Women in the Catholic Church … the case of Mary McKillop

An 81-year-old woman named Jennifer Sleeman organized a boycott of mass in Ireland last Sunday, in protest at women’s lowly place within the Church. The Church authorities claimed that it had no appreciable effect on mass attendance, although priests told a different story.

As it happened, I was due to sing in the choir at my local church (we sing every second Sunday from autumn through spring, and I usually go along; those are the only times I attend mass). I stayed away to support the boycott.

Today I read an article in the Irish Times that showcases rather starkly what women have contributed to the Church, and how they have been treated by its exclusively male power structure. Sister Mary McKillop is to be canonized by the organization that excommunicated her in her lifetime.

In Adelaide in 1871, McKillop, an Australian nun who founded the Sisters of St Joseph, exposed the activities of an Irish paedophile priest (how dispiriting that such creatures existed even then) named Patrick Keating. The upshot was that after a campaign by another Irish priest, McKillop was excommunicated by the local (Irish) bishop, and turned out on the street with no money. She was reinstated four years later, and beatified in 1995; various miraculous intercessions have been accredited to her – hence the canonization (which the more cynical might see as a sop to Australia and/or women).

Can there be any doubt that McKillop would have made a better bishop than Laurence Shiel, who banished her from the Church? Can any plausible excuse be made for the continuing woeful anachronism of an all-male priesthood and hierarchy, given that women form the Church’s backbone in most of its heartlands?

I hope that Jennifer Sleeman’s admirable campaign will continue and flourish. A movement for positive change in the Church is badly needed.



Filed under History, Ireland, Religion

100 responses to “Women in the Catholic Church … the case of Mary McKillop

  1. Rainer the cabbie

    Thanks for bringing this up.
    Mary McKillop is to be Australia’s first Saint, and is the best candidate for this.

    Her Chapel is not far from my home and I have visited it a few times. As you know my stand on religion, you may find it surprising that I even have her picture hanging on my keyring. I celebrate her life and what she did with it as a human being. Total self sacrifice and devotion to help the poor and unfortunate, now those are the principles that the Catholic Church was built on before the power hungry kiddy fiddlers took over. That she exposed one of them, something we only learned of late, even ups my admiration for her.

    Mary McKillops Sainthood will be a reward for good and hopefully will mark a new beginning for the Church.

    And if you’re wondering, yes, the old bird still has some of that magic riding around. 🙂

    • Cymbeline

      ‘until the power-hungry kiddy fiddlers took over’

      Not a fair remark to make about the Catholic Church in its entirety.You rightly object to asinine generalizations about Islam, but have no qualms about applying similar generalizations to the Catholic Church.

      Must we only try to be ‘fair’ when the subject involves Islam?

      And no, I am not a Catholic.

      • I agree that that part of Rainer’s comment is somewhat unfair, Cymbeline … but only somewhat.

        Sadly, it seems that the Church learnt no lessons from McKillop’s time to our own. Hence huge damage was done to countless lives.

      • Rainer the cabbie

        Fair enough, I guess it was uncouth to throw slang at this very serious matter.
        Sorry, my way of venting my anger at an institution that was indeed a hiding ground for frustrated sadist and pedophiles.
        That the Church then covered it up and left the offenders working in the system is the source of my frustration.

        BTW. I am not a Catholic either, and to just clear up one misunderstanding, I am fully aware of the dangers and folly that is Islam and the extreme manipulation of undereducated people by clever clerics. Add to that and the brainwashing of people because of some written word that was penned by human hands and called the word of God, including all the different cultural teachings that are way back in the middle ages, you have a potent mix.

        Why I object to generalization about Islam is that I have met many a peaceful and community minded Muslim and decided that this official “hate campaign” that was conducted since Sep.11 is getting us nowhere. We need to come to some understanding between people in order to stop a handful of nasty leaders manipulate us into a war no one wants.

  2. Thanks, Rainer … nice comment. As for this marking a ‘new beginning’ for the Church, I wouldn’t be hopeful. I think it’s a Machiavellian organization that does whatever is needed to retain its power.

    I wish it were otherwise, but I fear that it will be otherwise only when there is rebellion from the grass roots.

