Project Description

Mary McAleese (Ireland) was the President of Ireland from 1997 – 2011. In 1987 she returned to her Alma Mater, Queen’s University of Belfast, to become Director of the Institute of Professional Legal Studies, and in 1994, she became the University’s first female Pro-Vice Chancellor. In 2010 she received a Master’s degree in canon law from the national University of Ireland, and in 2013 a licentiate from the Gregorian University in Rome.

Watch Mary McAleese give this speech at the Voices of Faith event in Rome on International Women’s Day – 8th March, 2018

Read Mary McAleese, “The Time is Now for Change in the Catholic Church” in Visions and Vocations:

Keynote address at Voices of Faith International Women’s Day Conference, “Why Women Matter,” 8th March 2018, Jesuit Curia, Rome.[1]

The historical oppression of women has deprived the human race of untold resources. Recognition of the equality in dignity and fundamental rights of women and men, and guaranteeing access by all women to the full exercise of those rights will have far-reaching consequences and will liberate enormous reserves of intelligence and energy sorely needed in a world that is groaning for peace and justice (per Mary Anne Glendon, Head of the Delegation of the Holy See to the Fourth World Conference on Women, Beijing, 5 September 1995.)[2]

The Israelites under Joshua’s command circled Jericho’s walls for seven days, blew trumpets and shouted to make the walls fall down.[3] We don’t have trumpets but we have voices, voices of faith and we are here to shout, to bring down our Church’s walls of misogyny. We have been circling these walls for 55 years since John XXIII’s encyclical Pacem in Terris first pointed to the advancement of women as one of the most important “signs of the times:”

They are demanding both in domestic and in public life the rights and duties which belong to them as human persons” The longstanding inferiority complex of certain classes because of their economic and social status, sex, or position in the State, and the corresponding superiority complex of other classes, is rapidly becoming a thing of the past (PT 41-43).

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At the Second Vatican Council, Archbishop Paul Hallinan of Atlanta warned the bishops to stop perpetuating “the secondary place accorded to women in the Church of the 20th century” and to avoid the Church being a “late-comer in [their] social, political and economic development.”[4] The Council’s decree Apostolicam Actuositatem said it was important that women “participate more widely […] in the various sectors of the Church’s apostolate” (AA 9). The Council’s pastoral constitution Gaudium et Spes said the elimination of discrimination based on gender was a priority (cf. GS 29). Paul VI even commissioned a study on women in Church and Society, which reported in 1976.[5] Surely, we thought then, the postconciliar Church was on the way to full equality for its 600 million female members. And yes – it is true that since the Council new roles and jobs have opened up to the laity, including women, but these have simply marginally increased the visibility of women in subordinate roles, including in the Curia. They have added nothing to their decision-making power or their voice. Remarkably since the Council, roles which were specifically designated as suitable for the laity have been deliberately closed to women. The stable roles of acolyte and lector[6] and the permanent deaconate[7] have been opened only to lay men. Why? Both laymen and women can be temporary altar servers but bishops are allowed to ban females, and where they permit them in their dioceses individual pastors can ban them in their parishes.[8] Why?

Back in 1976 we were told that the Church does not consider herself authorized to admit women to priestly ordination (IS). This has locked women out of any significant role in the Church’s leadership and authority structure. Yet in justice their very permanent exclusion from priesthood should have provoked the Church to find innovative ways of including women’s voices as of right in the divinely instituted College of Bishops and the man-made entities such as the College of Cardinals, the Synod of Bishops and episcopal conferences.

Just imagine the normative scenario: Pope Francis calls a Synod on Women and 350 male celibates advise the Pope on what women really want. That is how ludicrous our Church has become. How long can the hierarchy sustain the credibility of a God who wants things this way, who wants a Church where women and are invisible and voiceless in leadership and decision-making?

It was here in this very hall[9] in 1995 that Irish Jesuit theologian, Fr Gerry O’Hanlon put his finger on the underpinning systemic problem when he steered Decree 1411 through the Jesuits’ 34th General Congregation. It is a forgotten document, but today we will dust it down and use it to challenge a Jesuit Pope, a reforming Pope, to real, practical action on behalf of women in the Catholic Church.

