Holy See.

The Vatican argues that it has no such obligation since it is a spiritual entity and implementation of the convention requires a territory. In this way, as Ms McAleese explained to the Sunday Independent, the Vatican accepts (canon law) responsibility for the 35 children who live in the Vatican City state rather than the estimated 300 million Catholic children of the universal church.

The doctorate awarded to Ms McAleese comes, ironically, on the eve of a week when Catholic women activists are due to make themselves heard all around the Eternal City. Tomorrow the Catholic Women Speak group will hold a day long symposium in Rome's Pontifical Antonianum University to mark the launch of 'Visions and Vocations', a collection of "theological reflections and personal narratives by Catholic women", this to coincide with the forthcoming (practically all-male) Synod on Youth.

Not surprisingly, Ms McAleese is one of the contributors to this particular book.

On Thursday, the Women's Ordination Conference (WOC) also meets in Rome "to raise up the voices of women missing from the nearly all-male [Synod] gathering". The WOC says it "resists the Vatican's attempts to silence the voices of women in decision-making and sacramental roles", adding: "One of the things that the current [sex abuse] crisis in the Church brings to light yet again is the reality that when you have men alone in positions of decision-making and authority, it creates a clerical culture where the reputation of priests gets prioritised over the needs of the people of God".

Catholic women, those who like Mary McAleese want to reform and criticise the Catholic Church but do so from the inside, are very clearly on the march. Asked about the McAleese doctorate, Prof Tina Beattie, of the Catholic Women Speak movement, sums it up thus: "Mary's spirit does great things and we are relying on her. She belongs to the best traditions of the Catholic Church because moral and social teaching are not set in stone. The core doctrines are mysteries that we do not negotiate, we pray into them. But Mary sees the value in canon law and she sees the value in knowing enough about it to change it and apply it when it works. We need more women to do that kind of work".