Mary McAleese is still leaving the Catholic Church. Or considering it at least. Or threatening it.
The former president of Ireland (1997-2011) wrote to Pope Francis after the Jean Vanier revelations saying that she would leave the Catholic Church “if it transpires that the Holy See failed to act to protect members of the L’Arche community”.
Back in 2015, when McAleese was campaigning for same-sex marriage, she allowed that she was so ashamed of the Catholic Church that she had considered leaving but couldn’t find anywhere to go.
In 2018 she had been invited to speak at a Roman conference on International Women’s Day. The Vatican declined to approve her invitation, so the conference moved from Vatican offices to the more congenial quarters of the Jesuit generalate. The Jesuits were pleased to host McAleese, who took the occasion to denounce the Church as “a primary global carrier of the toxic virus of misogyny”.
It’s a bit puzzling as to why the Vanier revelations should have moved McAleese so. She was president of Ireland when the national commission into sexual abuse released its devastating report on 50 years of abuse and cover up by Church and state. If sin in the Church was reason to leave, surely there was sufficient evidence in its pages?
Since her presidency ended in 2011, McAleese has spent a good deal of time at the Jesuits’ Gregorian University in Rome, completing first her licentiate in canon law and then her doctorate in 2018. The study of law is, to a great degree, a study of bad behaviour, both sinful and criminal. That’s why laws are needed. So a canon lawyer more than most ought to know that the Church has been dealing with the phenomenon of wicked shepherds and wicked sheep for a long time.
It could be that her studies at the Gregorian weakened her faith, and that the celebrated alumna’s faith has been rendered too frail to endure the scandal of a Church that is both holy in her Head and sinful in her members. A “casta meretrix” – a chaste prostitute – to employ the vivid phrase of St Ambrose.
Whatever the vagaries of McAleese’s ecclesiology, her latest eruption invites the question of what the pastoral response ought to be for someone who wishes to leave the Church. Most don’t write a letter to the Pope about it, but just leave.
Ask 10 pastors about what to do in such cases and all 10 will say to go after the would-be lost sheep. They would appeal to the authority of the Lord Jesus Himself, who spoke of the good shepherd who leaves the 99 to go in search of the lost. Of the physician who comes for the sick, not the healthy. Of the tax collectors and prostitutes that will enter the kingdom before the self-righteous. Ten out of 10 – including me – would point to the conversion of the Samaritan woman at the well, Zacchaeus in the tree, Matthew at the toll booth and the Good Thief on the cross.
The pastor goes after the lost and beseeches those who would depart. But what if the lost are determined not to come back? The Gospels then give different advice.
Jesus drew large crowds during His public ministry. But those crowds also deserted Him without protest. The most famous episode comes in John 6, where the enormous throng, having witnessed the multiplication of the loaves, now murmurs against the teaching on the the Bread of Life. They begin to go away and Jesus does nothing to stop them. He even asks the Apostles if they too wish to depart. There is then the smaller crowd gathered to stone the woman caught in adultery. Jesus gives them a lesson in judgment and mercy and they too, unable to accept it, go away.
There are other occasions in which Jesus drives away the “whited sepulchres” and “brood of vipers” who have come to listen to Him, but with closed hearts.
In Matthew 10, Jesus sends out the disciples to preach the Gospel, taking no provisions with them but relying on the hospitality of strangers. Then there is this stern injunction against those who do not accept their teaching – upon leaving that place, the disciples are to shake the dust off their feet against them.
Where in today’s pastoral ministry do we shake the dust off our feet at anyone, on any occasion? Jesus said that we should do it, but I would be hard-pressed to find a single instance in my own priesthood when I have clearly done so. What’s more, I am inclined to avoid situations where I might have to do so.
The pastoral ministry of Jesus is not about only one thing, namely God going in search of the lost. It’s also about the God who condescends to respect human freedom, even the freedom of those who reject Him, a freedom that has consequences. It’s been so since man was first formed out of the dust of the earth.
It remains so today.
Fr Raymond J de Souza is a priest of the Archdiocese of Kingston, Ontario, and editor-in-chief of convivium.ca
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