Theologians have accused former Irish President Mary McAleese of misquoting John Paul II to give the impression that he justified the rape of women.

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Last Saturday McAleese gave a talk at Trinity College Dublin with the US nun and theologian Joan Chittister under the heading “The Women The Vatican Couldn’t Silence”.

According to The Irish Times, in her talk McAleese, the recently-appointed Chancellor of TCD, quoted a description of sex offered by John Paul II in his book Love and Responsibility.

McAleese said that the Polish pope wrote that:

“It is the very nature of the act that the man plays the active role and takes the initiative while the woman is a comparatively passive partner whose function it is to accept and experience.

“For the purpose of the sexual act it is enough for her to be passive and unresisting, so much so that it can even take place without her volition while she is in a state where she has no awareness at all of what is happening – for instance when she is asleep or unconscious”.

“That is how we [women] are treated in the Church”, McAleese concluded.

McAleese recalled that moral theologian Fr. Seán Fagan “called Pope John Paul out on that and said the obvious. He asked a question. He said: ‘Can this really be Catholic Church teaching? It sounds like rape.’

“What happened? Pope John Paul become a saint. Seán Fagan becomes silenced. That’s our Church”.


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After McAleese’s talk, theologians and others were quick to point out that the former Irish president had attributed to John Paul II the very view the late Pope in fact argues against in Love and Responsibility, and in other places.

The Jesuit Kevin O’Higgins pointed out on Twitter that directly after the passage quoted by McAleese, John Paul II said the following:

“From the viewpoint of loving another person, from the position of altruism, it must be required that the conjugal act should serve not merely to reach the climax of sexual arousal on one side, i.e., that of a man, but happen in harmony, not at the other person’s expense, but with that person’s involvement.

“This follows precisely from the position of the principle already thoroughly analyzed, which excludes use and demands love in relation to the person. And love demands in this case that the reactions of the other person, of the partner, be taken fully into consideration”.

O’Higgins pointed out that McAleese’s quote from John Paul II gave the former Pope’s account of what can happen in a relationship, not what should happen.

“It most certainly is NOT John Paul’s description of marriage or sex in marriage!”, the Jesuit emphasised, accusing McAleese of a “total misrepresentation” of Wojtyla’s thought.

Why it matters

Dr. Catherine Kavanagh, a philosopher at Mary Immaculate College in Limerick told The Irish Catholic that it was “very disappointing to see a scholar of Prof. McAleese’s calibre misrepresent the thought of the then Prof. Karol Wojtyla”.

“This is almost as though one were to accuse an historian of World War II of Nazi sympathies, because such a scholar begins with an account of the problems in post-World War I Germany that contributed to the rise of Nazism”, Kavanagh said.

“It is disappointing that she [McAleese] did not take the trouble to check her sources properly before presenting her paper”, the philosopher lamented.

Catholic human rights activist Baroness Nuala O’Loan added that “we have a duty not to quote anybody out of context so as to give an interpretation which is not justified”.

For his part, independent senator Rónán Mullen accused McAleese of “bias”, and of “reversing the context and meaning of the late Pope’s words” so as to create an “ugly distortion of public opinion”.

“If there is no acknowledgement of the error, then we’re dealing with someone who it could be opined no longer wishes to distinguish between fact and fiction”, Mullen said.

Former professor moral theology at St Patrick’s College Maynooth Vincent Twomey said of McAleese’s selective quoting that “as a theologian, it is hard to take anyone who says things like this seriously”.

But Jesuit O’Higgins warned more was at stake.

“As a result of this, some people are now even alleging that the former Pope was justifying rape. This is certainly not the case”, O’Higgins said.