Women and the church

Sir, – At a recent conference in Trinity College Dublin, Mary McAleese quoted a section of Pope John Paul II's book Love and Responsibility to indicate "how we [women] are treated in the church" (News, November 2nd).

According to Dr McAleese, the section she quotes displays a massively negative view of women, so negative that she considers the theologian Fr Seán Fagan correct to state that the passage in question sounds like the endorsement of rape.

What Dr McAleese’s remarks really indicate, however, is shoddy scholarly treatment of the deceased pope. The relevant quote by Dr. McAleese of the pope is, “For the purpose of the sexual act it is enough for her [the woman] to be passive and unresisting, so much so that it can even take place without her volition while she is in a state where she has no awareness at all of what is happening – for instance when she is asleep or unconscious” (Love and Responsibility, page 271).

Her quotation contains an error: the late pope’s book refers to “purposes”, not “purpose”. And as a biological statement (“For the purposes of the sexual act …”) what the pope states is uncontroversially true. But from this it obviously does not follow that rape, which the pope condemned as “always an intrinsically evil act” in the Catechism (2356), is somehow ever morally permissible. John Paul II did not see human sex as simply a matter of biology. Rather, it has an interpersonal meaning sourced in love, with love defined by him as “an ambition to ensure the true good of another person”.


Hence on the very next page after the passage Dr McAleese finds so offensive we read the following ethical – in contradistinction to biological – statement on sex, “From the point of view of another person, from the altruistic standpoint, it is necessary to insist that intercourse must not serve merely as a means of allowing sexual excitement to reach its climax in one of the partners, ie, the man alone, but that climax must be reached in harmony, not at the expense of one partner, but with both partners fully involved.” (Love and Responsibility, page 272).

On the page after this the pope warns against male sexual “egoism” which “seeks only his own pleasure” and fails “to recognise the subjective desires of the woman in intercourse” (page 273). – Yours, etc,


Lecturer in Theology

and Religious Studies,

Mary Immaculate College,


Sir, – The Catholic Church has had decades of centuries to ponder the significance of women in the church and “their role”, singular.

Whether this role is of and for women, has the church been happy with being challenged of late by learned high-profile committed female members? And if not, why not? – Yours, etc,


Dublin 12.