Decree 14 says:

We have been part of a civil and ecclesial tradition that has offended against women. And, like many men, we have a tendency to convince ourselves that there is no problem. However unwittingly, we have often contributed to a form of clericalism which has reinforced male domination with an ostensibly divine sanction. By making this declaration we wish to react personally and collectively, and do what we can to change this regrettable situation.[10]

“The regrettable situation” arises because the Catholic Church has long since been a primary global carrier of the virus of misogyny. It has never sought a cure though a cure is freely available. Its name is “equality.”

Down the 2000 year highway of Christian history came the ethereal divine beauty of the Nativity, the cruel sacrifice of the Crucifixion, the Hallelujah of the Resurrection and the rallying cry of the great commandment to love one another. But down that same highway came man-made toxins such as misogyny and homophobia, to say nothing of antisemitism, with their legacy of damaged and wasted lives and deeply embedded institutional dysfunction.

The laws and cultures of many nations and faith systems were also historically deeply patriarchal and excluding of women – some still are – but today the Catholic Church lags noticeably behind the world’s advanced nations in the elimination of discrimination against women. Worse still, because it speaks from the “pulpit of the world,” to quote Ban Ki Moon,[11] its overt patriarchalism acts as a powerful brake on dismantling the architecture of misogyny wherever it is found. There is an irony here, for education has been crucial to the advancement of women and for many of us, the education which liberated us was provided by the Church’s frontline workers clerical and lay, who have done so much to lift men and women out of poverty and powerlessness and give them access to opportunity. Yet paradoxically it is the questioning voices of educated Catholic women and the men who support them, which the Church hierarchy simply cannot cope with and scorns rather than engaging in dialogue. The Church which regularly criticizes the secular world for its failure to deliver on human rights has almost no culture of critiquing itself and it has a hostility to internal criticism which borders on institutional idolatry.

Today we challenge Pope Francis to develop a credible strategy for the inclusion of women as equals throughout the Church’s root and branch infrastructure, including its decision-making. Failure to include women as equals has deprived the Church of fresh and innovative discernment; it has consigned it to recycled thinking among a hermetically sealed cosy male clerical elite. It has kept Christ out and bigotry in. It has left the Church flapping about awkwardly on one wing when God gave it two. We are entitled to hold our Church leaders to account for this and other egregious abuses of institutional power.

At the start of his papacy Pope Francis said, “We need to create still broader opportunities for a more incisive female presence in the Church” (EG 103) – words a Church scholar described as evidence of Francis’ “magnanimity.”[12] Let us be clear: women’s right to equality in the Church should arise organically from divine justice, not ad hoc from papal benevolence.

Pope Francis described female theologians as the “strawberries on the cake.”[13] He was wrong. Women are the leaven in the cake. They are primary handers on of the faith to their children. In the Western world the Church’s cake is not rising, the baton of faith is dropping. Women are walking away from the Catholic Church in droves, for those who are expected to be key influencers in their children’s faith formation have no opportunity to be key influencers in the formation of the Catholic faith. Just four months ago the Archbishop of Dublin, Diarmuid Martin, felt compelled to remark that “the low standing of women in the Catholic Church is the most significant reason for the feeling of alienation towards it in Ireland today.”[14]

Pope Francis has said that “women are more important than men because the Church is a woman.”[15] Why not ask women if they feel more important than men? I suspect many will answer that they experience the Church as a male bastion of patronizing platitudes.

John Paul II has written of the “mystery of women” (MD 31). Talk to us as equals and we will not be a mystery! Francis has said a “deeper theology of women”[16] is needed. God knows it would be hard to find a more shallow theology of women than the misogyny dressed up as theology[17] which the magisterium currently hides behind.

