28 May 2015, The Tablet

Clear challenge to the Church in Ireland

Ireland’s bishops are considering the way forward after the country voted two to one in favour of same-sex marriage

The intervention of two prominent Irish Catholic women, one a former president and the other a journalist, has been credited with helping to shift public opinion towards a “yes” vote in Ireland’s referendum on legalising same-sex marriage.

With the country in the international spotlight as the first state in the world to enshrine gay marriage in its constitution by popular vote, questions were asked as to why this once socially conservative nation, 84 per cent of whose population self-identified as Catholic in the 2011 census, should have defied the Church so obviously on this issue.

According to Fr Brendan Hoban of the Association of Catholic Priests, the intervention on the “yes” side of former President Mary McAleese and broadcaster TV3’s political editor Ursula Halligan, both practising Catholics, the one supporting her gay son, the other coming to terms with her own sexuality, should not be underestimated. A series of personal testimonies of high-profile gay politicians, sports stars and their family members also contributed to the “yes” side.

Dublin-based Redemptorist Fr Gerry O’Connor explained that “mothers and grandmothers made it abundantly clear in conversations that they planned to vote ‘yes’. They spoke of a care and love for sons and daughters, nephews and nieces, cousins and neighbours’ children who were gay, and these maternal giants in the Church were adamant that they wanted their gay friends to have the same opportunities as their straight friends.”

Augustinian Fr Iggy O’Donovan, who is based in Limerick where today more than 50 per cent of births are outside marriage, believes Mary McAleese’s role in the debate was “crucial” and her “finest hour”.

Speaking at a pro-“yes” event in Dublin just days before the vote, McAleese appealed for a “yes” vote and recalled the difficult time her son, Justin, had had as a young gay Catholic teenager, saying: “The only children affected by this referendum will be Ireland’s gay children. It is their future which is at stake. It is in our hands.”

Pointing out that Ireland’s gay community was too few in number to win the referendum on its own, she urged the majority of voters to “make it happen for them and for all the unborn gay children who are relying on us to end the branding, end the isolation, end the inequality, literally once and for all”.

Her understanding of equality was not shared by Archbishop Diarmuid Martin of Dublin, who on Sunday said he believed in a “concept of equality which also recognises difference”. Ahead of the vote, he had suggested that civil partnership could be tweaked to improve its provisions for same-sex couples without having to change the constitutional definition of marriage.

In Fr Hoban’s view, there is no getting away from the fact that 62 per cent of people, most of whom are Catholics, ignored the bishops’ arguments, signalling that the days of religious conformity are past. The Irish Church has been fatally undermined by its own clerical abuse scandals and the cover-ups by those in authority, and the people are in a defiant mood.

Many elderly Catholics voted “yes” and this was compounded by the politicisation of the young, including a cohort of Irish emigrants who returned from abroad specially to vote in the landmark referendum. The latter group was encouraged by a “home-to-vote” campaign conducted via Twitter, Facebook and YouTube.

Fr O’Connor suggested that the Church and people under the age of 40 live in parallel worlds when it comes to sexual ethics, adding: “The parents of the under-40s rejected the Church’s teaching on contraception and now this generation is rejecting the Church’s teaching on homosexuality.”

President Michael D. Higgins will sign the Marriage Equality Bill into law before the end of July and the constitution will be amended to include the following sentence in Article 41: “Marriage may be contracted in accordance with law by two persons without distinction as to their sex.” This gives same-sex marriages equal status under the constitution as a marriage between a man and a woman in civil law. The country’s first civil gay marriages may take place as early as September.

Within the Catholic Church, the implications are only just beginning to sink in. Last week, Archbishop Martin asked priests in his diocese to identify five out of 199 parishes in which to pilot a new outreach to young people. The bishops are to discuss whether to withdraw Catholic priests from their role as civil marriage solemnisers at their June meeting.

Fr O’Donovan believes the outcome gives the Church a chance “to regroup and get the monkey of the state off their back”. He voted “yes” because he would like to see a greater separation between Church and State.

“The people have spoken and what the vote has said is that the civil law of the land can no longer be determined by the hierarchy,” said Fr O’Donovan, who is in favour of the Church restricting itself to only solemnising church weddings and the state looking after those who want a civil wedding.

