For many years, former president Mary McAleese was among the most respected and influential Catholics in Ireland.
Yet events in recent weeks have shown that this McAleese is long gone, and has been replaced by a vociferous critic of Catholicism, one who condemns parents for baptising their children and who has just voted to deny unborn children the constitutional right to be born.
She has left the Catholic Church, taken the first steps into joining the Anglican denomination, and yet McAleese continues to assail her former faith with ever greater intensity.
It was not always so. Younger readers will hardly remember McAleese’s tenure as President, let alone her long involvement in public life before her entry into the Áras.
McAleese’s religious credentials were once solid enough for the young barrister to have been a member of the Church’s delegation to the New Ireland Forum in 1984: a consultative forum aimed at establishing a path to peace in Northern Ireland. This was not a one-off. In 1996, she was on the Church delegation which sought to represent Catholic concerns regarding parading also.
Though she attracted criticism for taking communion in a Protestant church – an early sign of her attention-seeking tendencies – there was no doubting that President McAleese was a woman of faith.
Like all presidents, she regularly attended religious functions, but she went further by spending time each year with an enclosed order of nuns. While she occasionally made gestures towards liberalising the Church, her intentions seemed sincere, and after she left the office she even embarked on a doctorate in canon law in Rome.
All throughout this phase of her life, her views on the sanctity of human life also remained steadfast, and McAleese strongly denounced the idea that to be a feminist, one had to support abortion. She was also quick to draw attention to the glaring injustice of ending the lives of the most vulnerable people in the name of choice.
“There is a day coming when we will hear the voice from inside the womb, when its own authentic pain will be undeniable, when we will know with certainty that it is saying, ‘I want to live. I have a right to live. I do not need your permission to live,'” McAleese wrote in 1997.
Those words seem to have been written a long time ago, and by someone else entirely.
To be fair, McAleese has long been supportive of changes in Church teaching, as is her right, and the right of all Catholics. While Catholicism is not run along the lines of a co-operative society, and doctrine can never be made through democratic vote, there is nothing inherently wrong with Catholics debating issues within the Church.
Yet there is a time, and a place and a manner in which to discuss internal Church matters, especially within a society where many detest the central precepts of Christianity and the Church which teaches them.
The Church is a global community of believers, an enormous family transcending class, colour and country. All families have their disputes and difficulties, but just as someone should not castigate his family publicly, a prominent but loyal Catholic should not use her position to subject the faithful to a media circus. This especially so given the plethora of existing critics who simply foam at the mouth upon hearing an excoriation of the Roman Catholic Church by one of its own.
And yet as the years passed and McAleese’s distance from power grew, she has become more and more vituperative in her denunciation of the Church in which she had been raised and educated.
In 2015, she slammed the Church as being a “major conduit for homophobia, which is toxic – a form of hatred that has nothing to do with Christ and is un-Christian.”
She went much further again this year, in calling the Church an “empire of misogyny” – again, not the sort of rhetoric one associates with a person who supposedly loves the community and wishes that it be reformed.
In the same outburst, and with an abortion referendum looming at home, McAleese gave some indication of what she was about to do in declaring that a church which is “homophobic and anti-abortion is not the Church of the future.”
In her frequent condemnations of the Catholic Church, McAleese has played the part of the dissident Catholic magnificently, and our media has always been quick to use her as a battering ram against their bête noire: the Catholic Church. An endorsement of Repeal would have been given enormous publicity, and it was thought that it would have shifted tens of thousands of undecided voters towards the Repeal camp.
McAleese provoked concern when she criticised the wording of the Eighth Amendment in March, while appearing to agree with pro-choice obstetricians like Dr. Peter Boylan about how it affected medical care for pregnant women here.
Her son Justin, who is hoping to win a Dáil seat for Fianna Fáil, soon came out for unrestricted abortion up until 12 weeks. All the while, his mother remained on the sidelines, a constant source of worry to those who believed that her intervention could make all the difference. She did not intervene, and in the end it would likely have made no difference at all.
In the end McAleese did vote Yes to abortion, as she was happy to inform a crowd assembled at a Catholic school in South Dublin last week, adding for good measure that she had “no intention whatsoever” of going to confession.
That wasn’t all she did last week either, as she announced that she will not be attending the upcoming World Meeting of Families as it has “become a political rally rather than a religious and spiritual experience.”
In the same breath, she said that next Saturday she and her entire family would however be attending the Dublin Pride Parade. While Pride is surely the closest thing modern Ireland has to a religious or spiritual experience, it is difficult to see how it is not also a political rally, given how last year’s event was co-opted by serial Pridesmaid Leo Varadkar and his party colleagues.
Arguably the most serious Rubicon of all was crossed by McAleese late last week, when she stated that babies who are baptised into the Catholic Church were “infant conscripts” and that such baptisms violated fundamental human rights.
Such comments will be laughed off by most people, but they are no joke. Throughout history, totalitarian regimes have sought to prevent Christian families from raising their children in the Christian faith, and to this end some have classified religious instruction as a form of abuse.
McAleese’s hypocrisy in expressing concern about the fate of children who have their foreheads splashed with water a month after she voted to legalise the execution of countless unborn babies is perplexing.
So too is the fact that she has just been installed as Lay Canon in the Anglican church, a church which clearly asks few questions of those seeking to come aboard.
McAleese has left Catholicism behind her. She could at least have the decency not to join in the growing chorus of execration directed against the loyal few who continue to hold firm to their faith, and those wish to raise their sons and daughters in it too.