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Column 'Is it possible to be Catholic and a feminist?'

I am alienated from and angered by the Church’s past and continued treatment of women, writes Colleen Hennessy.

A FORMER NORTHERN Ireland football international was ordained into the priesthood at Dublin’s Saint Saviour’s Church on July 8. The Belfast native footballer, Fr Mulryne, said a special Monday night mass at St Oliver Plunkett Church to a congregation of friends and supporters.

A Laois-born priest will arrive in Dublin from her parish in Florida to say a different type of homecoming mass on August 6. This mass will be held at St Andrew’s Community Centre in Dublin and this priest’s ordination was celebrated with official excommunication by the Catholic Church in 2002.

Dr Meehan’s Roman Catholic liturgy will be celebrated in a community centre because Dr Meehan is Bishop Bridget Mary Meehan.

Vatican continues to define women by their anatomy 

Despite the growing movement for gender equality in Catholicism led by Bishop Meehan’s own Association of Roman Catholic Women Priests, the Vatican continues to define women by their anatomy.

The Pope has repeatedly declared his position that God created women as complements to the male anatomy and maintains “a woman’s body renders her illegitimate to speak the words of a homily” because she is not “in the person of Jesus Christ” (National Catholic Reporter, May 2019, 2016) or quite literally because she is not male like Jesus.

Bishop Meehan said her first mass in Ireland last August and told the Irish Times then that she believed the Irish Catholic community didn’t appear to be demanding reform or change.

I feel alienated and angry 

In my own experience, as Catholic and a feminist, I am alienated from and angered by the Church’s past and continued treatment of women. My research on Catholicism and feminism among Irish women showed that I am not alone.

While 98.2% of women surveyed were baptised Catholics, I found that less than half had baptised their own children or intended to baptise future children. Only 27% affirmatively identified as Catholic now while the remaining half didn’t identify as Catholic or replied they were unsure if they identified as Catholic.

The majority of the women in my study believed it was impossible to be a Catholic and a feminist and all rather stunningly, reported that news about the Church made them angry on a regular basis (daily and weekly). Their advice to young women about Catholicism centered on using personal conscience and warnings that participating in the rituals of the Catholic Church will damage their self-esteem.

The younger women, aged 15-24, expressed no interest in having any connection with their religion and the older women’s overwhelming reason for participating in Catholicism was to ensure access to schools and avoid exclusion in the community.

No theological basis for barring female ordination

This sample of women all reported gender equality is important in their professional and personal lives and the majority don’t think Catholic institutions value women as equals. Religious women agree. Catholic clergy frequently police the voices of the women religious too.

Jo Piazza profiled ten Catholic nuns in her book If Nuns Rules the World: Ten Sisters on a Mission (2014) and found that despite being members of the religious clergy these nuns also face persecution from the formally-patriarchal order and seem to face a higher level of institutional scrutiny than pedophiles ever did. These activist nuns are regularly subjected to inquiries by Church officials, public attacks by Church leaders and even expulsion from their orders due to pressure from bishops.

One of the more controversial nuns, Sinsinawa Dominican Sister Donna Quinn states:

The institutional Church has put us down and tried to keep us down. The Catholic Church is one of the biggest institutions in the world, and they are probably the most notorious for putting women down and not giving us our full rights.

She is among many women religious who argue there is no theological basis for barring female ordination.

Church can’t continue to ignore women

I am not comparing Bishop Brigid Meehan and Fr Philip Mulryne’s qualifications to lead Roman Catholic parishes, but precluding Brigid and other women from the priesthood because of their anatomy is discrimination.

My research is not a representative sample of all Irish women and just as not all Catholic women struggle with the Vatican’s attitudes towards genders, many men struggle with the authoritarian structure and legacy of sexual abuse and pedophilia.

There are many factors contributing to the Church’s declining role in society aside from its treatment of women but women’s voices no longer be ignored if Catholics want to renew their Church and certainly listening to women, like Dr Meehan, who are committed to the Catholic faith and ministry, practicing Catholic laywoman and women who no longer identify as Catholic is a crucial start.

Yet Irish church officials seem intent on denying the scope of the membership crisis fuelled by anger, disillusionment and betrayal. Since women apparently no longer want to participate in a hierarchical organisation where they have no representation or formal means of participation in decision-making, the Church must address this issue before they become totally irrelevant to our spirituality, families and communities.

Colleen Hennessy is a writer and political scientist. She previously authored a chapter in “A Living Countryside?: The Politics of Sustainable Development. She currently manages a US housing programme and is writing a book on Irish feminism and Catholicism.  You can read more at

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