As for concerns about the future of the Catholic marriage support agency, Accord, Fr O’Donovan said: “If Accord wants to push Catholic marriage, I would support it because I believe in Catholic marriage. But if it comes at the price that you have to compromise your principles, then don’t take the state’s money –  stand on your own two feet. Accord doesn’t need to be propped up by the State.”

As to where the Irish Church can go from here, some, such as the radical reformer Fr Tony Flannery, believe a period of at least a generation is needed when the church authorities say nothing about sex. Others, such as moral theologian Dr John Murray, believe in renewed catechesis following years of moribund teaching by the Irish clergy.

Whichever path is taken, with weekly Mass attendances down to 20 per cent of the faithful and as low as 2 per cent in some inner-city parishes, Ireland is once again mission territory and ripe for evangelisation.


Reaction to the vote

Ursula Halligan

(political editor of the Irish television station TV3, in a blog on The Tablet website)

“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 – which went global as an account of a lifetime of passing as heterosexual – I pointed out that as I was growing up, the worst of my miseries were caused by me being a good Catholic girl, knowing the Church I belonged to and loved regarded me as aberrant.

Last 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’s values. Today, the energy that enlivened the early Church is in short supply. Perhaps, if there were more around, it might inspire the hierarchy to reexamine its theology of human sexuality and its understanding of what it is to be human.”

Dr John Murray
(Moral theologian at the Mater Dei Institute, Dublin)

“The result of the marriage referendum is a great disappointment and worry for me as a Catholic, theologian, husband and father, and Irishman.

The previous legal understanding of civil marriage in Ireland, based mainly on reason and common sense, recognised rightly that the conjugal union of a man and a woman is unique.

The distinction between the sexes, the complementarity of husband and wife, the foundational importance of the natural tie between parents and their children, the responsibility of parents to raise their children, the human right of a child to know and be cared for by his/her mother and father where possible, the distinctive contributions that moms and dads make to their children’s lives – all these natural principles were recognised and protected and promoted in law and social policy and culture.

But this referendum has enshrined a denial of all these principles in Irish law and will support further legal, educational and cultural efforts to weaken or destroy the traditional vision of family.

Diarmuid Martin
(Archbishop of Dublin, in an interview with RTE on 23 May)

“It is very clear that, if this referendum is an affirmation of the views of young people, the Church has a huge task in front of it to find a language to be able talk to, and get its message over to, young people not just on this issue but in general …

The Church needs to do a reality check right across the board, to look at the things it is doing well, to look at the areas where we really have to say, ‘Have we drifted away completely from young people?’

We need to have robust discussions and challenge one another and we are not doing that – we are becoming a Church of the like-minded and a safe space for the like-minded, rather than the Church which Pope Francis is talking about.

That does not mean we renounce our teaching on fundamental values on marriage and the family, nor does it mean that we dig into the trenches. We need to find as in so many areas a new language which is fundamentally ours, that speaks to, is understood and is appreciated by, others.”

Linda Hogan
(vice provost/chief academic officer, professor of ecumenics, Trinity College Dublin)

“The unequivocal ‘yes’ vote in last week’s same-sex referendum is an endorsement of the legitimacy, integrity and equality of gay relationships, and a confirmation that the marriages forged through these relationships can play a vital role in promoting the common good.

This highlights how fundamentally out of step the Catholic Church is with the general view of the moral quality of gay relationships, among young and old. Indeed this is reinforced by the evidence that a significant portion of those who voted ‘no’ made it clear that they do not, or in some cases no longer, accept the Catholic Church’s teaching that homosexual acts are intrinsically disordered.

Rather the outcome suggests that the majority of Irish people believe that, similar to heterosexual relationships, homosexual relationships can be life-affirming, just and loving, and that the moral worth of relationships should be judged not by the sexual practices of the partners, but by the quality of the relationships.”


Lessons from the spirit of the Gospel

For the Catholic Church, and especially for its leadership, the result of the referendum on same-sex marriage is catastrophic, writes Gabriel Daly.