    It is certainly hopeful that there is a new Association of Catholic Priests here, which has already shown that it is not afraid to criticize the hierarchy quite robustly.

    • Cymbeline

      ‘Machiavellian organization’, eh? You spend a lot of time criticizing others for making generalizations like this about Islam.

      • I think it’s fair comment … the Catholic Church is an organization as well as a religion … a highly structured, disciplined, hierarchical organization. It does whatever it needs to do to serve the organization’s interests.

        I am talking about the organization here … not about Catholics. I do not say ‘the Catholics do this’ or ‘the Catholics do that’, or ‘Catholics are animals’.

        • Cymbeline

          I have no quarrel with anyone criticizing any religion, Brendano. And you certainly know more than I do about the Catholic Church.

          I sometimes believe that I see double standards, that is all.

      • Cymbeline

        Kindly-meant double standards, of course. I never doubt your kindness.

  3. Cymbeline

    Yes; old story. Women in the pews. Not that I would want to be a priest.

  4. Women cleaning the pews as well, Cymbeline.

    In our local church there is an ‘Altar Society’, which in fact is free, exclusively female labour … to clean the place, bring flowers for the altar etc.

    There are now ‘altar girls’ as well as ‘altar boys’, and women get to do readings and dispense communion. But the sacramental and decision-making structures are entirely male.

    When I asked my daughter if she might be interested in joining the choir, she said ‘I’m not a big fan of that organization.’ Who could blame her?

  5. Cymbeline

    It is a good thing that your daughter can choose freely.

  6. Indeed. It’s a free country. With a beautiful blue sky, at this moment.

  7. I left the Catholic church a long time ago. Or it left me.

  8. Hello Ron. Same here. I didn’t darken a church door for 30 years except for weddings, funerals and christenings. But I do like the choir (I’m the only one that doesn’t go to communion), and it’s a good community thing. Also, I’m naturally relgious.

  9. I could not swallow transubstantiation.

  10. I tend not to think literally about such things. The symbolism is, or was, important.

    Meaning tends to be lost, just as knowledge is debased into superstition.

    • Cymbeline

      Brendano, Catholics are supposed to believe in transubstantiation. That is one of the main differences between the Catholics and the Anglicans. Anglicans see the bread as a symbol of the body of Christ whereas Catholics see the bread as actually being the body of Christ.

      If you don’t believe in transubstantiation, you aren’t a Catholic.

      • I don’t consider myself a Catholic, Cymbeline. I don’t identify myself as a Catholic on the census form.

        Transubstantiation is one of numerous things in which I neither believe nor disbelieve … I hold myself back.

        What to do if there’s a fork in the road? Pick it up and put it in your pocket.

        • Cymbeline

          I know that you do not consider yourself to be a Catholic, Brendano. The ‘you’ was generic.

          I like the fork comment.

        • Thank you Cymbeline. I think many Catholics don’t think much about such matters. They subcontract their spiritual life to the Church, and that’s an end to thinking.

          The fork comment is from something I once wrote: an earlier version of the novel I am now trying to finish.

          Now there was a memory of walking across a high bridge in yellow sunshine. It’s a narrow railway bridge – it may have just one set of tracks. I look down at the angular stones in front of my feet. I’m to the right of the tracks, and wary of tripping on a sleeper, so I’m walking slowly and carefully. I’m close to the edge of the bridge; there is nothing to stop me falling off. Below and to my right I can see a wide green river. Someone is walking to my left, between the tracks. She’s telling me that when I reach the road, I should walk straight along it till I come to the end. ‘What if there’s a fork in the road?’, I say. ‘If there’s a fork in the road,’ she says, ‘pick it up and put it in your pocket.’

        • Cymbeline

          Personally, I tend to see Christians of whatever denomination as Christians. Not bothered about the differences.

        • Cymbeline

          Lovely piece of writing.

        • Thanks very much. I took it out in the name of ruthlessness, but I think I’ll put it back in. I like it too.

      • Cymbeline

        A simple dream-like quality to the words. I reckon ‘she’ is a tylwyth teg.

        • She may well be. She’s certainly out of the ordinary. 🙂 I think I actually had this as a dream once, and was describing it. The narrator of the novel has a head full of such ‘memories’ that he can’t pin down.

