Unequal treatment of women the greatest challenge for the Catholic Church

It is hard to point to anything Archbishop Martin has done to change the church’s attitude to women

Former president Mary McAleese addressing  a Voices of Faith conference in Rome on March 8th. Photograph: Patsy McGarry

Former president Mary McAleese addressing a Voices of Faith conference in Rome on March 8th. Photograph: Patsy McGarry

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Today, March 13th, is the fifth anniversary of the election of Pope Francis. In the years since I don’t think he has ever been challenged in quite the manner he was last Thursday by Mary McAleese at the Why Women Matter conference in Rome.

Her language was strong, and her tone had an underlying anger. Some have criticised her for this. I am in no position to do so, having spent most of my life as a member of the clerical elite and not having any personal experience of what it is like for a woman in the Catholic Church.

She accused the church of misogyny. Was she correct? Historically there is no question. Misogyny was rampant in the church for many centuries. The early fathers engaged in theological debates wondering if women had souls. Even as far down as the 12th century, Thomas Aquinas described women as “mis-shapen men”, and clearly saw them as inferior beings.

During the Middle Ages, in the era of the Inquisition, many great women mystics were persecuted, and some burned at the stake, condemned as witches. So, as far as I am concerned there is no argument: the church has a very unfortunate history of misogyny.

This attitude had its origins in the writings of Greek philosophers, who greatly influenced early church thinking, and definitely not in Jesus or the Gospels.

Priesthood

What about the present day? Is it still valid to accuse the church of misogyny? Mrs McAleese makes a strong point.

I find the archbishop endlessly frustrating with his ability to come out with statements like this, and at the same time do little or nothing to bring about change

The church decrees only men can be ordained to the priesthood. It also retains, and shows no sign of changing, a system where all positions of authority and influence can only be filled by people who are ordained. This is clear structural discrimination. Put whatever name you wish on it, it is wrong, unjust and unsustainable in the modern world.

I have no doubt that the unequal treatment of women is the greatest challenge facing the Catholic Church, and on how it deals with this will greatly determine its credibility into the future.

I was pleased to see Archbishop Diarmuid Martin’s statement after Mrs. McAleese’s talk: “Probably the most significant negative factor that influences attitudes to the church in today’s Ireland is the place of women in the church. I am not saying that just because of the comments in these days by [former] President McAleese.”

I find the archbishop endlessly frustrating with his ability to come out with statements like this, and at the same time do little or nothing to bring about change.

It is hard to point to anything he has done in his time in Dublin to change the church’s attitude to women. I urge him, now that he has only two years left in his position, to begin to use his considerable influence on church leadership to speed things up.

‘Catch 22’

He has a great opportunity next August, with the World Meeting of Families and Pope Francis due to visit the country, to make a clear and strong statement on what needs to be done to break through this “catch 22” situation faced by women in the church that Mrs McAleese highlighted.

Blocking Mrs McAleese – and two other women – from speaking at the Why Women Matter conference due to be held in the Vatican on International Women’s Day was unwise in the extreme

I have no doubt that he recognises the problems. I wish he would spell out what he sees are the ways forward for the church to find solutions.

My last comment is on Cardinal Kevin Farrell, prefect of the Dicastery for Laity, Family and Life, in the Vatican. This man, a native of Dublin who served as a priest and a bishop in the US, was considered to be one of the more open-minded people in the Vatican.

He has been a great disappointment, and the fact that he is the main organiser of the World Meeting of Families does not bode well. What he did in blocking Mrs McAleese – and two other women – from speaking at the Why Women Matter conference due to be held in the Vatican on International Women’s Day was unwise in the extreme.

Very sensitive time

At this very sensitive time in the church, and with a pope who talks about openness and listening, to be seen to ban the voices of women was lacking in any sort of political astuteness.

It only served to turn the conference – which was moved instead to a venue outside the Vatican – into a major international event, and to guarantee that whatever Mrs McAleese said would get coverage all over the world.

What happens to men when they get into that toxic atmosphere of the Vatican?

Father Tony Flannery is a Redemptorist priest

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