Breda O'Brien: A simple, dignified apology from McAleese would suffice

Former president should say she never intended to imply Pope John Paul II endorsed marital rape

In the 1950s, a young Polish priest was lecturing in ethics at the Catholic University of Lublin (KUL), a university which not long previously had been closed by the Nazis. At the time, KUL was under severe restrictions by the Soviet regime, which loathed the university’s courage and academic independence.

The young priest developed a lively student discussion and social action group. From this and his work with young engaged and married couples a book grew, called Love and Responsibility. Written before both the Second Vatican Council and the 1960s sexual revolution, it was far ahead of its time in its frank discussion of sexuality, insisting that love definitively rules out ever using another person and that women were entitled to satisfying sex lives.

For instance, the author points out that women have more erogenous zones than men. He says that love for spouses means learning about each other’s bodies so that both can fully enjoy sexual climax. He insists that men be unselfish in sex.

However inadvertently, by citing Wojtyla in this way to make this point, McAleese attributes to the author the very opposite position to the one that he holds

The young priest was Karol Wojtyla, later Pope John Paul II. At a recent conference, Mary McAleese chose a passage from Love and Responsibility where Wojtyla states that, from a physiological point of view, a man could have sexual intercourse even if a women were asleep or unconscious. It is worth watching the former president's delivery of this passage.


Here is the transcript: “If you’ll just bear with me, can 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 are talking about a recent pope from his book Love and Responsibility. This is his description of marriage, of sex in marriage. It’s a short thing. “It is in 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 to 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 [gasps from the audience] while she is in a state in which she has no awareness at all of what is happening – for instance, when she is asleep or unconscious.” [More gasps] “This is how we are treated in the church, expected to be asleep or unconscious while men get on with doing what they have to do. And here is the sequel to that: when Fr Seán Fagan called Pope John Paul out on that and said the obvious, he asked a question; he said, can this really be the Catholic church teaching? He said it sounds like rape. What happened? Pope John Paul becomes a saint, Seán Fagan becomes silenced. That’s our church.”

Opposite position

However inadvertently, by citing Wojtyla in this way to make this point, McAleese attributes to the author the very opposite position to the one that he holds.

The book is widely available and speaks for itself. Mere paragraphs after the passage quoted by Dr McAleese, Wojtyla insists that intercourse should never lead to climax for the man alone, “but that climax must be reached in harmony, not at the expense of one partner, but with both partners fully involved”. It is followed by: “Love demands that the reactions of the other person, the sexual partner, be fully taken into account.” He believes the physiological aspect of sex must always be put at the service of authentic, selfless love.

When subsequenlty challenged (in the letters page of this paper) for choosing a passage taken out of context as a description of Wojtyla’s teaching on sex and marriage, McAleese declared that she has been misunderstood. She “explicitly stated” that she “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”.


When taken to task again by Dr Tom Finegan, she suggested in a further letter that it is was due to the influence of the church's canon law that marital rape was only criminalised in Ireland in 1990.

Why choose an extract and present it in a way that allows an inaccurate and highly damaging impression of the author's views to be formed?

That canon law was a key causal factor seems unlikely, given that Britain, which has not been Catholic since 1536, only recognised marital rape as a crime in 1991. Be that as it may, the central question remains: when seeking an analogy for how she believes women in the church are treated, why choose an extract and present it in a way that allows an inaccurate and highly damaging impression of the author’s views to be formed?

Given her status as a highly regarded former president, theologian and university chancellor, the dignified thing for Mary McAleese to do would be to issue a simple statement along the lines of: “I never intended to imply that Karol Wojtyla endorsed marital rape and if any impression was given that he did, I am sorry.”