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Here’s the Story:
A Memoir

by mary mcaleese
sandycove, 416 pages, £20

Mary McAleese is known to some as Ireland’s second female president, a position she held for fourteen years. She is known to others as a prominent Catholic laywoman and a critic of her Church’s teaching, a role she has assumed in the nine years since she left office. Her new memoir deals with both roles, McAleese the head of state and McAleese the religious polemicist, but the book is a partial account—in both senses of the word.

McAleese was born to a Catholic family in Belfast in 1951. She spent most of her career as an ­academic lawyer, first at Trinity College, ­Dublin and then back at Queen’s in Belfast. In the 1980s, she emerged as a leading lay figure in Irish Catholicism. She became an advisor to the hierarchy and a member of Church ­delegations; she gained prominence as an ­ecumenist.

Ecumenism matters still to Mary McAleese. Much is made in her memoir of her close relationships with Protestants on both sides of the Irish border; much, too, is said about her efforts as president to establish a connection with the Orange Order. But her description of that Protestant organisation as “virulently anti-­Catholic” is too sweeping: Its members range from extremists to the relatively moderate; and it is not the case (as she claims) that ­Orangemen who attend Catholic services are expelled automatically from the society.

A certain tribalism on the part of Mary McAleese became evident fifteen years ago when, in an interview before she visited Auschwitz, she discussed anti-Catholicism in Northern Ireland. In Here’s the Story, she writes that she compared such sectarian views to anti-Semitism. In fact, she went further: She compared them to Nazism. The equation of Protestantism with Hitlerism was hardly consistent with her professions of ecumenism. She apologized at the time for her remarks and does so again in this book, but our sense of her contrition is lessened by her failure to be candid about what she really said.

In any case, a reader might be justified in finishing Here’s the Story with the thought that Mary McAleese can match any Paisleyite in the strength of her distaste for the Church. She has practiced Catholicism all her life; her belief that she was protected by Our Lady from an attack by so-called “loyalist” terrorists on the Feast of the Immaculate Conception in 1972 testifies to a certain piety.

Nevertheless, her hostility to the Church—its teaching and its clergy—emerges repeatedly in Here’s the ­Story. The late Monsignor Denis Faul—a headmaster, patristics scholar, and prominent critic of the Provisional IRA—is described as “offensively sectarian,” apparently because of his orthodoxy.

Cardinal Desmond Connell, the academic philosopher and late Archbishop of Dublin, is written off as “a dull personality.” Another priest and canon lawyer is called “vain and pompous.” The Vatican is a “camp medieval court.” Pope Francis is “all talk and no action.” The Church is “an empire of misogyny.”

Mary McAleese’s quarrel with the Church is not confined to personalities. Elsewhere she dismisses the Catholic doctrine on the ordination of women as “­codology [an Irish term for swindling] dressed up as theology.” She attacks Catholic teaching on sexuality as well: McAleese endorses “marriage equality” and “reproductive rights.” (She has announced that she has “no intention” of going to confession over her vote to overturn Ireland’s constitutional ban on abortion.)

McAleese has a thoroughly secularized view of Christianity. She praises an address given by Leo Varadkar, then the Irish head of government, at the state reception for Pope Francis when he visited Dublin. Varadkar called for “a new relationship between Church and State in Ireland . . . one in which religion is no longer at the centre of our society, but in which it still has an important place.” A vision of a society that does not have religion at its center is an odd thing for a Catholic to endorse.

After her retirement as president, Mary McAleese became a student of canon law at the Pontifical Gregorian University. Having taken a first degree in the subject, she started work on a doctorate, which that university awarded to her two years ago. In her thesis, she argues that infant baptism conflicts with human rights. Protestant evangelical arguments against infant baptism are based on the evangelical view of Scripture. McAleese’s outlook is closer to that of Richard Dawkins, who believes that a religious upbringing is a form of abuse.

It is remarkable that a dissertation questioning a foundational tenet of the Church’s teaching was approved for a degree by a Pontifical University. It is no less extraordinary that among those present at the defense of her thesis was Diarmuid Martin, Cardinal Connell’s successor in the see of Dublin. The Archbishop’s views on Mary McAleese’s rejection of a basic teaching of the Church remain obscure. In fact, very few Irish clergy have been willing to criticize Mary McAleese, fearing reprisals from the media and the great and the good. Some still worry that ­Ireland’s political leaders are too deferential to the Church. In light of the career of Mary McAleese, the reverse is closer to the truth.

C. D. C. Armstrong has written on early-modern religious history and twentieth-century Northern Ireland.

Photo by Irish Defence Forces via Creative Commons. Image cropped.

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