13 October 2023, The Tablet

Inequality ‘embedded’ in Catholic Church says McAleese

The Synod’s structure, notwithstanding modest lay and female participation, “is still modelled on a discipleship of unequals.”

Inequality ‘embedded’ in Catholic Church says McAleese

Pope Francis at the XVI Ordinary General Assembly of the Synod on Synodality at the Paul VI Hall in Rome today.
Abaca Press/Alamy Live News

Professor Mary McAleese has criticised the Church for failing to reform its “out-dated internal structure of governance, teachings and laws” in which, she said, “inequality is embedded”.

This, she said “routinely restricted” the human rights of members especially the fundamental intellectual freedoms of expression, opinion, conscience and religion including freedom to change religion.

In a keynote address for the Spirit Unbounded assembly, the former president of Ireland said this failure to reform had impeded Christ’s mission as a consequence.

In her address on the theme, “Being Denied the Discipleship of Equals”, delivered in Rome and broadcast to network of reform groups around the world taking part in the Spirit Unbounded assembly, Professor McAleese said members believe the Catholic Church should be and could be an exemplar of equality and respect for human rights, but it is not.

“Instead, the biggest Christian Church in the world, the biggest NGO in the world, the only faith system to have representative status at the United Nations, a key influencer of laws, attitudes and cultures on five continents, is languishing in a deepening credibility crisis precisely because it has failed to reform.”

She said Pope Francis’ initiation of the synodal journey was prompted by the rapidly escalating disillusionment among the faithful over the persistence of “stark internal inequality and lack of respect for the human rights of Church members within the Church”.

“We wish the Synod of Bishops well as it takes place here in Rome this month and again next year, but its structure, notwithstanding modest lay and female participation, is still modelled on a discipleship of unequals, with evident unease as to how to deal with what has been a powerful show of lay strength in the synodal journey so far, especially its determined push towards a discipleship of equals where what affects all is discussed and decided by all.”

She said lay people had been “emboldened by the courage” of the German Catholic Church’s “egalitarian” synodal process, and “inspired” by the openness, equality and freedom of speech of the Root and Branch lay-led synod in 2021. She questioned whether the Synod of Bishops taking place in the Vatican would “stay faithful” to the discernment of the People of God.

The former head of state, who is a Canon Lawyer, criticised Pope Francis for trying to steer synodal discussions away from controversy. This had been unsuccessful because “the laity resolutely insisted on their right to debate contentious issues even those on which the magisterium has fixed contradictory views often backed by claims of infallibility”.

On the Pope’s recent response to the Dubia put to him by five cardinals, she said Francis had “reversed a very hardline message published with his approval” by the then Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith in 2021 which banned Church blessings for married gay Catholics and claimed such Church members were incapable of receiving or expressing God’s grace.

“The ban and its dreadful unchristian language provoked widespread outrage among the People of God, lay, clerical and episcopal.”

Pope Francis can certainly claim credit for that notable development, but lay pressure can claim even greater credit she said.

That same pressure and “simmering outrage”, Professor McAleese said, was visible too in response to the Pope’s decision to permit the participation of a token number of women and lay synod members for the first time and to give them voting rights.

“There has been resounding demand from the global synodal process for equality for women in the Church. Had the Synod of Bishops opened this month with no concession to that now mainstream, majority voice it might just as well have closed up shop on day one.”

The retired professor of law and university chancellor said the inclusion of a small cohort of women in the synod merely highlighted the extent of the continuing gender imbalance at the core of Church governance. “It also highlights the resistance to equality in all its fullness. Equality is a right not a favour. The women attending the Synod on Synodality are there as a favour not as a right.”

And she warned that the ongoing failure to include women especially in the diaconate and priesthood was “shrinking access to the sacraments and to vibrant parish life for all the faithful”.

On dissent among the faithful towards the Church’s magisterial teachings, the 72-year-old who spends time every year with the Poor Clare nuns, said it was clear that the synodal discernment of the People of God includes serious levels of good faith dissent from magisterial teaching on gender equality, female ordination to priesthood and deaconate, inclusion of LGBTIQ+ catholics, church teaching on human sexuality, co-responsibility with the laity, compulsory celibacy, transparency and accountability of governance, credible safeguarding of children, and eucharistic access for divorced and remarried Catholics.

She criticised the synod gathering in Rome saying, “Veiled discussions behind closed doors which are subject to confidentiality and publishing restrictions are disappointingly old school and smack of reluctance to trust even the Holy Spirit.”

The Spirit Unbounded Assembly, she said, was there to showcase what a discipleship of equals looked like and a way of being Church when we meet prayerfully, in Christ, as equals, with complete freedom of speech and opinion, openness to the Holy Spirit and open doors out to the world, looks like.

“Our ambition is for a Church where magisterial teaching is proposed not imposed, where teaching is arrived at through a process where what affects all is discussed by and decided by all, where Church members are volunteers not conscripts, where all are equal regardless of gender or lay or clerical status, where governance roles are open to all, where Canon Law acknowledges our God-given human rights as set out in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948) and the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child (1989) to which the Holy See is a State Party.”

These rights include freedom of speech, belief, conscience, opinion and religion including the right change religion. “None of that is how things are in Church teaching and Canon Law,” she said.