  11. Sipu

    The Catholic Church is a conservative organisation. It is slow to change and that is why it has been going for 2000 years. Were it more liberal it would not have lasted. For centuries, those who were unhappy with it have broken away. They continue to do so. That is why there are so many denominations. While there are many who do choose to leave the Church it is important to realise that there are many who are happy with or at least prepared to accept its conservative nature and still others who join it because of its conservative nature.

    I think one should recognise that some of the characteristics for which it is criticized are not part of Church doctrine. Nobody within the Catholic hierarchy endorses or preaches sexual abuse. Granted the situation been grossly mishandled, but that is a managment failing rather than a doctrinal one.

  12. Hello Sipu. I take your points re conservatism, but the Church does change … to the minimum extent necessary to retain its power, as it sees it.

    For example, when I was a child, women were expected to cover their heads in the church; there were no female servers, readers, etc.; we were not allowed to eat meat on a Friday; one had to go to mass every Sunday (now one can go on Saturday night), etc. Teachings on hellfire and damnation were prominent. Now all that has changed. It changed so that members would not be lost. There will be further change in the future, depending on the demand for it.

    Nobody in the hierarchy preaches sexual abuse, but many have endorsed it, de facto, through their actions. The fact that is not doctrine is neither here nor there … the Church protected its own in preference to obeying the law of the land(s). The Church cannot claim to be above, and separate from, the evil actions of its hierarchy, in my view. It must be seen to address those actions in the proper way, and it must decide whether or not women and girls are full human beings.

    I would love to see a renewed Catholic Church, more interested in spiritual than in self-serving temporal matters.

  13. One thing that may force the Church into change is the low number of vocations to the priesthood. In Ireland, priests are very much an aging cohort.

    Opening the priesthood to women might go some way towards addressing this, as might changes in the rule on celibacy.

  14. Sipu

    Brendano, I too remember the Church pre Vatican 2. Admittedly I am male and therefore not subject to the restrictions imposed upon women, but I do regret the changes that came about as a result of that Council. I think many mistakes were made and I think many left the Church as a result. There was something mysterious and wonderful about the Latin mass that was lost in translation. There was an air of reverence in a church where the women wore head scarves. No meat on Friday was gentle reminder not to take things for granted. Fasting before communion was a wake up call to prepare for the sacrament you were about to receive. The mass in English and all that went with it, cheapened things for me. But I am a dyed in the wool conservative and a misogynist to boot. 😉 Well done on 30 up, by the way.

  15. Thanks, Sipu. I just about remember the Latin mass … I have a vague memory of being in the choir gallery in our local church with my mother, and the priests on the altar with their backs to us.

    As it happens, I agree with what you say about the Latin mass, fasting, etc. Yes, there was something mysterious and wonderful about it, and it fed our spirits in ways that the entirely unmagical modern version doesn’t.

    I remember reading C. G. Jung on the psychological benefits of the Catholic mass (‘the numinous’ was a favourite phrase of his). I think Vatican 2 did away with the things he was speaking of. The wrong things were changed.

  16. I feel uncomfortable about the generalization of some incidents of Catholic priests. I keep praying.

    On a humorous (or mischievous) note (for Cymbeline): I believe these are the signs of God to lead them to the right path. Amen. 🙂

  17. Cymbeline

    I have always enjoyed your humour, Levent.

  18. Cymbeline

    I think that many women find priests utterly fascinating. The other day, in a French cathedral, I saw a priest knocking off work. He was in a side chapel, and had been confessing people, I think. He took off his cassock, and there he was in trousers and a jumper. He folded the cassock, picked up his briefcase and stepped outside into the world.

    Here, I have also seen a couple of priests in shiny black shoes, and long black affairs nipped in at the waist. High collar. They clip along the pavements at a rate of knots. I think they look great.

  19. Cymbeline

    I think that many women find priests utterly fascinating. The other day, I watched a priest knocking off work in a French cathedral. He was in a side chapel, and I think he had been confessing people. He stood there, and pulled off his cassock to reveal a plain jumper and a pair of trousers. He folded his cassock, picked up his bag, and walked out into the square. He seemed tired.

