Irish voters will decide today whether to legalize same-gender marriage in this most Catholic of nations. If they succeed, the vote would be the first national referendum in the world to endorse marriage equality.
Catholic supporters of the “Yes” campaign have been prominent and manifold, with the unsurprising exception of the nation’s Catholic bishops. Many observers are noting that the stature of Ireland’s once powerful church hierarchy is now falling.
Catholics’ outspoken opposition to the hierarchy’s position reveals an Irish church undergoing fundamental shifts, what Daily Beast columnist J.P. O’Malley describes as:
“[T]he complete collapse of the old guard of archaic, socially-repressive Catholic institutions that have dominated Irish society since the Free State was formed in 1922…What this referendum represents is a seismic shift in the zeitgeist: progressive-modern-Ireland is finally breaking free from the shackles of a de-facto Catholic State that was unofficially run from Rome for decades.”
Initially, Ireland’s bishops refrained from the harsh rhetoric and showy displays favored by many American bishops on this topic, but this restraint changed as the referendum approached. Their initial statement about the referendum’s announcement did not even ask voters to oppose marriage equality, merely to think it over. Fintan O’Toole wrote in The New York Times:
“[The bishops’] ability to influence the referendum on same-sex marriage is limited. Many church leaders have avoided taking a hard line. This owes something to Pope Francis’s more conciliatory tone on homosexuality, but even more to an awareness that many of the faithful. . .no longer take church teaching on sexuality as gospel. The archbishop of Dublin, Diarmuid Martin, went so far as to warn church leaders not to use ‘language which is insensitive and over-judgmental’ — a warning surely rooted in his understanding of the other, more personal force in this debate.”
Due to the Catholic Church’s domineering influence, Ireland did not decriminalize homosexuality until 1993. Now, polling shows marriage equality support consistently above 70%. Young Irish citizens living abroad are returning home to cast their vote. In other signs of change, leading politician Leo Varadkar came out as gay several months ago, and Ireland’s government has repeatedly been clear that church worker discrimination will not be allowed if the referendum is approved.
Rita O’Connor, a parishioner of Dublin’s cathedral, succinctly summarized this cultural shift, and the thinking of many Irish Catholics, when she told an Irish Times journalist:
“I’m just going to vote for gay people because I have nothing against them…I can’t understand why anybody is against it…[The bishops’ opposition] is a stupid carry-on.”
There is a deep reality behind these sentiments, documented by Bondings 2.0 in the months leading up to today’s vote (see articles listed at the end of this post). Lay Catholics, like their counterparts in many other nations, have been at the forefront of pro-equality campaigning. Former Irish president Mary McAleese, who has a gay son, gave a moving address earlier this week, challenging anti-LGBT voices who claim marriage equality will harm Irish children. She said, in part:
“We who are parents, brothers and sisters, colleagues and friends of Ireland’s gay citizens, we know how they have suffered because of second class citizenship. This referendum is about them and about them alone. The only children who are certain to be affected by this referendum are Ireland’s gay children. It is their future that is at stake…
“We the majority, we have 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, quite literally, once and for all in our Constitution. A yes vote costs the rest of us nothing. A no vote costs our gay children everything.”
What has been unique to Ireland is the strength of public support from the clergy and religious women. Throughout the campaign, clergy and religious women have been more vocal in their endorsement of marriage equality than in almost any other nation that has debated the issue. One priest came out as gay during a sermon in which he endorsed marriage equality. which his congregation met with applause. Redemptorist Fr. Tony Flannery, the founder of the Association of Catholic Priests in Ireland, predicted that 25% of Irish priests might vote for marriage equality today, according to a report in Buzzfeed.
As one of the world’s most Catholic nations historically, a “Yes” victory in Ireland today can have ramifications in the Catholic world beyond Ireland, too.
Add your prayers to those of Catholics worldwide that Irish voters make the Christian choice and endorse marriage equality today!
–Bob Shine, New Ways Ministry
Articles on Ireland’s referendum on Bondings 2.0
September 8: “Ireland’s Catholics March Onward for LGBT Equality”
March 14: “LGBT Rainbows Are Appearing Over Ireland”