Has the Marriage Referendum Victory Ended Catholicism in Ireland?

The Irish vote for marriage equality will certainly have great effects on the lives of the LGBT people of Ireland.  For those who are interested in Catholic LGBT issues, another question may be equally important:  What effect with the marriage equality victory have on the Catholic Church in Ireland?

A number of commentators have provided answers to that question, and I will try to summarize their positions in this blog post.

The two major insights about the future role of the Catholic Church in Ireland that have emerged from the commentary on the referendum are that  1) Church leaders no longer have political influence over the Catholic population; 2) Church leaders’ continued opposition to marriage equality means that they will continue to alienate the already distant younger generation.

Writing in The Irish Times, Omar Encarnación observed that because of child sex abuse and other scandals, “the moral and political authority of the Catholic Church had all but collapsed” in Ireland and in many Western European nations.  The fact that so many Irish voters did not heed their bishops’ encouragement to oppose marriage equality is strong evidence that their once powerful political grip has loosened greatly.

Tim Stanley, writing in London’s Telegraph, also saw the vote as the demise of the bishops’ political power, however Stanley identified a different cause for this loss:  the concerted financial backing of progressive political forces.  Stanley wrote:

“To emphasise, the Yes vote was undoubtedly a reflection of growing tolerance towards gays and lesbians. But it was also a politically trendy, media backed, well financed howl of rage against Catholicism. How the Church survives this turn, is not clear. It’ll require a lot of hard work and prayers.”

Joining the view that the Catholic hierarchy suffered a stunning defeat in the referendum was Mary Hunt, whose essay on Religion Dispatches was headlined “Did Ireland Just Bury the Catholic Church?”  Her answer: ” . . . the Irish referendum means that a top-down, clergy-heavy model of church heard its death knell in Dublin.” Replacing this model, Hunt says is a new trend:

“It is for lay Catholics around the world to be clear, as Irish voters were, that we can and will make our own decisions.”

Similarly, Fr. Bernard Lynch, writing in  Gay City Newscalled the referendum a “declaration of independence”:

“We have broken the shackles of our colonial past and our colonial governance by the Roman Catholic Church. We are free at last to live and love as we were born to be.”

But not all commentators see the referendum as an end to Catholic influence in Irish society.  Others see the electoral event as calling for a transformation of the relationship between church and society, particularly in the way that clergy communicate with young people.

On the dotCommonweal blog, Kaitlin Campbell speculated about how young Irish people might have felt when they heard bishops denouncing marriage equality:

“. . . I can’t imagine that many young Catholics enjoy being recruited to fight a culture war, especially if the opposition includes family, friends, and peers. They find it alienating when a priest homilizes about the essential differences between men and women; they would rather hear that “all are welcome” at Mass and rather the homily stick to the gospel. When Catholic identity becomes less about spirituality and more about political battles, something essential is lost…along with thousands of believers.”

Maryknoll Father William Grimm disputed the notion that Catholicism in Ireland is in trouble. Writing from Tokyo on UCAnews.comGrimm reminded readers that people need to see the Catholic Church as more than just the hierarchy, but, instead, as the entire People of God. Through that lens, he offered a different perspective on the Irish situation:

“Rather than the collapse of the Catholic Church, might we be living through a period when the hierarchy must defer to the experience, insight and faith of the mass of Catholics? After all, they, more than celibate clerics, have a clear idea of what might or might not threaten marriage. . . .

“The laity are challenging the leaders of the Church to find ways to affirm the sacramentality of matrimony while recognizing that marriage is a broader and more varied reality with legal, social, cultural and anthropological aspects that may differ from the practice of the Church.”

Gay Catholic Voice Ireland, the national LGBT Catholic organization, also expressed hope for the Church under the leadership example of the laity, In a statement, Dave Donnellan, the group’s leader discussed how poorer neighborhoods of Ireland supported marriage equality, while middle and upper class neighborhoods did not, prompting him to remark:

“How has the Catholic Church yet again found itself alongside the rich and privileged and against the liberation of what continues to be such a historically despised group in so many countries? The referendum result again shows up the Catholic Church’s abdication of its Gospel responsibility to stand alongside the poor and oppressed and be ‘Good News’ to groups that so desperately need to hear it. The LGBT community finally did have the ‘Good News’ preached to them last week but it wasn’t by the Catholic bishops. It was by the 1.2 million voters who voted ‘Yes’ to marriage equality for gay people last Friday.”

Father Tony Flannery, CSsR, a founder of the Association of Catholic Priests Ireland, also saw this referendum moment as an opportunity for changing “business as usual” in the Irish Catholic Church.  In an interview with The Irish Times, he said:

“The day of doctrinaire Catholicism is over in this country. The people are no longer willing to listen to speeches and sermons on morality from the Church. Some might see this as a bad situation, but I would regard it as a time of wonderful opportunity for the Church, if they can recognise it, and learn how to present the fundamental Christian message.

