BC Professor and Former President of Ireland: Collegiality and Church Leadership

by Margaret Antonio



On November 7, 2013, Mary McAleese, former president of Ireland and a canon lawyer, engaged in a discussion with Boston College Theology professor, Dr. Richard Gaillardetz, sponsored by the School of Theology and Ministry’s C21 series. McAleese expressed her views on how the Catholic Church is striving to adapt to the changing times while retaining its identity.

Mary McAleese’s experience of growing up in the intensely sectarian Belfast in Northern Ireland propelled her interest in justice and equality, and thus encouraged her to pursue a career in law. As a cradle Catholic in a heavily anti-Catholic environment, she was a first hand witness of religious intolerance.


“[Catholics] were discriminated against,” she told the audience at the Cadigan Alumni Center. The social and political structure “conspired to keep Catholics in a form of second class citizenship. I watched as they set fire to Catholic homes…. so I asked myself the question many young people asked, ‘so, what are we going to do?’”


Today, one of the focal points of McAleese’s work is “Collegiality in Church Leadership.” Collegiality refers to the role of the Pope and the role of the college of cardinals in the governance of the Catholic Church. As McAleese pointed out, the Church has over 2 billion faithful throughout the world, making it necessary to keep it organized and constitutionally coherent. The dialogue between Dr. Gaillardetz and the former president highlighted areas of improvement as well as signs of hope in the Church’s leadership today.

The lack of due process in the Church was the first issue raised by the speakers. As of today, “there is no known process,” according to McAleese. The Catholic Church, which takes great interest in the value of human life and human justice, McAleese said, should be “humanly interested in the due process,” as a human right. The incoherence in the Church’s judicial role is particularly evident in the sex scandals. McAleese suggested that had there been better guidelines as to the due process for both the accused, and especially, the victims, the scandals could have been handled in a more orderly and open manner.


Nevertheless, Dr. Gaillardetz and McAleese stressed that there is great hope for improvement under the leadership of Pope Francis. “The Pope has a massive amount of goodwill behind him,” she said. Coupled with the support of the people and “grace and the Holy Spirit at work in him,” Pope Francis has made great strides in acknowledging mistakes and seeking to rectify them. The speakers agreed that one of the hallmarks of this papacy is the change in the temper of discussions.


Dr. Gaillardetz, however, added that this change in “temper” began with Pope John XXIII, who, at the opening of the Second Vatican Council said, “nowadays, the Church prefers to make use of the medicine of mercy rather than that of severity... demonstrating the validity of her teaching rather than by condemnations.”


“From the conflict with Northern Ireland,” McAleese said, we learned that “if you change the tone...then maybe you will open space to keep the negotiations moving.”


A notable “tonal change” is Pope Francis’ approach to homosexuality. “The homophobia among pastors… worries me as a mother... if I were to take a child of mine who is sexually conflicted to a pastor, I would want someone to say, ‘It’s gonna be alright. We’re gonna walk you through this.” McAleese noted that “without changing a word of doctrine, [Pope Francis] has changed the temper of the discussion.


Furthermore, the former president believes that in light of Vatican II, the collegial leadership of the Catholic Church needs to include the laity and strengthen the relationship between the bishops and their diocese. McAleese suggested that the Pope needs the advice of individuals who specialize in areas, such as in the “Bishop’s Synod on the Family,” rather than only the College of Cardinals. Secondly allowing bishops to have more permanency within their diocese (as opposed to the transfer of bishops amongst diocese) will help them have a better sense of belonging and an obligation to serving the people, “not just reporting to the upwards hierarchy.”


In the spirit of Vatican II, Mary McAleese emphasized that the Church is not a mausoleum, but a garden. “Pope Francis has shown to be a good gardener,” she said. Dr. Gaillardetz expressed that today there is a notion that papal teaching exists only in formal decrees. However, Pope Francis is modeling a new kind of leadership, one in which papal teaching can also be modeled by his guidance of discussion, or maybe simply by “taking unscripted questions from journalists on a plane.” Overall, the change in the collegial leadership of the Church points to the need to delve into greater understanding through serene and respectful dialogue, seeing each person as an individual. As Mary McAleese said, “we’re moving [the dialogue] back to a loving God, a God who created these wonderful human beings, a God who loves them.”


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