A COUPLE of weeks ago the Catholic Bishops of Ireland asked us to reflect on what was proposed in the marriage equality referendum. The common refrain of messages then was “marriage is important. Reflect before you change it.”
Over this past weekend, the bishops changed their minds. One by one, they have all asked us to vote No. Not to reflect, not to think long and hard, but to vote no.
I’ve read as many of the bishop’s letters as I’ve been able to. The arguments tend to be the same in all of them — this is not about equality; it will affect children in one way or another; the debate has been rushed; the whole issue raises important questions of freedom of conscience.
Some of the bishops have been more nuanced than others. Bishop Leahy of Limerick, for instance, raised the possibility of “possible legal challenges around school text books that do not equally present depictions of same-sex couples and male-female couples as images for parents”.
On the other hand, Archbishop Diarmuid Martin of Dublin said “The referendum will come and go. A yes vote will approve fundamental changes to the understanding of marriage with the consequences that this would involve. But the Church’s teaching on marriage and the family and its relevance to social ethics will remain the same, no matter the referendum result.”
But in the overall sense, there was no doubt after the weekend that our bishops have decided that they are opposed to this social change, and they have decided that their previous position, asking us to approach change seriously and with reflection, was not strong enough.
I’ve tried to deal with some of these arguments before. I know from some of the comments I’ve received that not all of you agree with my point of view. I totally respect that disagreement. And I respect the fact that the bishops have tried as hard as they can to express their views in ways that are respectful of gay and lesbian people, and to acknowledge in some way the injustices that have been done to them in the past.
But there are three things I feel obliged to say, and I would be happy to argue them with anyone. The first thing is that the bishops are wrong on the facts. This is an issue of equality. It will not affect outcomes for children, or their moral right to love, security and stability. The debate has not been rushed — we have moved more slowly towards justice for gay and lesbian people than we have for almost anyone else (there are some exceptions to that). And there is no fundamental challenge to anyone’s freedom of conscience, apart from the challenge not to discriminate unlawfully.
The second thing is that the bishops have been wrong before. They have opposed change throughout my lifetime, and have always used the same arguments. In modern times they opposed the introduction of family planning legislation, and the introduction of divorce. Both these changes were opposed on the grounds of the damage they would do to God’s law and to the institutions of marriage and the family.
In less modern times, though still in my lifetime, the bishops operated systems and promulgated ideas that were cruel and sometimes absurd. The then Archbishop of Dublin opposed the introduction of tampons into Ireland, and the participation of women in athletics, on moral grounds. Bishops operated and presided over a regime of punishment for “fallen women” – Mother and Baby homes, Magdalen laundries, forced adoptions.
To be fair, they have acknowledged the cruelty of all that, and have tried to make amends (although not, so far, meaningful material amends).
But the third thing I have to say is this. In none of what I have read over the weekend can I find love.
I’m not a believer. But that has never prevented me from acknowledging that there is no more important historical story than the story of Jesus Christ.
I’m not a believer, but I’ve always been influenced by the Beatitudes. Blessed are the meek. Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness. Blessed are the poor in spirit, or those who are persecuted for righteousness sake — for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Because I’m not a believer, I have no expectation of the kingdom of heaven. But the values inherent in the Beatitudes are no bad way to try to live a life.
Beyond that, I was raised to believe in a God of love, a God who so loved the world that he gave his only son. And that son throughout his life preached compassion, mercy, justice. And died for it. A son who valued little children, who believed that only those without sin should cast the first stone. A son who was able to forgive even those who put him to a terrible death.
I’m not a believer, and I’m certainly not an expert. But I find it hard to remember the values expounded in all those stories and to reconcile them with a set of statements that say we must not change, we must not include, we must not allow people with a different sexual orientation to make life-long family commitments on the same basis as the rest of us.
Years and years ago, during the first divorce referendum debate in the 1980s, my father, a devoutly practising Catholic, told me that for the first time in his life, he was going to spoil his vote. When I asked him why, he said that he couldn’t vote yes, because it was against the teaching of the Church, and he believed it could be a sin to vote for divorce. But he couldn’t vote no, because he believed his Church’s stance lacked compassion and decency, and he was only too well aware of people struggling in long-broken marriages who deserved and needed a second chance.
THE CHURCH took a strong, unyielding and influential position in the 1986 referendum on divorce. Interestingly, although it didn’t change its overall stance in the second referendum, it did take pains to say then that Catholics would not be committing any sin by voting for change, provided they did so after careful reflection. Had my father lived, that would have been a weight off his mind.
I assume (I hope not wrongly) that if you asked any bishop now is it okay to vote yes to marriage equality in good conscience the answer would be yes. Bishop Kirby of Clonfert, for instance, ended his homily by saying “Please make it an important priority to cast your vote in this referendum. I am not saying which way you should cast it.”
You know my views. If you believe in marriage, the way to strengthen it is to make it more inclusive, not to insist that only some of us can join. If you believe in children, the right thing to do is to concentrate on their need for the security and stability that comes from being part of a loving family. If you believe in love — the love of people for each other, the love of people for their children — the right thing to do is vote yes.
If you believe in the love of people for each other, the love of people for their children — vote yes
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