Former president Mary McAleese has told the country's most senior Catholic bishops that she is being wrongly accused of misrepresenting Saint John Paul II's views on sexual relationships.

She told the prelates, including the Papal Nuncio, that her critics had taken out of context her recent comment that the Catholic Church was deliberately making women powerless and that it was using a logic comparable in certain respects to that of a rapist.

Last Saturday Mary McAleese told a gathering in Trinity College, Dublin, that women were not full members of the Catholic Church, the architecture of which was designed to create and maintain their invisibility and powerlessness.

To illustrate her point, she recalled a description of sex in marriage by Saint John Paul II in his book "Love and Responsibility".

As a young bishop he had written 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.

Her quote from the Polish pope continued:  "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."

Mrs McAleese then commented: "That is how we (women) are treated in the church".

She added that the late moral theologian Fr Seán Fagan had "called Pope John Paul out" on the passage concerned stating what she described as "the obvious".

The Irish priest had asked: "Can this really be Catholic Church teaching? It sounds like rape."

Mrs McAleese went on to observe that Pope John Paul had become a saint while Fr Fagan had been silenced by the Vatican. "That's our church," she remarked.

The front page headline of yesterday's edition of the Irish Catholic weekly read: "Calls for McAleese to admit error on John Paul II slur - Incoming Trinity Chancellor should 'check sources'"

The paper reports Dr Catherine Kavanagh, a philosopher at Mary Immaculate College in Limerick expressing her deep disappointment at seeing "a scholar of Professor McAleese's calibre misrepresent the thought" of the late pope who had "described a purely biological fact of sexual intercourse, before going on to reject it completely as a paradigm of human sexuality".

The Irish Catholic also quotes the prominent Northern Ireland-based Catholic, Baroness Nuala O'Loan as underlining that everybody has a "duty not to quote anybody out of context so as to give an interpretation which is not justified". 

And it reports the Dublin-based theologian Fr Kevin O'Higgins as saying that, in the passage Ms McAleese had quoted, John Paul II was describing a pure biological fact but that "in the very next paragraph", he gave "his own view, the Catholic view, the view of any sane person that sexual relations demand consent from both parties".

He said that Mrs McAleese had "completely distorted" what the pope was saying and that this had led some people to allege that the former Pope had justified rape which was "certainly not the case".

But responding to similar criticisms from a letter-writer in yesterday's Irish Times, Mrs McAleese writes in today's edition of the paper that although she is accused of shoddy scholarly treatment of the late pope, that accusation is more easily and accurately made against her critic in the letters page, the Limerick-based Catholic theologian Dr Thoms Finegan. 

"(He) did not check the context in which I used the passage," she counters, continuing that "it was explicitly stated by me that I was not talking about the sex act at all but by analogy using the passage to describe the position and role of women in the Church generally with men seen (as) dominant initiators and women as passive receivers" which she says is "a simple and factually correct statement". 

She adds that Fr Fagan had correctly described the passage in its original sex act context as a description of rape and that Fr Finegan had clearly agreed with that description.

"There is an obvious, inexorable and transferable logic that Dr Finegan has missed entirely and which was sole the point of the reference," Ms McAleese's letter concludes.

In correspondence seen by RTÉ News, the former president circulated to the three most senior Catholics in the country her response to the Irish Times along with a more strongly-worded email to the publisher of the Irish Catholic.

In a covering email, she told the Papal Nuncio, Archbishop Jude Thaddeus Okolo, the Primate of All Ireland Archbishop Eamon Martin and the Archbishop of Dublin Dr Diarmuid Martin that the views she had expressed during a question-and-answer session at Trinity College last Saturday were still "available verbatim" on the website of the organisation Voices of Faith.

"You will see I made it clear I was using the extract as an analogy and was not using it as a comment on Pope John Paul's view on sexual intercourse.," she tells the prelates.

"When my declaimers argue the Pope argued for full equality in sex I am inclined to make the obvious point then why not follow that logic and provide for their full equality in the Church in general. 

She signs off the email:

"Best wishes