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Kevin Cullen

Mary McAleese knows her place

Mary McAleese, the former president of Ireland, said, “I still believe the world needs the hope of God and the church as a conduit.”Globe photo/File

It is slightly funny to remember that when Mary McAleese was first elected president of Ireland, some considered her “too Catholic.”

McAleese, who served two terms and 14 years as president, was in town Thursday, guest speaker for the Irish American Partnership, a Boston-based philanthropy. Since leaving office in 2011, she has become a canon lawyer and remains an outspoken critic of the church she still loves.

We in Boston love hearing we are the greatest at anything, and the city fathers may be interested to learn that McAleese says the greatest single display of misogyny she ever encountered as head of state happened here in 1998, when she met the late Cardinal Bernard Law. Apparently, the good cardinal didn’t take kindly to McAleese’s stated belief that women should be allowed to be ordained as priests.


“I’m sorry for Catholic Ireland to have you as president,” Cardinal Law told her, she recalled.

Law proceeded to usher her into a room, ordering her to sit down and listen to the church’s orthodoxy on male priests as explained by one of his advisers, Mary Ann Glendon, a conservative Catholic lawyer.

Let’s just be charitable and note that when Cardinal Law was forced to resign in 2002 after it became abundantly clear that he had protected priests who were raping children, Mary McAleese wasn’t all that surprised.

The year after Law tried to humiliate McAleese, Law’s patron, Pope John Paul II, pulled the same thing. Upon meeting for the first time, the pope ignored her and instead reached to shake the hand of her husband, Martin, asking him, as she recounted it, “Would you not prefer to be the president of Ireland instead of your wife?”

Mary McAleese grew up in Ardoyne, perhaps the toughest neighborhood in Belfast, and I can say with some authority that the pope, like the cardinal before him, was fortunate to escape without an “Ardoyne kiss,” which in other, less decorous corners of the world is known as a head butt.


But, as she did with Law, McAleese took the high road and stood her ground, telling the pope, as she recalled for the Partnership, “You would never have done that to a male president. I’m the elected president of Ireland whether you like it or not.”

McAleese said that after leaving office, she moved to Rome “to qualify as a canon lawyer, because I reckoned my church was so dysfunctional in so many ways, particularly in attitudes to women.”

Last year, church officials barred McAleese from speaking at a Vatican conference to mark, ahem, International Women’s Day. But in response to the Vatican snub, the Jesuits suggested moving the conference to their place in Rome, outside the Vatican walls, and McAleese went from being a minor panelist to keynote speaker.

Funny how things work that way.

McAleese pushed for the 2015 referendum that legalized same-sex marriage in Ireland, speaking movingly of her son Justin, who is gay, and is now married.

As they spoke Thursday on a dais at the Boston Harbor Hotel, Anne Anderson, the first woman to serve as Ireland’s ambassador to the United States, asked McAleese why, given the way the Vatican treats her, and her utter frustration with the Vatican’s attitudes toward women, she remains a practicing Catholic.

McAleese said she stays because she knows good priests and nuns and lay people whose faith compels them to follow the teachings of Jesus Christ, to help the poor, to feed the homeless, to speak for the powerless, to just be ordinary decent people. She pointed to a good priest in the audience, Monsignor Liam Bergin.


“I still believe the world needs the hope of God and the church as a conduit,” McAleese told me later.

But she compared the institutional church to a chicken with one wing. Chickens with one wing flap around helplessly. By relying on one wing, a male one, the church is wasting the talent of the other wing. With two wings, Mary McAleese suggests, even a chicken can do good things.

Kevin Cullen is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at cullen@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @GlobeCullen.