25 May 2015, The Tablet

Irish vote shows the Church needs to rethink its theology of sexuality

by Ursula Halligan

Ursula HalliganI wasn't present in any polling station when the votes on the same-sex marriage referendum were being counted. Having "come out" in an Irish Times column during the campaign, I had no professional function: Irish media regulations precluded me from reporting on the story. I could have been there as an interested bystander, but I wasn't. I was in Glenstal Abbey, a Benedictine monastery in County Limerick, attending a weekend course on deepening my faith.

Therein lies the paradox in the Catholic Church revealed by this referendum. The most faithful of the faithful found ourselves, not just going against Church teaching, but going against it publicly. They included some very prominent Catholics including the former Irish president Mary McAleese, Fr Peter McVerry, Prof Linda Hogan, Sr Stanislaus Kennedy and Fr Gabriel Daly.

Tom Curran, the Secretary General of the senior Government Party, Fine Gael, announcing himself as "a card-carrying Catholic" and Mass-going former seminarian, appeared in media to say he would be voting for same sex marriage, against the stated stance of the hierarchy, because of his gay son.

Although some lay church members fought strongly on the "no" side, a majority of the people, on Friday, decided to vote for the possibility of men marrying men and women marrying women. 

That represents not just a breakthrough for gay people or a deep separation between Church and state but also a magnification of tensions within the Church itself. For the first time, a country regarded internationally as Catholic, where a majority of the population describe themselves as belonging to that Church, went against the position taken by their bishops in massive numbers.

This is not the time to re-visit the issues raised by the hierarchy in positing their opposition to the referendum proposition. Significant, however, were two points made by Diarmuid Martin, the media-friendly Archbishop of Dublin. The first was that he, personally, would be voting No, but doing so with a heavy heart. The second was his response to a question from a TV news anchorman about how the archbishop was calling on the public to vote. The archbishop smiled and said the days of bishops instructing members of the public on how to vote were long past.

He is right. The issue is not how to instruct the faithful, but how to help the faithful address the complexities implicit in embracing its gay members. The institutional Church has conspicuously failed to do that in the past. In the piece I wrote in The Irish Times ten days ago - which went global as an account of a lifetime of passing as heterosexual - I pointed out that the worst of my miseries, growing up, were caused by me being a good Catholic girl, knowing that the Church I belonged to and loved regarded me as aberrant.

On Sunday, Catholic churches around the world celebrated Pentecost; the day the Holy Spirit descended on the apostles, energising and inspiring them to live and spread the Gospel values.

Today, the energy that enlivened the Early Church is in short supply at the higher echelons.

Perhaps, if there was more around it might inspire the hierarchy to reexamine its theology of human sexuality and its understanding of what it is to be human. In science when the facts don't fit the theory, the theory gets changed to fit the facts. If the Church wants to stay relevant and in touch with human realities it will need to acknowledge that gay people are facts, not freaks of nature.

Ursula Halligan is the Political Editor of the Irish television station TV3

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User comments (15)

Comment by: RBull
Posted: 30/05/2015 03:26:24

A vote only expresses an opinion of the public which oscillates. It has no doctrinal or theological basis. So the ref referendum may only show that "all we like sheep, have gone astray". That said, the reason this question is so vexed is that there is no solid scientific or theological principles or facts that prove or disprove anything to do with homosexuality one way or another. It's actually an eternal debate and the public, tiring of the discussion votes in favoyr to get it off the front pages and move on with life. A referendum proves nothing.

Comment by: El Gato
Posted: 29/05/2015 02:47:23

We all will have to answer for our actions.

Comment by: jim Lynn
Posted: 28/05/2015 19:52:51

The situation in Ireland is most serious. Comments from known celebrities in media/sport/politics have massively been used to urge for a Yes vote, and to bring back all the old accusations against the Catholic Church.
I was most surprised at the comment by Dublin's Archbishop D.Martin on the Catholic Church needing a "rethink"....I believe that the only rethink needed is WHY....for more than 25 years there has been virtually NO teaching and NO homilies at Mass which address the reality of sin and explaining the Commandments of God and of the Catholic Church....as well as a continuing silence and withdrawal of the Sacrament of Confession.
I think that any rethink should address the pain of the true genuine Catholics....and EVERYONE who wants a watered down model of religion...a one size fits all concept.....these people should be spoken to clearly about their responsibilities IF they wish to remain in the Catholic Church.....and if they wish, should be encouraged to go elsewhere....and this also to include clerics disobedient to the Laws of God.

