In the event of the proposed marriage equality referendum being passed, the move will affect tens of thousands of heterosexual couples who marry in Catholic churches up and down the country each year.
A senior spokesman for the Irish Catholic Bishops said he believed priests were unlikely to have any issue with the hierarchy’s decision to force all couples marrying in the Church to carry out the civil aspect of their marriage elsewhere.
The hierarchy’s refusal to co-operate with the new legal definition of marriage would effectively mean that couples would not be officially married by the church ceremony. For a wedding to be legally recognised, it must be solemnised by a person on the register of civil solemnisers.
About 4,121 of the 5,461 people on this register are Catholic priests. There are only 107 civil registrars on the register so the move would result in a significant delay for couples seeking to have their marriage legally recognised by the State.
The bishops’ stance is a reaffirming of a warning contained in their submission to the Constitutional Convention in 2013. In this they said that any change to the definition of marriage would mean the Church could no longer co-operate with the civil aspect of marriage.
Martin Long, director of the Catholic Communications Office, said at the time: “At the moment on behalf of the State, the priest acts as the solemniser of the marriage between a woman and a man. Obviously if the definition of marriage changes then this role will change.”
Last night Mr Long confirmed that this was still the position of the bishops.
He said: “If the referendum is passed, the Church’s view and the State’s view of marriage will be radically different. It’s reasonable that the bishops may decide to separate the two.”
According to the CSO, 13,072 (59%) of the 22,045 marriages registered in Ireland in 2014 were Roman Catholic marriage ceremonies.
The spokesman for the Irish Catholic Bishops said the scenario where a local priest might disagree with the new role was illogical and unlikely.
He said, “It’s not an issue. A priest’s role is to join two people in the eyes of God only. A priest is already undertaking a service which is not central to his ministry”, in carrying out the civil role.
Fr Brendan Hoban from the Association of Catholic Priests said he had heard suggestions that the Church would refuse to carry out the civil role “in a huff” but that he did not think it would happen.
“Why would it bother? It would be unnecessary. You’re only making it difficult and more expensive on these couples. I wouldn’t expect to see it,” he said.
In a speech last month, the Catholic Archbishop of Dublin Diarmuid Martin said the Catholic bishops did not support the referendum and called on people to reflect on the implications for marriage of it being passed.