Irish Referendum on Same Sex Marriage is Challenge for Whole Church

Celebrating 'Yes' in Dublin on May 23.

It may seem strange for a “Dispatch from Johannesburg” to examine Ireland’s recent gay marriage referendum for a United States-based Catholic magazine. But the country’s 62 percent support for constitutionally redefining civil marriage resonates with all three of our nations and challenges the way we see ourselves as church.

The Irish decision is remarkable. First, Ireland is the first country to introduce same sex marriage by referendum rather than by parliamentary legislation or by judicial intervention. Second, the vote was convincing: the “Yes” vote carried all but one county—winning from liberal areas like Dublin to more conservative rural areas—and was supported across political and demographic lines. Third, this happened in what is still considered a Catholic country.


For South Africans, same-sex unions are nothing new. On December 1, 2005 South Africa’s Constitutional Court, ruling in the case Minister of Home Affairs vs Fourie, concluded that the existing law that defined civil marriage as between a man and a woman violated our 1996 Constitution and Bill of Rights that insists on, inter alia, non-discrimination on the grounds of sexual orientation. This made South Africa the first (and only) African country, the first state in the southern hemisphere and the fifth in the world to legalize same-sex marriage.

In summing up the Court’s judgment, Judge Albie Sachs wrote:

"The exclusion of same-sex couples from the benefits and responsibilities of marriage… represents a harsh if oblique statement by the law that same-sex couples are outsiders, and that their need for affirmation and protection of their intimate relations as human beings is somehow less than that of heterosexual couples. It reinforces the wounding notion that they are to be treated as biological oddities, as failed or lapsed human beings who do not fit into normal society, and, as such, do not qualify for the full moral concern and respect that our Constitution seeks to secure for everyone. It signifies that their capacity for love, commitment and accepting responsibility is by definition less worthy of regard than that of heterosexual couples."

The Constitution with its Bill of Rights is the supreme law of the land, and the Constitutional Court is the final arbiter of all laws. Had there been a referendum in South Africa, same-sex marriage would have lost. Large segments of South African society are deeply against it. (Homphobia is evident within parts of South African society—though there are suggestions that, particularly among younger people, this is changing.)

To accommodate this opposition, South Africa allows religious ministers to function as civil marriage officers under a kind of compromise: clergy are not obliged to perform marriage ceremonies that go against their conscience or religious doctrine. This privilege does not extend to civil service officials, however.

Part of the reason for this, and for South African homophobia, is that South Africa is a religious country, influenced by a literalist reading of the Bible (though, as in Ireland and the United States, there is a marked shift towards secularization). There is also a strongly homophobic strand in traditional African culture—though many anthropologists argue that this is a product of 19th Century colonial influences.

Though we now both belong to a small but growing group of nations that have enacted these new laws, South Africa and Ireland are different in how this happened. What we have in common however, together with all other members of the club, is strong official religious opposition to these changes—and the fact that that opposition failed.

Why did it fail? In South Africa, it’s quite simple: no referendum, therefore no way that churches could mobilize voters, many of them already hostile to the idea of same-sex unions. Ireland’s vote, we may assume, was partly a result of public irritation at a long history of the Catholic hierarchy’s often heavy-handed intervention in public life, further compounded by the child abuse scandals that have shaken even committed Catholics’ trust in the bishops and clergy.

The claim of “poor catechesis” or insufficient evangelization is another popular reason given for the support among Catholics for same-sex policies throughout the church—one that is also frequently used as we read of the divergent views being expressed by Catholics in the run-up to October’s Synod on the Family.

But I am unconvinced by this. It presumes that “if we tell them what the truth is, they’ll believe and follow.” This assumes a kind of non-thinking approach to catechesis, based on a memorize-and-believe model of education that presumes omniscience of the sender and acceptance of the receiver. It assumes, too, a church that is the sole provider of information and the source of all knowledge: in most parts of the world this situation no longer exists.

Science, the observation of nature, has advanced in so many areas about human and animal biology, particularly about the existence of same-sex oriented minorities in about 2,000 higher species. Genetic and neurological research strongly suggest natural in-built tendencies toward one’s own gender in such minorities, not as disorders but as differences that can be seen as having the same ultimate significance as being left-handed or ambidextrous. If we no longer hold to the prejudice against left-handedness, why discriminate on this matter one might well ask.

For the church the answer is obvious: doctrine is unchanging and unchangeable. A corollary to this (made often in the debate around the Family Synod) is: if we change this, then everything is up for grabs and our authority collapses. (We’ve heard this before). Better to deny everything, even if we reject evidence and common sense in the process, even if we develop counter-theories that appear like pseudo-science.

Earlier I quoted Judge Albie Sachs’ argument in the South African Fourie judgment. Having read the judgment a number of times, I am struck that no one, so far as I know, ever used this eloquent statement to reflect theologically on what we might learn from it. Such reflection should not have been alien to us as Catholics—we do it all the time in Catholic Social Ethics. Catholic Social Teaching is a classic example where the idea of doctrinal change and development is not only common, but integral.

Catholic Social Teaching would be meaningless and useless without constant engagement with contemporary socio-political realities, with sciences like economics and politics, and with the best of secular political philosophy. Why did we not engage with Judge Sachs’ reasoning? Speaking personally, it was fear: fear of where an honest engagement with it in the light of our teachings on marriage and sexuality would lead. Fear, too, of how such conclusions would fly with superiors and authorities in the church and how this would impact on my ministry as priest and scholar.

The problem is that assuming this approach, we, the church, lose authority. By merely asserting existing doctrines, by clamping down on those who ask difficult questions and excluding them from the conversation, by indulging in groupthink or simply avoiding the issue, we shut ourselves off from the many important challenges of the world we are supposed to engage with. Most Catholics cannot withdraw from the world, many find themselves in a permanent state of cognitive dissonance: professing one thing, living another.

Such a split-level life adds ammunition to the new atheists, who quite happily exploit our tendency to teach our Catholics to lump together tradition into unchanging and unchangeable doctrine. This makes our deepest fear of collapse a self-fulfilling prophecy, particularly since living in cognitive dissonance is unhealthy and ultimately unsustainable.

Archbishop Diarmuid Martin of Dublin rightly commented that Ireland’s referendum was a “reality check” for the church. But poor catechesis and bad evangelization are not sufficient explanation for the church’s “loss” in Ireland. We need a new, more open approach to theology, a return to the disambiguation of levels of doctrinal truth and how we understand faith.

It has been heartening to see a greater openness to internal dialogue under Pope Francis, saddening to see so much resistance too. An event like the Irish referendum will test our resolve to be more open, more critical in our understanding of tradition. Or it may be read as a call to draw the wagons into a tight circle to fight off the forces of secularism.

None of this should surprise us. More than when it happened in South Africa, Ireland has thrown down a challenge to all. How will the Catholic Church respond?

Anthony Egan, S.J., is America’s Johannesburg correspondent.

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