Did Ireland Just Bury The Catholic Church?

Photo taken May 23rd in the streets of Dublin by flickr user William Murphy.

The photo on the front page of the Washington Post said it all on the day after Ireland’s landmark same-sex marriage referendum. Two elderly Carmelite nuns in full habits were pictured leaving their polling place in Malahide, not far from Dublin. The caption read: “Roman Catholic leaders have led the opposition, but opinion polls signaled approval.”wapoireland


Indeed, when the ballots were counted more than 60% of Irish voters agreed that “marriage may be contracted in accordance with law by two persons without distinction as to their sex.” Many people think the vote heralds the end of the Roman Catholic Church as we know it—but I think the reality might be more complicated.

I interpreted the Post’s photo of the nuns in all of its wonderful ambiguity. I assumed that the sisters had voted ‘yes.’ They are not church leaders, but lay people who surely understood discrimination when it was placed before them. I imagined that after decades in the same order they might even want to marry each other—or not! Given the scandalous way the Vatican has been acting with nuns of late, the old joke “the Bride of Christ wants a divorce” might be relevant. In any case, the people voted ‘yes’ to marriage equality and the world is better for it.

But does that mean the institutional church is out of business? No one knows. It certainly won’t go without a struggle. In fact, the “leaner meaner” church of Pope Benedict XVI could come roaring back with a vengeance.

We do know for sure that good Irish Catholics followed their faith in the direction of inclusion, compassion, equality, justice, and a host of other Catholic values when they voted with the majority despite some clergymen’s efforts to lead them astray. The hard sell for “no” from a group of bishops was all but ignored. Some clergy were public about their “yes” vote, and my guess is that more than a few gay priests (and some straight ones, too) voted for their own self-interest. Generations of Irish Catholics showed what they are made of.

Some of the most effective social media around the vote featured families of LGBTIQ Catholics. Their simple statements of love for their children and their hope that they might marry and form good Irish families were persuasive. It was all rather traditional in the end—everyone is entitled to love. While the institutional church lost miserably, the enduring message of post-Vatican II Catholicism—that all persons are equal with corresponding rights and responsibilities—had a good day. The fact that this message was distilled from the rubble of sexual abuse, clergy cover-up, heterosexism, disdain for women, and the rest of the clerically-constructed system is a miracle in itself. The pulpits are still in the hands of the priests, though, and they do not show many signs of sharing.

Dublin Archbishop Diarmuid Martin had the good sense to recognize that the vote was not trivial: “The church needs to take a reality check… It’s very clear there’s a growing gap between Irish young people and the church, and there’s a growing gap between the culture of Ireland that’s developing and the church.”

While his timing might be a few decades late, form follows function. Religions are living things, networks of relationships linked backwards with tradition and forward with hope. As Irish-American moral theologian Daniel C. Maguire has famously posited, “the renewable moral energy of religion” is a natural resource. It is on full display in Maguire’s mother Cassie’s native soil and I dare hope she would be proud

Many Irish Catholics, both on the isle and in diaspora, are so heartily sick of the institution’s duplicity, game playing, and pomposity that we would probably vote against the institutional Church on the value of chocolate ice cream. The recurring Irish debates on abortion will give way to another referendum before too long. I suspect the hierarchy, wounded but not slain, will mount another nasty campaign—and hopefully experience another comeuppance.

Irish clergy used to make a living telling other people how to live their lives no matter how flawed their own were. A generation ago people in Ireland went to daily mass after work and heard the messages repeated ad nauseam. Irish Catholics proved they know how to separate the wheat from the chaff, the important values like love and justice from warped attempts to dictate outmoded morality.

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

Much remains to be done to dismantle deeply entrenched structures. But the Irish referendum means that a top-down, clergy-heavy model of church heard its death knell in Dublin. As it reverberates around the world the Gospel message might get a little more airtime. As the Irish say, it will make a glass eye cry—with joy.


  • reedjim51@gmail.com' Jim Reed says:

    A modern glass eye can cry as much or more than a regular eye.

  • Maybe it’s time some folk from another country come to the USA and save us from the Natives, Savages, and Puritans!!

  • farmboyz@mac.com' Tony Adams says:

    Did Ireland just bury the Catholic Church? No, but the shovel is now stamped “Made In Ireland.” We’ll soon see whether or not the “Yes” vote was just an expression of anger by a wounded lover, or the serving of divorce papers by a young spouse who doesn’t feel any love. Flowers and candy from the bishops may be too little too late.

  • dakotahgeo@hotmail.com' George M Melby says:

    The Catholic Church worldwide has slowly buried itself over the last 20-30 years by its own hand. Suicide is such a messy business! But it must happen in this instance, or seek immediate attention.

  • tojby_2000@yahoo.com' apotropoxy says:

    Did Ireland just bury the Catholic Church?


    No. All it did was show it the door. The RCC, while dwindling overall, is thriving in moist sectors of the undeveloped world. It is reaching its dementia stage.