    Of late, I have also seen a couple of priests clipping along the pavement in shiny shoes and tight-waisted, high-collared black coats. Would they be Jesuits? I think they look great.

  20. Cymbeline

    repeat comment, as I thought the first had disappeared. Sorry.

  21. No problem, Cymbeline. I’m sorry they don’t appear instantly.

    What is it that these women find so fascinating? Is it that the priests are unattainable, and sexed differently, so to speak, to other men?

    There are of course many excellent priests (which was why I used to complain about MyT’s inferior specimen). This courageous man was one of the best – Gregory Peck played him in a film.


    • Cymbeline

      The Scarlet Pimpernel of the Vatican. What a splendid man.

      • Some of O’Flaherty’s friends were killed by the Black and Tans when he was a young man, apparently. There’s a scene in the film, as I recall, where he angrily informs a Nazi bully that he wasn’t intimidated by the Black and Tans, and won’t be intimidated by him.

        He was a big, strong man who could look after himself.

    • Cymbeline

      I suppose that the blend of unattainability, power, goodness, and lack of sexual threat is a potent mix for many women.

      This is why it is so disgraceful when men in such positions abuse their power.

  22. Cymbeline

    My sister’s husband’s brother was a Baptist minister, and all the women wanted him, apparently. They would even leave pots of food for him on his doorstep.

    • Cymbeline

      He (the Baptist minister) felt that he was not helping people enough. He then became a teacher, and after that, a social worker. He is probably one of the most qualified men in Wales. A very good man.

  23. Were these women Welsh? Welsh women are especially libidinous, if Anthony Burgess is to be believed. 🙂

  24. Cymbeline

    Yes, these were Welsh women. I don’t know if Welsh women are more libidinous than other women. I am sure that many an English lady’s bosom heaves at the idea of the local vicar too. That is why they fight over whose turn it is to do the flowers.

  25. Our local priest is somewhat unprepossessing, though a nice man … I doubt that he causes many bosoms to heave.

  26. If I may:

    Four Catholic ladies were having coffee. The first Catholic woman tells her friends, “My son is a priest. When he walks into a room, everyone calls him “Father.”

    The second Catholic woman chirps, “My son is a bishop. Whenever he walks into a room, people call him, “Your Grace.”

    The third Catholic mother says, “My son is a cardinal. Whenever he walks into a room, people say, “Your Eminence.”

    Since the fourth Catholic woman sips her coffee in silence, the first three women give her this subtle, “Well?”

    So she replies, “My son is a gorgeous, 6′ 2”, hard-bodied dancer. When he walks into a room, people say, “Oh my God!”

  27. Cymbeline

    Any chance of a cartoon with speech bubbles?

  28. Sipu

    My favourite priest story is this one that led Alec Guinness to the Catholic church. The actor had been filming Father Brown in France. One evening after a day on set, he was walking back to his hotel still wearing the garb of the detective priest.

    “I hadn’t gone far when I heard scampering footsteps and a piping voice calling, ‘mon pere!’. My hand was seized by a boy of seven or eight, who clutched it tightly, swung it and kept up a non-stop prattle. He was full of excitement, hops, skips and jumps, but never let go of me. I didn’t dare speak in case my excruciating French should scare him. Although I was a total stranger he obviously took me for a priest and so to be trusted. Suddenly with a ‘Bonsoir, mon pere’, and a hurried sideways sort of bow, he disappeared through a hole in a hedge. Continuing my walk I reflected that a church which could inspire such confidence in a child, making its priests, even when unknown, so easily approachable could not be as scheming and creepy as so often made out. I began to shake off my long-taught, long-absorbed prejudices.”

  29. Thank you, Sipu … it’s certainly a lovely story. I remember you told it before.

    That is how it should be.

  30. Cymbeline

    Quite an amusing juxtaposition of events yesterday evening; I was strolling around the city with my husband, and passing a church, decided to step inside. A service was going on, and it was led by two nuns in white. There was no priest. A wooden sign in the aisle informed us that the service was ‘L’adoration du Saint Sacrament’. The Catholic nuns were definitely running the show.

