Influential liberal theologian Fr Enda McDonagh dies aged 90

President recalls his involvement in campaigns for women’s and Travellers’ rights

Fr Enda McDonagh, an influential and liberal theologian in the Catholic Church and former Maynooth University professor of moral theology, has died aged 90.

Tributes have been led by President Michael D Higgins, who said news of the death will have been heard with the greatest sadness and sense of loss by all those of his friends, students and listeners at the many events he attended, “events he always enriched with his generous and deep compassionate scholarship”.

Mr Higgins added: “He will be missed by so many for a multitude of good reasons. To his family, people of Mayo of whom he was so fond, his colleagues and friends, of whom we were honoured to be part, Sabina and I send our condolences.”

Fr McDonagh was born in Bekan, a small village in Co Mayo, and aged 28 was appointed Professor of Moral Theology and Canon Law in Maynooth University. He had received his first degree, a bachelor of science, in 1951, and his doctorate in 1957.


He was heavily involved in intellectual discussions on the direction of the Catholic Church for many decades, and was widely seen as a liberal and forward-thinking figure.

In opposition to Archbishop John Charles McQuaid and the Catholic hierarchy, he questioned Humanae Vitae, the encyclical which reaffirmed the Church's ban on artificial contraception in the late 1960s. He also advocated for women to be permitted to play a greater role in the Church.

He was a long-time friend of former taoiseach the late Garret FitzGerald, and was believed to be influential in the Fine Gael leader's more liberal Catholic outlook. Fr McDonagh delivered Mr FitzGerald's funeral Mass in 2011.

He served on the senate of the National University of Ireland for many years, and was a member of the Higher Education Authority for several years.

He was also the official chaplain to Mary Robinson during her Presidency.

He previously held the presidency of the National Conference of Priests of Ireland, was a founder of the Irish Theological Association and was twice elected president of the Irish Federation of University Teachers.

Renowned as an influential thinker, he authored a number of books and articles on theological topics. For many years he also worked with non-governmental organisations helping those suffering from AIDS in Africa and Asia.

Fr McDonagh, who turned 90 last June, had been in a nursing home, and died in St Vincent’s Hospital on Wednesday morning following a fall.

Mr Higgins said Fr McDonagh’s approach to philosophy, combined with a great personal capacity to communicate, meant that he was “always in demand where conflicts had sown divisions, as someone who could transcend reductive binaries”.

The President described Fr McDonagh as a person of courage.

“Being a most prominent and quoted defender of the right to personal conscience meant that he had to have courage, and he had it, delivering it again and again, often in circumstances where his defence of the integrity of conscience would result in exclusions, or distancing, from those for whom he had the warmest and respectful feelings, but who were adamant in their differences,” he said.

“There are many who will recall, and I hope write of, his commitment to ecumenism, and the work that might bring an enabling peace on our island and in our relationship with others.

“May I just say that his sensitivity to the poor at home and abroad meant that he could see the significance of the work of the Liberation Theology Movement as not only emancipatory, but also as a walking in the spirit of Christ with the excluded, the oppressed, and the unjustly treated. He brought the same perspective to the role he supported for women as equals in participation in Church and society.

“His, I recall so well, was the generous spirit that so many turned to, again and again, on public campaigns, when denunciations were so often more forthcoming than support, be it in relation to the ending of Apartheid, women’s rights, Travellers’ rights. He was always there to listen and support.”

Jack Power

Jack Power

Jack Power is acting Europe Correspondent of The Irish Times