  • phillinj@slu.edu' NancyP says:

    Maybe Ireland is just going back to its long-ago tradition of independence from Rome in the Celtic Church missionary days.
    I think that the child abuse and the Magdalen Laundries scandals irretrievably damaged the institutional Church but not the relational Church (as community of believers).

  • whiskyjack1@gmail.com' Whiskyjack says:

    I don’t think you can point a finger of blame at Rome for either the child abuse or the laundries. The problem arises from an unelected community who arrogate power to themselves under supernatural pretenses and feel that they are somehow above and beyond the reach of secular authority.

  • zinealine@gmail.com' cranefly says:

    I want to say that heterosexism is not the Catholic Church. I want to say that Christ is born in a barn and laid in a feeding trough; the Church can still remember what it is and what it isn’t. I don’t know if I believe my own words though.

  • vielottfamily@hotmail.com' Phranqlin says:

    The Irish Catholic Church has only itself to blame, between the pedophile priests, the Magdalen laundries, and the homes for unwed mothers that were essentially work camps where the children were neglected and stolen for adoption.

  • uner1972@einrot.com' Frank says:

    A vote for gay marriage is a vote against their faith and God. No way to honestly spin it any other way.

  • Swollentoe@gmail.com' whitemellon says:

    Oh well, sometimes you have to do the right thing no matter who doesn’t like it.

  • uner1972@einrot.com' Frank says:

    Yes and the people who voted no did the right thing.

  • truktyre@hotmail.com' Craptacular says:

    Upvoted for using “moist” to describe areas where the rcc is flourishing, implying rcc is a fungus.

  • truktyre@hotmail.com' Craptacular says:

    The people who voted “no” did the blind obedience thing.

  • truktyre@hotmail.com' Craptacular says:

    A vote for gay marriage was a vote against papal secular authority.

  • mattmcauley1@hotmail.com' frrolfe says:

    I recently saw a headline from some rightwing catholic US publication to the effect that Vatican 2 laid the foundations for the destruction of catholicism in Ireland where I live.

    They were right about a Vatican Council laying the ground work, but they were out by 100 yrs. Vatican 1 ensured that an uber authoritarian catholic hierarchy who, over the next 100+ years would rule the country with a rod of iron with the connivance of irish politicians, esp after independence from UK.

    This was a god send to the politicians (of all parties) who plundered the country until last few years while the Church preached exclusively about sexual morality.

    But all good things come to an end. The spread of education, access to foreign media and, esp, Ireland’s accession to the EU meant that it was more difficult to pretend that Ireland was a unique moral beacon in a corrupt world.

    No tears need be shed for a country that is finally growing up.

  • davealbera@gmail.com' Dave O Hara says:

    Your not much of a Catholic if you voted Yes, then again us Irish may just have another referendum so that we can make the rules for the Church from now on. Just because we want something doesnt mean we have a right to it, there is a lot bigger picture, there is a much deeper channel than just our wants and desires, that channel is being protected by the Church. We may think we are burying the Church, but the honest Catholics(plus others) at least are looking after those in most need in the country, while the majority of us are deciding what we are entitled to next.

  • paddockchris@btinternet.com' Givethedogabone says:

    “We do know for sure that good Irish Catholics followed their faith in the direction of inclusion, compassion, equality, justice, and a host of other Catholic values”
    No, we don’t.

    Try “We do know for sure that good Irish Catholics followed their faith in the direction of inclusion, compassion, equality, justice, and a host of other human values”
    Just because many (all?) religions include members who display admirable personal traits does not mean that the religion can take credit for those traits. No-one seriously believes that inclusivity, compassion, equality, justice etc. can only be displayed by Catholics – do they?
    Morality and religion are a bit like humans and apes, one does not flow from the other – they have a common ancestor. It’s just that one was a vertebrate and the other was a vertebrate’s brain.

  • joerogers67@gmail.com' joeyj1220 says:

    Flowers and candy would be nice; the problem is the bishops are bringing hard candy and wilted flowers thinking its a bouquet all the while wearing pouting faces and mumbling under their breath. Not exactly a strong attempt on their part at reconciliation

  • atheistcable@gmail.com' atheistcable says:

    Are we not going to give any credit to the Hubble ST and the Internet?

  • Could someone explain to me why the country of Ireland is so important to the Catholic Church as a whole? Is it because the Church had so much control over the population and now has lost it and that is seen as a signal of the direction of the whole Church , or what?

  • harry.underwood1987@gmail.com' Harry Underwood says:

    “We may think we are burying the Church, but the honest Catholics(plus others) at least are looking after those in most need in the country, while the majority of us are deciding what we are entitled to next.”

    You don’t at least consider that your scripture decided what “honest Catholics” are entitled to and barred from back during its composition? Or that “the majority of us” are writing their own story after being confined to someone else’s for so long?

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