The beatification of Mary MacKillop: What it reveals of experiences of women in the contemporary Australian Catholic Church

Date of Award


Degree Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy


Faculty of Community Services, Education and Social Sciences

First Advisor

Cynthia Dixon

Second Advisor

Carmel Leavey

Third Advisor

Elaine Wainwright


The Christian faith in its Catholic expression continues to give meaning and direction to the lives of many contemporary Australian women. Nevertheless, for many women conscientised to the reality of patriarchal sexism the experience of belonging in the church is one of recurring struggle, Mary MacKillop in the nineteenth century co­founded the Sisters of St Joseph to address the educational needs of poor children in isolated areas of Australia. Her tenacity in maintaining a degree of autonomy for her institute led to her excommunication a11d to subsequent painful experiences of opposition from male ecclesiastics. In her lifetime she was regarded us a saint. Her beatification in Sydney by Pope John Paul II in January 1995 was a national, as well as a civic and religious event. My thesis is that her beatification mirrors even as it appears to contest the marginalised place of women in the Australian Catholic Church. This study approaches the beatification of Mary MacKillop through the interpretive lens of feminist philosophy and Christian feminist theology. In exploring the ways in which the event reveals both subtle and overt forms of patriarchal sexism operative within the contemporary Australian Catholic Church it utilises qualitative research methods. An analysis of the interview data of Catholic women selected from varied backgrounds, from different parts of Australia is central to the study, because the experience of these women constitutes a key theological resource. Written and visual documentary accounts of the event arc also analysed. This research identifies some of the major sites of struggle for women in the church. It also signals that there is a gap between papal conceptions of Christian womanhood and women's actual experience of what has been and what continues to be influential for them. The evidence reveals that this national, civic and religious event was primarily due to the agency of the Sisters of St Joseph. It raised awareness within their institute of the difficulties and challenges for women in the church and of the wide concern with spiritual issues within Australian society. The public liturgy to celebrate the beatification of Mary MacKillop conveyed powerful but conflicting messages for many women. Women interviewed in this study vary in their interpretation of the beatification. Many have major difficulty with the whole concept of sainthood, the processes of canonisation, the publicity and commercialisation associated with the beatification and the role of the Pope within it, given his theology in relation to women. Their resistance however was restrained by the desire not to diminish in any way Mary MacKillop in the past, nor the Sisters of St Joseph in the present. Most of them concur that overall the promotion of this woman was for the good. For most of the women in this study, their role models are not saints, but contemporary women, or women they have known through mutual relationship. Their awareness that patriarchal sexism constitutes a major distortion of the gospel of Jesus Christ leads some women to question their own forms r collusion. Many women seek new ways to express their faith and to deepen their spiritual search, while continuing to claim their Catholic identity.

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