And all the time a deeper theology is staring us in the face. It does not require much digging to find it. Just look to Christ. John Paul II pointed out that:

[W]e are heirs to a history which has conditioned us to a remarkable extent. In every time and place, this conditioning has been an obstacle to the progress of women. … Transcending the established norms of his own culture, Jesus treated women with openness, respect, acceptance and tenderness. … .As we look to Christ … it is natural to ask ourselves: how much of his message has been heard and acted upon?[18]

Women are best qualified to answer that question but we are left to talk among ourselves. No Church leader bothers to turn up because we do not matter to them.

Back in this hall in 1995 the Jesuit Congregation asked God for the grace of conversion from a patriarchal Church to a Church of equals, where women truly matter. Only such a Church is worthy of Christ. Only such a Church can credibly make Christ matter. The time for that Church is now. Pope Francis, the time for change is now.

[1] See We are grateful to Voices of Faith and to Mary McAleese for permission to publish this address.

[2] Holy See Statement of Professor Mary Ann Glendon, Head of the Delegation of the Holy See to the Fourth World Conference on Women, Beijing, 5 September 1995, at

[3] Cf. Joshua 6:1-20.

[4] Cf. Fr. P. Jordan O.S.B., NCWC News Rome correspondent, “Changes proposed in role of women in the Church,” posted 12 October 1965, changes-proposed-in-role-of-women-in-the-church/

[5] Cf. Edward J. Kilmartin, S.J., “Full Participation of Women in the Life of the Catholic Church” in James A. Coriden (ed.), Sexism and Church Law (New York, Ramsey NJ, Toronto: Paulist Press, 1977), 109-135, at

[6] 1983 Code of Canon Law, can. 230 §1. Cf. Paul VI, Ministeria Quaedam (MQ), n. 2-4, 7: “Formerly called the minor orders [of acolyte and lector], they are henceforth to be called ministries. Ministries may be assigned to lay Christians; hence they are no longer to be considered as reserved to candidates for the sacrament of orders. … In accordance with the ancient tradition of the Church, institution to the ministries of reader and acolyte is reserved to men.”

[7] 1983 Code of Canon Law, can. 1031 §2

[8] Congregation for Divine Worship and Discipline of the Sacraments, “Letter on possible admission of girls, adult women and women religious to serve alongside boys as servers in the Liturgy,” 27 July 2001, at

[9] McAleese was speaking in the Aula of the Jesuit Curia in Rome.

[10] General Congregation 34 (1995), “Decree 14: Jesuits and the Situation of Women in Church and Civil Society,” at The decree was written with the help of, among others, two Irish laywomen, Cathy Molloy and Edel O’Kennedy. For the background to the Decree cf. Margot J. Heydt, “Solving the Mystery of Decree 14: Jesuits and the Situation of Women in Church and Civil Society,” 15 September 2015, Conversations On Jesuit Higher Education, at

[11] UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon’s remarks to the UN General Assembly on the occasion of the visit by His Holiness Pope Francis, New York, 25 September 2015, at

[12] Phyllis Zagano, “What the Pope Really Said,” National Catholic Reporter, 25 September 2013, at

[13] Pope Francis, “Address to Members of the International Theological Commission, 5 December 2014, at Cf. Hanna Roberts, “Women Theologians are the ‘strawberry on the cake’, says Pope,” The Tablet, 11 December 2014, at

[14] From a talk entitled “The Church in Dublin: where will it be in 10 years’ time?” at St Mary’s Church, Haddington Road, as reported in the Irish Times, 16 November 2017.

[15] Response of Pope Francis to a question from a journalist: “Will we one day see women priests in the Catholic Church?” on papal plane returning to Rome from the United States, 29 September, 2015. Cf.

[16] Interview with journalists on board plane on way to Rio de Janeiro, 22 July 2013. Cf. John Allen, “The Pope on Homosexuals: ‘Who am I to judge?’”, National Catholic Reporter, 29 July 2013, at

[17] Cf. Manfred Hauke, Women in the priesthood. A Systematic Analysis in the Light of the Order of Creation and Redemption (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1988).

[18] Pope John Paul II, “Letter to Women,” 29 June 1995: 3, [/expand]