The Catholic Church: An Empire of Misogyny? Mary Lewis LLM responds to Mary McAleese.

The following is a guest post written by Mary Lewis LLM of the Iona Institute NI.


Former Irish President Mary McAleese recently excoriated the Catholic Church as an “Empire of Misogyny.”  The lack of women in leadership roles within the church and the lack of strong role models for women to look up to within the Church, led her to make this accusation. Since her denunciation, the media has been awash with reaction, including a poll by Liberal.ie which concluded that 80% of Irish people agreed with her. I for one – an Irish Catholic woman, wife, mother and barrister and more recently a student of theology, disagree.


The earthly leader of the Catholic Church is the Pope and he has always been male. Well, why couldn’t a female be a Pope, a bishop or even a mere priest? That misses the point, earthly leaders, whether male or female, are nothing before Christ the King. Christ selected twelve apostles, all of whom were male. That cannot just be glossed over.  “Christ Jesus, who although God, …emptied himself, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient unto death, even death on a cross.” (Phil 2:5-9).

Christ, who instituted the male priesthood, is our guide on all things including who is called to be a priest. Above all, Christ came to serve, even though He is all powerful. He did not “cling to his equality with God,” (Phil2:5-9) so mere human beings should not seek self-aggrandisement either. Instead we must be obedient to His will.

This apostolic tradition of a male only priesthood must be followed, if we are to be true to Christ’s name. The sacrifice made by those men called to be priests, is analogous to the sacrifice Christ made for the Church- his bride. This nuptial meaning remains important, perhaps more so nowadays, when the meaning of marriage is under scrutiny and even attack.


As for female role models in the church, it is amazing that Mary McAleese has failed to notice the dozens of women saints the Church venerates daily- starting with Mary the Mother of God, whose name she shares. Our Lady was chosen by God as mother of Christ. She accepted with humility the greatest role a human being has ever been offered. Without Our Lady’s assent, Christ would not have been born and there would have been no sacrifice by Christ in His Passion and Resurrection, much less a priesthood. Essentially the Catholic church would not have existed without her. No woman should feel belittled or inferior because of Christ’s selection of men for priesthood any more than a man should resent not being selected as mother of God.

There are many Catholic women who have led extraordinary lives in the Church. I can quickly think of three who were around during Mary McAleese’s lifetime: Firstly, Mother Angelica who founded a global television network for evangelization on a shoestring. Secondly St Teresa of Kolkata (Mother Teresa) who is widely revered for her love and care for the poorest and most neglected and who had an ability to inspire and influence world leaders as well as the ordinary person in the pew. Her own personal struggles in her faith have been an encouragement to many to persevere when struggles arise, as they always do in life. Thirdly St Katharine Drexel was a wealthy heiress who set up a religious community of sisters serving the Native American and African communities in particular in the United States. She was an educationalist and missionary with an immense love for the Eucharist.

Going back some centuries to the fourteenth century, the great Dominican Saint- St Catherine of Siena was a mystic, philosopher and theologian. She is now regarded as a Doctor of the Church. She travelled widely throughout Europe including to Avignon where she met Pope Gregory XI and is credited with having prevailed upon him to return to Rome from his exile in Avignon.

The truth is that seeking leadership should not be the primary goal for any Catholic, male or female. Rather we should emulate St John the Baptist’s advice: “He (Christ) must increase that I may decrease.” (John 3:30)

This message is easily forgotten nowadays, possibly because “Our world no longer hears God because it is constantly speaking, at a devastating speed and volume, in order to say nothing.” (The Power of Silence Cardinal Robert Sarah, p. 74(2017)).