Wednesday 20 May 2015

The Irish Marriage Referendum

I wasn't going to get involved in the Irish referendum on same sex marriage. I'm not Irish and I've had enough bruising experience of discussions of Irish politics to know it's generally better for an outsider to keep out of it.

But I confess that Twitter has sucked me back in. While it's undoubtedly a good thing that this has gone to a constitutional referendum (a democratic safeguard that we in Scotland didn't have the benefit of) I've seen a combination of foreign interference and smug establishment complacency  coupled with the handful of usual nutjobs attracted by the possibility of a good dust-up. I've also been bombarded by Irish friends on social media with the usual feel good marketing of the Yes campaign, strong on sentiment, weak on argument.

So here's why I'd vote No. Marriage between a woman and a man, supported by social pressure to be sexually exclusive and lifelong, is the best way to rear children. It promotes a stable environment for childrearing which works with the biological genetic attachment of parents to their biological children and the sexual differences of women and men. It's not perfect and sometimes, in particular cases and circumstances, other arrangements might be better. But, on the whole, it works better than other arrangements and is the one that should be generally encouraged if possible. It's also the main reason why the State should have any interest in legislating on relationships: it has an interest in supporting successful childrearing in a way that it doesn't have an interest in supporting simply erotic relationships.

If you strongly disagree with that claim, vote Yes. If you think that bringing up children by two different sex biological parents isn't generally the best environment for children vote Yes and demolish marriage. But if you're voting Yes simply because you're (rightly) sickened by the way gay people have been treated in the past, then find another way of supporting them and supporting other minority groups in society. If you doubt that, watch two gay men, Paddy Manning and Keith Mills talking about this:

This referendum, like all discussions of same sex marriage round the world, is almost entirely about whether natural marriage is the best way to rear children. But in the case of the Irish referendum, that's made even clearer by the wording of the Constitution which, if amended by the introduction of section 4,  would read:

Article 41 1:

(1) The State recognises the Family as the natural primary and fundamental unit group of Society, and as a moral institution possessing inalienable and imprescriptible rights, antecedent and superior to all positive law.

(2) The State, therefore, guarantees to protect the Family in its constitution and authority, as the necessary basis of social order and as indispensable to the welfare of the Nation and the State.


(*4) Marriage may be contracted in accordance with law by two persons without distinction as to their sex.

Why on earth two men or two women in an erotic relationship should form the 'natural primary and fundamental unit of Society' I have absolutely no idea and I've not seen any argument supporting that view. I suspect most Yes voters find this part of the Constitution an embarrassment because it only makes sense on the essentially natural law view of marriage I sketched above. As the Irish Constitution stands, it simply reflects that idea of natural marriage which is also reflected in Catholic Social Teaching:

214. The priority of the family over society and over the State must be affirmed. The family in fact, at least in its procreative function, is the condition itself for their existence. With regard to other functions that benefit each of its members, it proceeds in importance and value the functions that society and the State are called to perform. The family possesses inviolable rights and finds its legitimization in human nature and not in being recognized by the State. The family, then, does not exist for society or the State, but society and the State exist for the family.

Irish law as it stands recognizes natural marriage. If the amendment is passed, it will go on talking about natural marriage, but apply that concept to a set of relationships that in no conceivable way can be described as 'the natural primary and fundamental unit group of Society, and as a moral institution possessing inalienable and imprescriptible rights, antecedent and superior to all positive law'. The Constitution's privileging of marriage as natural then becomes incoherent.

Ireland has a chance to demonstrate that it is possible to respect and support gay people without destroying the central institution of the natural family that protects the welfare of children. I hope you take it by voting No.


  1. Hi Lazarus, a belated happy Easter to you (well we do have a few days to go until Pentecost). I'm curious though: has nothing happened in the Scottish or British political scene recently that was worthy of comment? Only jesting - what you post on is, of course, entirely up to you and, in any case, it's good to have you back.

    We certainly live in strange times. I suspect that one of the reasons that astonishingly radical perspectives of human flourishing, culture, sexuality and so forth have become so dominant in recent decades is that the 'traditional' or 'conservative' understandings of these things were so instinctual and easy to take for granted that their defenders, in the absence of a systematic Catholic, Aristotelian or natural law perspective, were essentially inarticulate in the face of the revolution.

    Even today, when the need is absolutely clear and pressing, it can seem a bit quirky to see well-reasoned arguments for the Catholic or instinctual understanding of, say, marriage, in print - for those who think it shouldn't need stated anyway!

  2. Something happened? What could you mean??!

    Sorry I've been a bit silent recently! Combination of lots of work and just not knowing quite what to say about the election which would be helpful. (And yet not wanting to preserve an Olympian detachment from events which are so obviously pressing.)

    It is odd to have to articulate this 'commonsense' understanding. Aristotle says it's more important to know that something is the case than why -indeed, I can't help thinking that a certain pious acceptance of natural realities is part of human flourishing. But it leads to problems when that acceptance is attacked: even the flimsiest reason for a change will seem stronger than the unarticulated basis of stability. We're also in the unfortunate situation in the Catholic Church of having abandoned much of the understanding of natural law in favour of a sort of fideism. Couldn't have come at a worse time.

    Much to ponder on in the future! Easy to get dispirited, but that's the one option we can't allow ourselves!

  3. Actually, hesitating to add to the mountain of comment on GE2015 is likely no bad thing: maybe it's better to allow events to settle down a bit first.

    Part of the problem, of which the redefinition of marriage is emblematic, is that we post-moderns are so reluctant to allow anything, not even brute physical facts, the most obvious realities, get in the way of an individualistically-conceived self-fulfilment.

    Coming to think of it, if you have already redefined marriage as an institution lacking a broader social meaning and meant primarily to foster the couple's own happiness, then the doors to even more adventurous definitions are wide-open.

    Still, as you say, it's important to avoid pessimism, even if many contemporary trends are, well, 'perplexing'. Besides, when all is said and done, ultimately our sure and certain hope transcends all of this!