Unpacking Mary McAleese and Pope St John Paul II

Unpacking Mary McAleese and Pope St John Paul II Mary McAleese Photograph: Nick Bradshaw/The Irish Times.
As a newspaper, we report fair and accurately without fear or favour, writes Michael Kelly

Former president Mary McAleese has been at pains to deny that she misrepresented the views of Pope John Paul II on human sexuality.

It’s a serious matter that requires a serious response.

When The Irish Catholic first broke the story last week that Mrs McAleese – during an address in Trinity College Dublin – gave the audience a false impression of the writings of the Polish pontiff there were immediate calls from distinguished Catholics from the world of politics, law and academia for her to do the right thing and admit the fact that she had got it wrong. Instead Mrs McAleese has doubled down on the slur on John Paul II’s memory which would see him as an advocate of female submission to the point of marital rape, and launched a full-scale offensive on those who dared to question her speech.

Within hours of the story appearing, she had written to the owner of this newspaper; ignoring the usual convention of writing to the editor – claiming that “The Irish Catholic has become a fetid trough of fake news concerning things I am alleged to have said which I did not”.  Mary McAleese also complained to two archbishops and the Papal Nuncio about The Irish Catholic story.

In the same correspondence with the proprietor, Mrs McAleese says she stands “accused of misrepresenting his [Pope St John Paul II] views on the sex act by taking them out of context by people who have done precisely that since they clearly did not bother to check the context in which I used his words”.


Context matters. That’s why when we found it hard to believe that an academic of Mrs McAleese’s standing would make such an error selectively quoting John Paul to make a straw man argument, we decided to go straight to the source. We watched again the video of the TCD event on the Voices of Faith website. All two hours, 19 minutes and 32 seconds of it.

In the video, Mrs McAleese is asked by Ursula Halligan: “How would you describe the role of women in the Church today?”

She replies: “Absolutely, even more invisible, deliberately made invisible, deliberately meant to stay invisible.  Structurally the architecture of the Church is designed to create and maintain the invisibility and the powerlessness of women, to corral us.

“If you’ll just bear with me could I just read a little section from the writings of Pope John Paul II? This is a recent Pope, so we’re not talking about the Dark Ages, we’re talking about a recent Pope, from his book Love and Responsibility.”

Mrs McAleese continues: “This is his description of marriage, of sex and marriage. Just listen: ‘it’s the very nature of the act that the man plays the active role and takes the initiative, while the woman is a comparatively passive partner, whose function it is to accept and experience, for the purpose of the sexual act it is enough for her to be passive and unresisting, so much so that it can even take place without her volition, while she is in a state where she has no awareness at all of what is happening, for instance where she is asleep or unconscious’.”

Mrs McAleese has attempted to change the goal posts by talking about rape in the moral teaching of the Catholic Church”

The crowd were heard to gasp and murmur at this.

Mrs McAleese ended her quotation from the writings of Karol Wojtyla before adding: “That is how we are treated in the Church: expected to be asleep, unconscious, while men get on with doing what they have to do. And here’s the sequel to that: Fr Seán Fagan called Pope John Paul out on that and said the obvious, he asked a question. He said “can this really be Catholic Church teaching, it sounds like rape!”

“What happened? Pope John Paul becomes a saint, Seán Fagan becomes silenced. That’s our Church,” Mrs McAleese added to gasps from the audience.


You’ll note that Mrs McAleese prefaced her selective quotation from Love and Responsibility by stating that “this is his [John Paul II] description of marriage, of sex and marriage”. However, in a letter published in the Irish Times the following day responding to Dr Tom Finegan from Mary Immaculate University of Limerick who called Mrs McAleese out on her “shoddy scholarly treatment” of the deceased pontiff, she insists “it is very clear Dr Finegan did not check the context in which I used the passage”.

Mrs McAleese goes on to claim that “it was explicitly stated by me that I was not talking about the sex act at all but by analogy using the passage to describe the position and role of women in the Church generally with men seen as dominant initiators and women as passive receivers”.

Yet, it’s hard to reconcile that with the video recording which shows that Mrs McAleese prefaced the quotation by stating that “this is his [John Paul II] description of marriage, of sex and marriage”.


So, what exactly did John Paul II say in Love and Responsibility? In her letter to the proprietor of this newspaper, Mrs McAleese went on to add “I suggest the editor and his contributors check it.

“They will find their fulminations are based on poor fact checking,” she insisted.

Of course, like all good newspapers, The Irish Catholic did check the facts before publishing the story. The same was true of the eminent academics who contributed to the story.

We went to the source (Love and Responsibility, pp 271-2) and it is clear that the future Pope is writing as phenomonologist and presenting the sexologist approach to the biological facts of sex. He then goes on, after the part  quoted by Mary McAleese, to make strong statements about the mutality of marital love even on the physical level and the responsibility of the husband to make sure that sex is mutual and mutually-pleasurable and the moral rights of the woman in this.

It is a turgid enough style of writing, but to say that abstract demonstrates John Paul II’s view of women in sex or his view of women in any context is simply wrong.

Does the secular media have any ethics or do they just report who says what in an era when media need to discern the truth from the fake?”

To say that the abstract quoted by Mary McAleese, and by Fr Seán Fagan in Responding to the Ryan Report which is repeated in Angela Hanley’s new book on Fr Fagan is representative of the thinking of John Paul II in this area is patently unfair, intellectually unfair and academically unfair.

Mrs McAleese has attempted to change the goal posts by talking about rape in the moral teaching of the Catholic Church, but this is another straw man. The heart of the matter here is that with academic freedom comes privilege and responsibiity and she has whether by will or error abused that privilege.

Critique by all means, we need a Church open to critique and rigour, but what perspective does Mary McAleese hold that thinks she is beyond question?

To say that abstract demonstrates John Paul II’s view of women in sex or his view of women in any context is simply wrong”

Does Trinity College, one of the top universities in the world, stand over such shoddy scholarship from its Chancellor? The so-called ‘paper of record’ the Irish Times didn’t bother to check the facts nor did RTÉ. Does the secular media have any ethics or do they just report who says what in an era when media need to discern the truth from the fake?

Ultimately, especially in the age of video, our words have to mean what they mean. Another president in another place has become infamous for using words and then he and his media aides saying that the media has misinterpreted what he said.

The meaning of what Mary McAleese said was clear to the women in Trinity who gasped at the words of a Pope apparently advocating marital rape; they were clear too when prominent Catholics such as Senator Rónán Mullen and Baroness Nuala O’Loan criticised them for being unfair and out of context, and they are clear to the professional journalists in this paper who have checked the sources. Who among us would want to be part of a Church that taught such a thing?

One of the biggest winners in publishing with Donald Trump in power have been the publishers of dictionaries: people want facts, not alternative facts, bluster, straw men.

As a newspaper we believe in reporting accurately and fairly and so to be labelled a “fetid trough of fake news” by a powerful, wealthy former president for fair and accurate reporting is a badge of honour for a newspaper that prides itself on being both counter-cultural and ethical.