DUBLIN, Ireland—“Thank God, we are not fighting over transubstantiation,” said the late Cardinal William Conway frequently during the early days of the Northern Ireland “troubles” between Catholics and Protestants almost 30 years ago.

One wonders what the former archbishop of Armagh would think of the latest “ecumenical” gesture by the Republic of Ireland's new President Mary McAleese, the first person born in Northern Ireland to hold that office (See related story, page 5).

As an active lay Catholic, McAleese is regarded with suspicion by many Protestants in Northern Ireland. She re-instituted adoration of the Blessed Sacrament at her official residence, Aras an Uachtaran, after taking office. Her commitment to the Church led to her being named the only woman member of the Catholic bishops' delegation to the New Ireland Forum in 1984. More recently, she has found less favor with the hierarchy because of her public support for the ordination of women and the end to the celibacy rule. McAleese has also been less than staunch in her stand on abortion, though she says she personally opposes it.

Her inaugural speech in November won praise from Archbishop Desmond Connell of Dublin after she called on all to “dedicate ourselves to the task of creating a wonderful gift to the Child of Bethlehem, whose 2,000th birthday we will soon celebrate—the gift of an island where difference is celebrated with joyful curiosity and generous respect, and where each may grasp his neighbors' hand as friend.”

Within weeks, however, McAleese was being criticized by Churchmen, including Archbishop Connell, after she received Communion at an Anglican eucharistic service at Christ Church Cathedral Sunday Dec. 7. McAleese, who is well versed in theology, knows that canon law prohibits Catholics from taking bread and wine from Anglican ministers, yet at the same time she knew it would be a popular move.

Newspaper opinion polls show that a sizable majority in the republic believe she was right to break the rules. Since, her example has been followed by the American ambassador to Ireland, Jean Kennedy-Smith, who has also taken bread and wine at Christ Church Cathedral.

Many commentators believe McAleese has done more harm than good by highlighting religious differences.

“She has put the Catholic Church and the Church of Ireland at loggerheads for the first time in living memory,” said David Quinn, editor of The Irish Catholic. “The Irish president's role is supposed to be non-controversial and she has broken that rule.”

—Cian Molloy