It was plain that many bishops found it hard to reconcile their duty to reflect Roman disapproval of homosexuality with sympathy for their fellow human beings. Most of them, having dutifully condemned gay marriage, hastened to add, somewhat unconvincingly, that they had nothing against homosexuals.

Far and away the wisest – and most embarrassed – bishop was Diarmuid Martin, Archbishop of Dublin, who after the referendum said the Church faces the huge task of finding the language to communicate its message to young people.

But time could be wasted looking for the means to communicate a message, if the message itself needs careful theological study. Church reform has to take place before the language will emerge that talks convincingly not only to the young but to the Church and the world at large. The archbishop gets to the root of the problem in a further remark: “The Church’s teaching, if it isn’t expressed in terms of love – then it’s got it wrong.” Tell that to the Roman Curia! It is a sentiment of which Pope Francis would approve, but it has far to go before it is generally accepted in the Church.

The debate that preceded the referendum revealed much that calls for careful theological attention. The “no” vote, promoted by a nervous episcopate, turned out to be ideological and abstract, and indistinguishable from secular discourse on the subject. One felt that in a complicated debate, frequently taken up with abstruse gynaecological and legal issues, it might have been deemed intrusive to mention the Christian Gospel.

This was borne out by listening carefully to some of the most impressive contributors to the debate, who were not merely gay people themselves, but also their closest relatives, particularly the mothers of gay sons. They brought a human dimension to the matter under discussion by speaking movingly of their experiences of homophobic bullying, intimidation and, above all, the feeling of being excluded from the rest of society. They spoke eloquently about how much it would mean to them if the possibility of marriage with someone of their own sex were given to them by the State, and about how they would be traumatised by a successful outcome for the “no” vote.

Because of what I was hearing, I found it impossible not to think of the words and example of Jesus of Nazareth, who gave many examples of what he meant by love of neighbour. Perhaps the most appropriate to our topic being “I was a stranger and you welcomed me” (Matthew 25:35). Surprisingly few people seemed willing to concede that welcoming gay people into the ranks of the civilly married actually bolsters rather than impairs marriage as an ideal.

In the light of the Gospel, voting “yes” was caring for a wounded minority who were strangers in their own community. A new perspective could refocus attention on the human condition rather than on abstract ideology. In this new perspective, voting “no” would amount to passing by on the other side of the road (Luke 10:25-37).

The Irish bishops did not distinguish themselves in a tricky situation. However, there is no reason to suppose that bishops of other countries would have behaved very differently.  The Irish bishops had the misfortune to live in a country governed by a very conservative constitution that reflected the values of an age that has passed.

We face a similar situation when the second part of the Synod on the Family will witness a contest between authoritarian traditionalists and those less obsessed with ideological matters that have little to do with the essential message of the Christian Gospel.

Gabriel Daly OSA is a former lecturer in theology at Trinity College Dublin.

What do you think?


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User Comments (3)

Comment by: Speighdd
Posted: 01/06/2015 03:21:21

The challenge presented to the Church by the result of the Irish referendum, is how to rescue its theology and philosophy from their current scepticism and apophasis, that leave them with all questions and no answers, and vulnerable to the accusation of sterile self indulgence; and to restore faith inspired, and rational, insights concerning universal heavenly and earthly reality, to the heart of all academic disciplines. Sarah Mac Donald’s account, above, of the referendum classically demonstrates just how the abandonment of such insights has distorted current views, particularly of equality. Originally a matter of identification among human souls, spiritual equality is no longer seen as any different from material uniformity in bodily conditioning and environmental resources. A parallel rejection, in moral reasoning, of disinterestedness as indifference, has reduced public morality wholly to sentiment. However, feeling is no substitute for thought, debate no substitute for insight, and fragmented statistical studies no substitute for understanding universal truth.

Comment by: Athene
Posted: 01/06/2015 01:12:03

The reality check that has enveloped the Irish will be reflected very soon in family law and in contract law. I wish them well in coping with the myriad consequences that will result from the No vote. It will take much more than emotion in order to promote and maintain the common good.

Comment by: sprietsma29
Posted: 29/05/2015 22:37:07

I fear that the Irish vote will cause repercussians when the next session of the Synod on the Family meets. People are apt to revert to defending the status quo.

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