As she has done in the past, Mary McAleese revisited her criticisms of infant baptism in the Church. Noting that for 84 per cent of Church members baptism occurred, “when we were non-sentient infants”, she said that she has no issue with Infant baptism itself when it is seen as “God’s gratuitous gift of membership of the body of Christ, a miraculous source of grace which we are at liberty to draw down or not”.

However, she argued that Canon Law attaches to baptism “a crude list of man-made rules which turn our christening into a lazy form of life-long conscription and subservience which Christ never intended. It infantilises faith, robs us of choice and presumes an automated rather than a real personal commitment”.

She added, “The language of these canons is the typical language of elitist, hierarchical, top-down control. It is not a language which honours in any way our fundamental intellectual freedoms. Quite the opposite.”

The idea that non-sentient infants can make promises or have promises made on their behalf is risible and very troubling to those literate in human rights law, she stated.

“The very idea that a childhood ceremony which we could not comprehend nor take an active part in, irrevocably binds us for life to a faith system and obedience to teachings which comprehensively impact our lives but into which we have no input, is risible.”

The mother and grandmother who served two terms as president of Ireland underlined how currently Canon Law makes no provision for the infant baptised to validate their Church membership when mature enough to do so. “The sacrament of Confirmation could do so, but it does not - instead it maintains the fiction of baptismal promises by asking us to renew them,” she said. 

“Canon Law offers us no exit strategy, brooks no dissenters, but rather provides serious penalties for those who leave or who oppose Church teachings. That this contradicts our God given human freedoms especially the freedom to make up our own minds is clear to an educated People of God and indeed many today exercise their human right to leave or stay while protesting and critiquing magisterial teaching.”

Unless you are one of the few who entered the Church as an adult catechumen, she said there never were baptismal promises made by infants.

“They are a fiction. And that is the ‘appalling vista’ too many in the Magisterium simply cannot face because it means that its authority over Church members as currently understood and exercised, is legally and morally questionable. It belongs to an old disintegrating empire of generals and conscripts  and it stands in the way of being Church that is a discipleship of equals and volunteers, members by choice not compulsion. There is not even the merest hint that this reality is up for discussion at the Synod of Bishops.”

Criticising Pope Francis for operating out of a “compulsion model”, she took issue with his recent words on the church teaching which excludes women from ordination, written in response to the Dubia raised by five cardinals. 

“I am here to say Holy Father, many of us have studied it deeply and prayerfully and are here to publicly contradict it for we have concluded that it is unscholarly sexist humbug masquerading as threadbare theology.”

She added that many catholic women are “tired of being spoken for”.

“We resent the recent pretentious words of the head of the Dicastery for Laity, Family and Life which is charged with responsibility for women in the Church that ‘the activities of women are exquisitely lay by their nature’. No, they are not; they are lay by misogynistic magisterial decree.

“It beggars belief that this same Dicastery until it was publicly challenged, up to very recently, published on its website as recommended texts, the words of Tertullian which in 230AD, addressed women as, ‘the devil’s gateway: you are the unsealer of that [forbidden] tree: you are the first deserter of the divine law: you are she who persuaded him whom the devil was not valiant enough to attack. You destroyed so easily God’s image, man. On account of your desert – that is, death – even the Son of God had to die’.”

Regretting that there is no mention of a “discipleship of equals” in the working document for the Synod of Bishops, she said any positive references to the human rights of Church members was also absent. “Instead, you will find scathing dismissals of human rights.”

Recalling Pope Francis’ words on his way back from the World Youth Day in Lisbon last August, when challenged by journalists about the exclusion of women and the demonising of LGBTIQ+ Catholics by the Magisterium, the Pope said, “The Church is open to everyone but there are laws that regulate life inside the Church.

McAleese told the international assembly of reform groups, “We dare to suggest that the laws that regulate life inside the Church do not all bear scrutiny, are often oppressive and are not consonant with the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child. They are at odds with a God of love and a discipleship of equals.”

She said the synodal process offers a real opportunity to recalibrate the shape of internal laws, structures and relationships, to drive towards a Christ-centred discipleship of equals but only if the magisterium listens humbly and recognises that a new leaven is at work among the People of God.

“It is now apparent that the People of God are no longer bending the knee to the Magisterium. Beginning in the West they are now actively dismantling what is widely accepted is a dysfunctional magisterial culture and its long list of unchristian teachings. They are doing it from the bottom up, hollowing out misogynistic, homophobic, judgmental and legalistic hierarchical authority by challenging, ignoring or bypassing it.”

Reform, she said, will require a new legal infrastructure which unequivocally accepts the principle of equality of all Church members and accepts their inalienable and indivisible human rights.

Church personnel will need training in internalising the principles of equality and intellectual freedoms at all and especially the highest levels of Church leadership. Church governance structures will have to change and will have to be based on equality.

“To be credible it will require agreed plans, programs, measured outcomes for the delivery of equality, inclusive decision-making and accountability mechanisms and strict gender quotas to redress historical imbalances. There is no other way to harness the energies and talents of all Church members, or to truly honour Christ’s mission and open the horizon of hope the Synod is praying for.”

  Loading ...
Get Instant Access
Subscribe to The Tablet for just £7.99

Subscribe today to take advantage of our introductory offers and enjoy 30 days' access for just £7.99