    After that, we continued our walk, and passing in front of a unisex beauty parlour, I told my husband that I was going to book him a relaxing massage. He said that he did not want a massage, but I dragged him inside just the same. I told the man at the counter that I wanted to book a massage for my husband. He said that he was sorry, but that the masseuse did not take male clients.

  31. Cymbeline

    Amusing juxtaposition of events yesterday evening:

    I was strolling around the city with my husband, and passing a church said that I would like to go inside. A service was in progress, and it was conducted by two Catholic nuns dressed in white. A moveable wooden sign in the aisle informed us that the service was ‘L’adoration du Saint Sacrament’. Not a priest in sight.

    After this, we continued our stroll. Passing in front of a unisex beauty salon, I told my husband that I wanted to book him a relaxing massage. He said that he did not want a relaxing massage, but I did not listen to his protests. I dragged him inside, and told the man at the counter that I wanted to book a massage for my husband. He said that he was very sorry, but that the masseuse did not take male clients.

  32. Cymbeline

    Bloody hell, the same thing has happened again. I write a post, and a word press message tells me that I have written a duplicate comment. My post disappears from the screen. I then write the same post again, and then BOTH of them appear.


  33. Hello Cymbeline … a nuisance that you have to type the same thing twice.

    My wife and I would have much the same attitude to relaxing massages … her kind of thing, but I couldn’t be bothered. As for nuns conducting services … never heard of such a thing. 🙂

    There is something comforting about dropping into a church and sitting for a while. We would be far worse off without churches.

  34. Cymbeline

    For my recent birthday, I was given six vouchers for six massage sessions at a Thai woman’s house. She runs her business from there. Wonderful. Buddha in the corner, petals floating in basins, steamed Thai herbs, scented candles … Most pleasant. She does not speak much French, and I asked her how she liked France. She turned one hand over in her other hand, to say that France and Thailand were like chalk and cheese.

    Yes, the nuns really were running the ‘Adoration du Saint Sacrament’ service. One of them sang beautifully.

    • Cymbeline

      (bought the Irish bacon today. It is from Kilkenny and the brand is ‘Countrystyle foods’. It has a ‘Love Irish Food’ sticker. Will have it for breakfast tomorrow. No sausages unfortunately. Apparently they are delivered only once a month, and disappear within days.)

    • xueta

      The Vietnamese for Happy Buddha is Phat Phuc. Honest.

      • Cymbeline

        Perhaps that is why the Thai woman I mention above feels it necessary to state that her massages are ‘non-médicaux et non-sexuels’.

        Oafs everywhere.

  35. I hope your rashers will live up to expectations, Cymbeline. We have a very good food fair near us every Saturday now, where one can buy excellent produce, but there is a lot of mediocre stuff in the shops.

    The massages do sound relaxing. My wife used to get massages from a Thai woman named Nok. (‘Are you going to Nok?’ ‘I don’t know; I might just ring the bell.’)

    Have your menfolk been watching any of the Heineken Cup rugby this weekend?

  36. Cymbeline

    Was I rash? Was it rational to buy the bacon from Kilkenny? How I worry.

    No, they did not watch the rugby.

    • Cymbeline

      I have just asked my husband if he knew about the Heineken cup, and if so, why he did not watch it. He said that he could have watched it of course, instead of spinning me around the city on his motor-bike, preparing lunch, filling my glass with Sancerre, repairing the chairs etc.

  37. I remember that at least one of your sons is interested in rugby. Is he still playing?

    It sounds like you had a good day. Mine was occupied with driving daughter around (she’s dancing in a production of Jesus Christ Superstar), watching rugby, shopping, cooking dinner, being hospitable to newly arrived mother-in-law, and drinking red wine.

    Part of dry-stone wall collapsed (where too many footballs have been kicked against it), but didn’t get round to rebuilding it today. May do a bit tomorrow.

  38. Cymbeline

    Hello again, Brendano. Both of my sons play rugby, but only the younger one plays at the moment. The elder boy is preparing for the French grandes écoles, and has no time. Recently, my younger daughter has started to play rugby again too. She started when she was six.

    I have no doubt whatsoever about your fineness as a father and husband – and I am sure that you are an excellent son-in-law too, even if you do sometimes wonder what your mother-in-law may make of some French fiction.

