Irish Vote Reflects Diminished Moral Authority of Catholic Church

Irish voters turned out in huge numbers on Friday and cast their votes 62 to 38 percent in favor of amending the country’s constitution to allow same-sex couples to marry, making the overwhelmingly Catholic country the first in the world to legalize marriage for same-sex couples through a national referendum.

Trevor Gundy, writing for the Religion News Service just before the vote, had examined the decline of the Church’s power in Ireland. “Many Catholics wonder what right the Catholic Church has to oppose gay marriage when those charged with proclaiming and upholding Christian morality were abusing children.” After the vote, the Irish Sun said in an editorial, “Ireland officially emerged from the shadow of the Catholic Church yesterday to show its love and respect to people who have suffered here for centuries.” Dublin Archbishop Diarmuid Martin said the Church needs to take a “reality check” and reconnect with young people.

UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon called the vote a “historic moment” for human rights. Writing in the Irish Times, Fintan O’Toole pondered the meaning of the vote for the people of Ireland and the world:


It looks extraordinary – little Ireland becoming the first country in the world to support same sex marriage by direct popular vote. But actually it’s about the ordinary. Ireland has redefined what it means to be an ordinary human being.

We’ve made it clear to the world that there is a new normal — that “ordinary” is a big, capacious word that embraces and rejoices in the natural diversity of humanity. LGBT people are now a fully acknowledged part of the wonderful ordinariness of Irish life.

It looks like a victory for tolerance. But it’s actually an end to mere toleration.

Tolerance is what “we” extend, in our gracious goodness, to “them”. It’s about saying “You do your own thing over there and we won’t bother you so long as you don’t bother us”.

The resounding Yes is a statement that Ireland has left tolerance far behind. It’s saying that there’s no “them” anymore. LGBT people are us — our sons and daughters, mothers and fathers, brothers and sisters, neighbours and friends. We were given the chance to say that. We were asked to replace tolerance with the equality of citizenship. And we took it in both arms and hugged it close.

O’Toole praise the “riventing eloquence” of marriage equality advocates, including people who “sacrificed their privacy and exposed their most intimate selves to the possibility of public rejection. Their courage and dignity made the difference.”

Even so, this is not a victory for articulate statement. Deep down, it’s a victory for halting, fretful speech. How? Because what actually changed Ireland over the last two decades is hundreds of thousands of painful, stammered conversations that began with the dreaded words “I have something to tell you…” It’s all those moments of coming out around kitchen tables, tentative words punctuated by sobs and sighs, by cold silences and fearful hesitations. Those awkward, unhappy, often unfinished conversations are where the truths articulated so eloquently in the campaign were first uttered. And it was through them that gay men and lesbians became Us, our children, our families.

It looks like a victory for Liberal Ireland over Conservative Ireland. But it’s much more significant than that.

It’s the end of that whole, sterile, useless, unproductive division. There is no longer a Liberal Ireland and a Conservative Ireland. The cleavage between rural and urban, tradition and modernity that has shaped so many of the debates of the last four decades has been repaired. This is a truly national moment — as joyful in Bundoran as it is Ballymun, in Castlerea as it is in Cobh.

Instead of Liberal Ireland and Conservative Ireland we have a decent, democratic Ireland.

And, said O’Toole:

Finally, it 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.

By pushing forward on what only recently seemed a marginal issue, the LGBT community has given all of Irish democracy one of its greatest days. It has given our battered republic a new sense of engagement, a new confidence, an expanded sense of possibility.

On Monday (Memorial Day in the US) Justice Minister Francis Fitzgerald said she would push for quick passage of enacting legislation to allow couples to begin marrying in Augus, saying, “My intention is to seek Government approval for the Marriage Bill 2015 in June with the aim of introducing the Bill into the Oireachtas immediately thereafter so that the legislation can be enacted before the summer recess.”

Irish personality Panti Bliss declared, I’m over the gay moon and drunk on Yes, and like any happy groom on his wedding morning, I’m truly, deeply, madly in love. I am in love with the whole country.” BuzzFeed chronicled the celebration in Dublin and pondered the vote’s impact. “When historians write about the global LGBT rights movement,” wrote Lester Feder, “they will probably divide their timeline into ‘Before Ireland’ and ‘After Ireland.'”

Before Ireland, a country whose sodomy law wasn’t struck down until 1993, the goal of changing a nation’s mind about LGBT rights seemed daunting if not impossible. After Ireland, it seems like it may just be a matter of time even in countries where public support for LGBT equality remains very low and where powerful religious institutions are vocally opposed.

What’s more, conservative activists agree at least in part, telling BuzzFeed News that this vote shows that their strongest arguments against marriage equality have lost their impact in key parts of the world.

“We’re losing the marriage battles — that’s the truth, especially in Western Europe,” said Ignacio Arsuaga, a Spanish activist who founded a global online campaign platform called CitizenGo. (Its board includes Brian Brown of the United States’s National Organization for Marriage.) “Our arguments are not reaching the majority of society. The majority of society just think in the terms that were promoted by the gay lobby: ‘This is a question of rights …and marriage is a human right.”

There were dissenters, of course, including Breda O’Brien, who wrote in the Irish Times that people who voted against are every bit as tolerant and generous as their neighbors, and worried about a yet-to-be-born Irish lass who will love her two moms but long to find out more about her Danish sperm-donor father. The Iona Institute’s David Quinn conceded and congratulated the victors, while saying, “Going forward, we will continue to affirm the importance of the biological ties and of motherhood and fatherhood. We hope the Government will address the concerns voters on the No side have about the implications for freedom of religion and freedom of conscience.” NOM’s Brian Brown praised the Catholic Iona Institute, which took the lead in the “no” campaign, and blamed the outcome on “the increasingly secularized nature of Ireland, together with the utter abandonment of principle by every political party in the nation, all of whom endorsed the referendum.”At Frontiers, Karen Ocamb cast a skeptical eye on NOM’s claims about the vote.