Comment by: Jim McCrea
Posted: 28/05/2015 16:43:09

"Facts, as history teaches, carry greater weight than pure doctrine." Joseph Ratzinger, HIGHLIGHTS OF VATICAN II, Paulist Press/Deus Books, 1966, p. 17.

The fact is that secular, civil marriage equality is here to stay. Traditional Catholic countries have been in the forefront of legalizing equality: Belgium, Spain, Argentina, Portugal, Brazil, France, Urugual, Luxembourg and, now, Ireland.

The largest democracy in the West, the United States, will soon have made it legal in all 50 states by virtue of Supreme Court decision.

Comment by: AlanWhelan
Posted: 27/05/2015 21:53:05

I have much sympathy for BJC's comments. One sad aspect of the same sex marriage debate was the lack of sound theological understanding of the Church's teaching.

The debate revolved around the word EQUALITY and few were willing to stand back and question the way language was being used.

I have found it hard in Ireland in that there seems to be a general unwillingness to engage in theological discussion except when it comes to throwing around emotive slogans. In my own parish the 35 minute Sunday Mass leaves little room for a meaningful homily. In the last four years I have rarely heard the Sunday use of the Creed and we don't exchange a sign of peace. I have yet to hear a Pastoral Letter read in church. one or twic a year we are told that there is a Pastoral Letter from The Irish Bishops available to take away as we leave.

Redemptorist parish retreats occur every three or four years but they increasingly centre on environmental and other light topics. Two Redemptorist priests who were popular on retreat rotas were among the six or so priests who spoke out in favour of same sex marriage. Is it any wonder that people were confused?

Among the positive aspects of the referendum result is that many LBGT people feel more welcome in Irish society and there seems to be a greater willingness of church leaders to moderate unhelpful language. Regrettably it may lead to further unwillingness to proclaim Jesus as The Way, The Truth and The Life.

Comment by: Belo horizonte
Posted: 27/05/2015 16:15:51

Well, the sky hasnt fallen down, nor is it likely to as a result of the Irish vote. Who are we to judge? Let us leave all judgment till the Lord comes.

Comment by: robinmolieres
Posted: 27/05/2015 13:05:43

Of course the Irish referendum result has much to teach those who are open to the Spirit of God.

Statements made by (Cardinal) Raymond Burke supporting the notion that homosexuals can choose to be heterosexual and that same-sex attraction is “an ailment”, show an appallingly shallow understanding of Scripture and Church tradition as well as a staggering ignorance of the scientific reality.

There are those who believe that the Church (outside which there is no salvation) has all the answers and should give witness to the love of God for the world by maintaining an unflinching and defiantly heroic stand against the sea of democratic evil surrounding it. There are others in the Church who seek to enter into dialogue with the world, appreciating that the Spirit of God moves far and wide across the waters. The world will always have lessons to teach the Church, if those in the Church are open, courageous and willing to seek The Truth. Unless we are humble enough to seek the Lord wherever He may be found, we deserve to be no more than an irrelevant but immensely self-satisfied religious sect, smug and content in our moral clarity and ontological certainties.

Comment by: robinmolieres
Posted: 27/05/2015 13:01:05

I don’t hear the voice of Christ in many of the previous comments. There is way too judgement and self-serving attachment a rigorous application of the law such as Christ himself preached against passionately and frequently.
The understanding of marriage has never been immutable but rather something that has changed and developed throughout Judeo-Christian history. Polygyny was not uncommon among the Patriarchs. Sacramental marriage wasn’t even available to any but the most rich or powerful, until relatively recently. And procreation isn’t an absolute aim of marriage, otherwise people unable to have children by reason of ill-health or age, wouldn’t be able to marry. The 1983 code of canon law (for those of you with a legalist frame of mind) says that the first aim of marriage is the mutual love and support of the couple themselves.
If the Church is to take a moral lead, it has the moral imperative to use the best evidence, scriptural and scientific, available to it. The classical world, the Old and New Testament writers, and the Patristic Church understood homosexuality as acts by heterosexuals of wanton perversion. The understanding of the broad range of human sexuality we have now cannot be encompassed by the biblical moral framework. How does the Bible regard natural same-sex attraction? How do we reconcile Genesis’ statement that God made them male and female with the number of people born intersex. And what exactly was Christ's teaching on sexuality, Bob?

