Monday 25 May 2015

The Irish 'Yes' to Gay marriage

Saturday was a terribly sad day for those who had campaigned so well and so bravely against a Yes vote in Ireland. It's would be wrong to single out a few for particular praise although names do spring to mind. I remember how I felt after the Scottish Parliament's vote. You have my prayers and best wishes.

I confess to having slightly more sympathy with Archbishop Martin's remarks on the matter than most orthodox Catholics have shown:

The archbishop told the broadcaster RTE: “We [the church] have to stop and have a reality check, not move into denial of the realities. We won’t begin again [...] with a sense of denial.

“I appreciate how gay and lesbian men and women feel on this day. That they feel this is something that is enriching the way they live. I think it is a social revolution.”

The archbishop personally voted no, arguing that gay rights should be respected “without changing the definition of marriage”. “I ask myself, most of these young people who voted yes are products of our Catholic school system for 12 years. I’m saying there’s a big challenge there to see how we get across the message of the church,” he added.

[Guardian here].

What he says -if taken literally- is absolutely true. (Whether he should have said anything else is another matter.) There is a changed reality about the place of Catholicism in Ireland that has to be faced up to. There is a reality about how people can go through 12 years of Catholic schooling and then vote Yes. He's quite right to see a big challenge.

Where I don't think it's particularly helpful is to focus on the specifically Irish aspects of the Yes vote. When I first began to look seriously at the sociology of religion, Ireland and Poland were both brandished as exceptions to the fact of increased secularization in Europe. (I'm not going into the disputed details here, merely stating what does seem to be a broad fact: that Western Europeans have grown increasingly estranged from the institutional churches.) Both exceptions were normally attributed to 'cultural defence': where nations were threatened culturally by a dominant culture, religion would survive secularization as a means of defence against that dominant force. The implication of this was that, in the case of Ireland, when Britain became less of a cultural threat, the normal process of secularization would continue.

So when people refer to (eg) the child abuse scandal in Ireland or the existence of a particular brand of joyless Jansenism as the reason for the increasing lack of institutional influence by the Church in Ireland, I'm afraid I tend to switch off a little. There is of course a specifically Irish story where there are these events and others like them. But the details don't matter. If it hadn't been this, it would have been that: secularization  was coming. Ireland is simply facing the same pressures towards secularization that the rest of us in Western Europe have already felt.

I don't know what you do about secularization. We don't completely understand the reasons behind it. I've tended to concentrate on the intellectual resources the Church needs to rebuild, but I do so, absolutely sure that's only a part of a much bigger portfolio of solutions, most of which I have no idea of. To see that, let's take a concrete example of a Yes voter. (It's based on a friend although I've changed some details.) He's divorced and remarried. His wife is divorced and remarried. (Both of these in circumstances where, certainly in everyday terms, they weren't 'to blame'.) Brought up in a strong working class Irish Catholic family he drifted away from practising in his early teens. He's got a lot of gay friends. Most of his family are either divorced, living together, or have had children out of wedlock. When he's come back into contact with the Church on 'family occasions' (birth death etc) the priests have either been lack lustre or (in one case) positively destructive. He's intelligent, but simply hasn't the sort of mind that would put up with a three month course on natural law and society or see the referendum as being about the details of constitutional law. For him, it was simply about whether Ireland's attitude to gays had to change (and giving the Church a light kicking as part of that).

Of course, lots of things you could say here. Certainly, there's a lot of failure on his part to engage with Catholic teaching. Certainly, you might hope that hope and pray that grace will lead him back to the Church. But if you were devising a plan to convince him that the moral teaching of the Church at least deserved a hearing, I'm not sure where you'd start. (Well, certainly, I'm not sure.) And I suspect it's that sort of case -and it would do not just for Ireland but for most of Western Europe- that you're typically facing.

Just to underline this -in case you don't regularly read my blog- the solution will not involve trimming the Church's teaching to suit my friend 'where he is'. (If you did, you might get him back a couple of times a year for Mass, but that would be it.) Obviously, making sure priests didn't behave like idiots would help, but that's unrealistic: there are many good priests now, but I doubt you could ever devise a Church where the majority were more than competent.  (Most people are just competent; we shouldn't be surprised the same goes for priests.) So while there are a lot of specific things we could certainly do better on, I look at the typical case of secularized Western Europe -which Ireland has just joined- and find it incredibly difficult to suggest a quick fix.

On the other hand, the No campaign demonstrated the existence of a significant number of brave, intelligent women and men in the Irish Church. We can at least stand now as part of the Universal Church and work on this common problem together.


  1. I'm Irish, from the usual not so Catholic Catholic background for people of my age - mid-forties. I can tell you that the process of secularization has been well underway for decades and that very few people of my age or younger have any significant dealings with the Catholic Church. In the main it's simply not relevant to their lives at all. It's used, much like many people use the Church of England, as a convenient place to mark significant occasions - births, marriages, deaths and to enjoy the parties and family get togethers which surround First Communions and Confirmations. Apart from that, it's almost completely irrelevant to most people's lives. Visit Ireland and go to Sunday Mass either in a large city, a large town, a small village or a rural church. You'll find it largely empty with the congregation made up mainly of elderly men and women, perhaps with some immigrants from still more staunchly Catholic countries such as the Philippines and Poland. Catholic schooling doesn't make much difference. In my time we spent most of our religion classes either ignoring the teachings or openly mocking them - I doubt it's greatly different now. There is no quick fix - I doubt there's any fix at all. When Ireland, Malta, Spain and Portugal have legal recognition of same-sex unions, perhaps it's time to recognise that the Catholic Church's ability to influence public opinion and to block or amend laws which contradict the church's teachings has waned to such an extent that it's now just one of many voices clamouring for attention. And, at that, a voice which most people have long since chosen to ignore when it suits them. Abortion will be the next big battle in Ireland. Public opinion polls published over the last few years suggest that a campaign to relax the legal restrictions on the availability of abortion in Ireland will succeed relatively easily.

    1. And writing almost exactly three years later, just after the referendum to allow abortion, let me acknowledge just how prescient you were in that final sentence.