Mary McAleese and St John Paul

Sir, – Dr Mary McAleese (Letters, November 8th) defends her recent remarks on Pope John Paul II in light of my critique of them (Letters, November 7th).

I argued that her remarks indicated shoddy scholarly treatment of the pope because they completely misinterpret a passage of one of his writings by suggesting that he morally endorsed rape.

Her response seems to concede the point that the pope’s relevant writing did not amount to the endorsement of rape. This is welcome. Instead, she argues that in her original remarks it was “explicitly stated” by her that she “was not talking about the sex act at all” but simply using a “description of rape” contained in the Pope’s writings to make a point about how women are treated in the church today.

In fact, no such explicit statement by her is found in the relevant section of the original address (available online at While her remarks were concerned with the position of women in the church they also implied that the pope not merely described what amounts to an act of rape but actually taught that rape is somehow justifiable. This is clear from the context of her remarks (which she accuses me of overlooking).


For she introduces her quotation of the pope by saying, without qualification, "This is his description of sex in marriage." After quoting the impugned passage, she favourably quotes a moral theologian who "called out" the pope (and said what Dr McAleese describes as "obvious") by asking, "Can this really be Catholic Church teaching? It sounds like rape." Then she contrasted subsequent church treatment of the pope (canonised) with its treatment of the theologian in question (silenced), before indignantly declaring, "That's our church".

These remarks of Dr McAleese do not make sense unless she was implying that the pope did once teach that (marital) rape could be morally permissible. Tellingly, neither when her audience gasped at her decontextualised quotation of the pope nor when the chairperson commented “that is shocking” did Dr McAleese offer a clarification.

It can be extremely difficult to speak publicly on complex, emotive topics while being precise and nuanced in everything you say. No one does so perfectly all of the time – no one. Our former president would be setting a genuinely brave example to all if she acknowledged that her remarks in this instance were unfair. – Yours, etc,


Lecturer in Theology

and Religious Studies,

Mary Immaculate College,