Comment by: Maryk
Posted: 27/05/2015 10:34:01

i found Ursula Halligan's account very moving. I think the vote showed a level-headed and thoughtful acceptance of the importance of stable and loving relationships. The Church in Ireland was at the heart of government and what it helped to create was harsh and far from a shining example to the faithful of what a virtually theocratic state could be. By the way, Ireland voted in favour of CIVIL marriage.

Comment by: BJC
Posted: 27/05/2015 09:59:46

Ursula, hate to rain on your parade, but the only thing the Irish vote shows is how many lapsed Catholics there are over there. I go to Ireland about once a year to visit relatives and it's very obvious Irish Catholicism is liberal and moribund in the extreme with priests and lay people alike going through the motions. I've seen adults and kids show no respect at all for the Blessed Sacrament as they come into church (en masse), priests talking about "Santi" on Christmas day as if Jesus Christ didn't exist, and sermons full of waffle from priests who seem barely familiar with the gospel or the contents of the scriptures. Several times I’ve been on the verge of walking out of mass the liturgy has been so bad. All in all it's a church falling apart at the seams and it's just more than a bit rich that we are supposed to take the words of someone like you seriously. Well, I don't and all I'm seeing is a self-regarding “liberal” “catholic” journalist with a poor grasp of the religion they claim to be part of.

Ireland has no divine right to be Catholic and there are plenty of examples in history of Catholicism dying out in a country, e.g. England, North Africa. Catholicism is a choice and there many who decide to reject it. If it dies out in Ireland the Irish people will have no one to blame but themselves.

St. Patrick and the saints of Ireland send us holy priests and Bishops to restore the faith in Ireland.

Comment by: johnathan rice
Posted: 26/05/2015 15:14:58

There is an article in the old catholic encyclopedia about modernism. It says the best way to find out if someone is a modernist is to look at how they treat dogma. If they deny dogma they are modernists. This entire referendum is a denial of dogma. Its a denial of the truths handed down by Christ himself. The Church cannot and will not change dogma, BUT the Church leaders must uphold it, and that is what has been very sadly lacking here. The Church leaders in Ireland have not upheld their own faith, and the teachings of Christ. They have let down their people and betrayed Our Lord. I wound't want to be a bishop at the particular judgement with that on my hands. We should pray for Ireland and pray for those Bishops.

Comment by: Martin
Posted: 26/05/2015 12:59:14

I see yet another person has used this to jump on the "women's ordination" bandwagon and I wish the Tablet would stop publishing such comments. It's an absolute theological and ontological impossibility. A woman can no more be a priest than I can be a mother. End of story.

Comment by: mamamia
Posted: 26/05/2015 11:02:51

The RCC cannot change Christ's commandments even if they wanted to for niceness sake. They are for all people, heterosexual & LGBT. When they are abused the result is STDs & HIV (which is an agonising death). Their civil rights, of course, must be protected but by way of Civil Unions rather than Marriage, which has been identified for time immemorial as the union of man & woman for the purposes of procreation. To hijack Marriage in this way was to try and put a moral attachment to their "right" which is similar to saying that adultery, fornication, polygamy etc. can also be viewed as "moral rights". Their activists have brought disrespect on their campaign by bringing to court anyone who exercised their own human right to disagree with their "logic" and showed no concern if family businesses were snuffed out as a consequence.

Comment by: scotty
Posted: 25/05/2015 19:06:24

and the first place to change its theology of human sexuality is inside the church itself----open the door to non-celibate ministry, women, married men

Comment by: Bob Hayes
Posted: 25/05/2015 12:27:49

Ursula Halligan calls for the Church to 'reexamine its theology of human sexuality'. This is an example of the Orwellian double-speak used by the so-called reformers: what she is actually calling for is a rejection of Christ's teaching about the nature of marriage and human sexuality.

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