    Nothing like a good stone wall. And the collapsed bits make one think, and work.

  39. Thanks for the kind words. I would say more about my family were it not for cybercreeps.

    I remember you spoke about the grandes écoles with reference to your daughter … extremely demanding. I’m glad to hear that your other daughter plays rugby … there is a very good girls’ team at the local club here; they have won various tournaments in Britain.

    It’s true about stone walls. It’s very hard to redo work as well as it was done in the first place.

  40. Cymbeline

    I suppose that all walls are designed to keep some things in, and other things out. Without walls, there are no structures. This is why I am always wary of the ‘go with the flow’ idea. You can’t have your walls full of holes. Who wants to be invaded by footballs?

    • Hello Cymbeline. Not me … it’s one of my abiding fears.

      I did a bit of work on the wall yesterday. My wife came out and said ‘You’ve made it worse!’ because I had to remove a lot of loose stones before I could start rebulding.

      Certainly structure is important in life … othewise there would be chaos.

  41. Cymbeline

    I have a lot of love for dry stone walls. My father is from Snowdonia, and there, you can see ancient dry stone walls snaking up steep mountainsides. Incredible amount of work. Unfortunately, tourists sometimes take a stone home as a souvenir.

    Have you ever heard of ‘Ty Hyll’? That is a dry stone house in the same area of Wales.

  42. No … must look it up.

    A dry-stone house is an ambitious undertaking. Football would need to be banned in the vicinity.

    Unfortunately I don’t have a ‘before’ photo of the section of the wall, to be compared with ‘after’. They will not be at all similar. And photography isn’t my forté in any case.

  43. Have looked it up. Supposedly two brothers built it in one night, and it has stood for centuries!

    I can’t compete with that.

  44. Cymbeline

    That is the story. The prosaic truth is probably that it was built for English tourists.

  45. Cymbeline

    …. forte, not forté. Italian, not French.

  46. Of course, Cymbeline … careless of me. My old piano teacher would be shocked, but may be long dead.

    Speaking of matters Italian, my wife and daughter are off to Italy next weekend.

  47. Have you read Bruce Chatwin’s On the Black Hill? A novel about Welsh farmers.

  48. Cymbeline

    I hope that they have a wonderful time in Italy. Where are they going?

    No, I haven’t read Chatwin’s book. Probably a book my father would tear to pieces.

  49. Lucca … near Pisa, as you probably know.

    A colleague recommended it to me once, and I read it. I thought it was a bit downbeat and dull compared to his non-fiction.

  50. Cymbeline

    I went to Lucca a few years ago. I remember being fascinated by the angel on the top of a church. Apparently, the bronze feathers of the wings used to actually move in the wind.

  51. I’ll tell them to look out for that. Did you like Lucca?

  52. Cymbeline

    Yes, I think I did, although we did not stay there for long. We were on a sort of ‘doing Italy’ family trip. Happy times. All six of us under the same car roof. Then we slowed down a bit and rented a house in the hills near Siena.

  53. Cymbeline

    We went to the Palio in Siena, and were in the public space in the middle of the race. Frightening crowds, especially as we had the youngest child still in a push-chair. My husband spent a lot of time pushing Italians.

    • Yes, I think you mentioned that before.

      They are going to stay with an old school friend of my wife (Irish-Italian), whom she has met just once, briefly, in 30 years.

  54. Cymbeline

    That will be wonderful.

  55. Yes, I think so. If so, I will probably tag along on the next visit.

  56. Cymbeline

    So wife and daughter are diplomatic envoys. Excellent.

  57. Cymbeline

    Re your comment above about what you call cybercreeps. Yes, it is a pity that many people feel that they cannot speak freely any more about their personal lives, for fear of their words being wilfully misinterpreted.

    However, this is probably perfectly natural in the wider scheme of things. After all, one does not chat about one’s private life to total strangers. There was a sort of dizzy innocence to the early MyT, a state of affairs completely unlike real life and the usual formality of intercourse with strangers.

    The cyberworld is becoming another part of the ‘real’ world. The ‘real’ world involves self-censorship when speaking to strangers.

  58. Cymbeline

    Well, I would like to be able to have some hallal Irish food now. Please tell me of any suppliers you know.

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