The Irish Church has threatened to withdraw priests from their role as registrars of civil marriage if the country votes in favour of gay marriage in a referendum next month.
Such a move could lead to couples needing to be married in separate church and the state ceremonies, as is the case in some other European countries.
The removal of up to 4,000 priests from the state’s roll of Marriage Solemnisers was raised this week by a spokesman for the bishops, who reiterated their warning about withdrawal made during a constitutional convention last year.
In their submission on marriage made to the convention, the bishops stated: “If there were two totally different definitions of marriage, the Church could no longer carry out the civil element.”
Some 13,000 couples out of a total of 22,000 marry in a Catholic church each year. There are just 107 civil registrars, with the state relying heavily on the country’s priests, particularly in rural areas, to perform this function.
Responding to the bishops’ warning, the Taoiseach, Enda Kenny, this week told RTÉ News that it is a matter for the Church to determine whether or not to continue solemnising marriages for the state.
While the bishops’ Council for Marriage and the Family is expected to discuss the issue under its chairman, the Bishop of Clogher, Liam MacDaid, at a meeting this week, no formal decision will be taken by the bishops’ conference on the matter until their next general meeting, which is scheduled for 8 June, two weeks after the referendum.
However, the Archbishop of Dublin, Diarmuid Martin, appears to have been less forthright about following through on the boycott, with his spokesman telling The Irish Times that the archbishop’s view is that you “cross bridges when they come”. No other Catholic bishop has spoken on the matter to date.
Meanwhile, former President Mary McAleese has called for a “yes” vote in the referendum, describing same-sex marriage as a “human rights issue”, and Brendan Butler, of We are Church Ireland, wrote in an open letter this week that “many Catholics, including priests – maybe even a bishop – will welcome our gay and lesbian brothers and sisters to enjoy the same status regarding civil marriage as their other brothers and sisters”.
But the Bishop of Elphin, Kevin Doran, said he regretted that many of the faithful who believe in the uniqueness of marriage as a union between a man and a woman wonder if they are entitled to express this view publicly anymore because it might offend others.