By John Cooney, religion correspondent
Mary McAleese’s robust dismissal of a decree from the Vatican Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith, which forbids priests blessing same-sex couples, constituted an escalation in her crusade to reform Roman Catholicism.
For some time, the Lady from Belfast’s Ardoyne has attacked her church’s traditional teaching on sexual ethics on same sex marriages, gender equality and misogyny.
But this time, she has been unconstrained in her personal criticism of Pope Francis, who approved publication of the monitum. Not only did she chide Il Papa Francesco for language that was “gratuitously cruel in the extreme”, she declared that “on a plane shooting the breeze with journalists, he is the populist Pope who is trumpeted as the great reformer, a label he seems to relish. Behind his desk he is the Pope who toes the old hard line.”
Mary McAleese, a distinguished former two term President of Ireland, formerly attached to the University of Glasgow.
In other words, she is calling Francis’s coming down on the side of the doctrinal body with its Putin-style tendency towards totalitarian pure papal bull. Harsh words indeed which raises the very serious question as to whether McAleese is now destined to be remembered in history not just as a distinguished former two term President of Ireland, but as a twenty-first century Martin Luther.
Although a widespread response among the faithful is a growing wish that she should go away and found her own Free Catholic Church, she is throwing disillusioned liberal Catholics a life-line.
There is a greater depth to her latest tirade than first meets the eye. Not only has McAleese mobilised support from her acolytes, the Irish Times and the London-based international Catholic weekly, The Tablet, she has requested a formal response from Eamon Martin, the Primate Archbishop of Armagh and head of the Irish Bishops’ Conference.
Clearly, her tactic is to elicit a positive stand from at least one member of the Irish hierarchy, most likely from Dermot Farrell, the new Archbishop of Dublin who has called for an inclusive church. If he does not do so, she has warned that a national synod of the Irish Church, which is being planned under the Martin-Farrell leadership, will be doomed to failure and Irish schoolchildren will continue to be exposed to homophobia.
The Augustinian monk, Iggy O’Donovan, added a touch of wry humour when he wrote that in the course of his priesthood he has blessed rams, cows, crops, matrimonial beds, cars, tractors and even weapons of war. “It seems strange to me a same sex couple who request a simple blessing on their union must be turned away,” he confessed. “But then: ‘Who am I to judge?’”.
It could be that on this issue the seemingly over-agitated Mary, and not Francis, will be judged to be on the right side of history. Francis is proving to be more like John Paul II than John XXIII.