“We need a period of at least a generation, when the Church authorities says nothing about sex. Then they will have a chance to speak about the far more basic aspects of the Christian message – love, forgiveness, mercy, compassion – and have a chance of being heard.”

In a separate Irish Times article, Flannery focused on the importance of Church leaders reaching out to the youth of Ireland:

“[It was] particularly sad was to see the bishops in total opposition to a mass movement of the younger generation.

“The very people whom the church should be trying to listen to, and trying to learn a way of communicating effectively with, were the ones they were driving further away with all their pastorals in each diocese.”

The National Catholic Reporter’s Michael Sean Winters also saw the referendum as signaling a new way for Ireland’s Catholic hierarchy to relate to the people in the pews:

“I do not know the degree to which the people of Ireland rejected traditional marriage but I am one thousand percent certain they rejected the judgmentalism with which the Church has too long, and too often, associated itself.”

The good news for Catholicism is that at least some bishops in Ireland seem to be getting the message that lay people there want change in the way the church operates.  Dublin’s Archbishop Diarmuid Martin has been in the forefront of speaking about the “reality check” that the referendum means to the hierarchy.

Armagh’s Archishop Eamon Martin, head of Ireland’s bishops’ conference, rejected disparaging language about Irish voters made earlier this week by Cardinal Raymond Burke who said they were “worse than pagans” for choosing marriage equality.  In an interview with Irish radio, Archbishop Eamon criticized Burke’s reference:

“I wouldn’t use that language.

“Throughout the debate and the discussion, we did ask people to try to be respectful and inoffensive in language.”

On the eve of the referendum, Derry’s Bishop Donal McKeown warned voters who would oppose marriage equality not to vote with hatred in their heart.  The Huffington Post reported his comments:

“I would hate for people to vote no for bad reasons, for sort of bigoted reasons, for nasty reasons, for bullying reasons. People have to make up their own mind, and I’m quite happy that they can do that in front of God, be it yes or be it no.”

This sampling of comments from bishops is also joined by Killaloe’s Bishop Willie Walsh who criticized the Vatican’s Cardinal Pietro Parolin’s characterization of the referendum result as “a defeat for humanity.”

Fintan O’Toole, an Irish commentator, urged reconciliation between the opposing marriage camps in a recent op-ed in The Irish Times. Writing specifically about the religious dimension of the debate, he saw that everyone will come out a winner because of the vote:

“[I]t looks like a defeat for religious conservatives. But nobody has been defeated. Nobody has been diminished. Irish people comprehensively rejected the notion that our republic is a zero sum game, that what is given to one must be taken from another. Everybody gains from equality — even those who didn’t think they wanted it. Over time, those who are in a minority on this issue will come to appreciate the value of living in a pluralist democracy in which minorities are respected.”

From the statements by several Irish bishops, and so many Catholic lay people, it doesn’t look like Catholicism in Ireland will die.  It will certainly look different than it has in the past, but isn’t that appropriate for a church who follows a Savior who said, “See! I make all things new!”  The referendum offers all Catholics in Ireland an opportunity to build a society and a church that is based on the equality of all.

–Francis DeBernardo, New Ways Ministry

(This post ends our series on the commetaries concerning the marriage equality referendum in Ireland.  For previous posts on the Irish results, see the list below.)

Related articles and  posts:

Crux: “Lamenting the Church’s loss of influence in Ireland”

Bondings 2.0:  The Personal Dimension of Ireland’s Marriage Equality Victory

Bondings 2.0: How Did Catholic Ireland Achieve Such a Definitive Victory for Marriage Equality?

Bondings 2.0: Bishop: Referendum Not ‘Defeat for Humanity,’ But Increases Human Happiness

Bondings 2.0: “Cardinal Kasper: After Ireland, Same-Sex Unions Now ‘Central Issue’ for 2015 Synod

Bondings 2.0: Vatican’s ‘Defeat for Humanity’ Statement Shows Church Officials Have Not Learned from the Irish Example

Bondings 2.0: Irish Referendum Results Warrant a “Reality Check” for the Church Says Dublin Archbishop

Bondings 2.0:  A Great Day for Irish Lay Catholics! And for Lay Catholics in El Salvador, Too!

4 Responses to Has the Marriage Referendum Victory Ended Catholicism in Ireland?

  1. Brian Kneeland says:

    I think that Catholics in the US would also vote contrary to how the bishops are speaking and their hurtful rhetoric. what needs to be done is for hierarchy to listen – listen to experiences as well as to the woundedness that has occurred. if that were to happen we would have a church where “All are welcome”.

  2. […] For Bonding 2.0’s full coverage of Australia’s Catholic LGBT issues, click here, and for our coverage of the Irish referendum and reactions to it, click here.  […]

  3. […] of the Irish as “worse than pagans” for voting for marriage equality, saying he “wouldn’t use that language.” Preceding the vote, his record was more mixed having said religious liberty was being […]

  4. […] observers seem to agree the marriage referendum signaled a new freedom present in Irish Catholicism, it does not mean faith is dying. Could these advancements actually […]

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