FERGUS FINLAY: No, Archbishop, a ‘yes’ vote will not change the definition of marriage

My wife and I were married in a registry office... and we were sinners in the eyes of the Church writes Fergus Finlay

 

DEAR Archbishop Martin, I read with great care and respect your weekend statement about the forthcoming referendum on marriage equality. It confused me. I have no doubt that you intended the tone of your message to be pastoral and sympathetic. But I wondered at some of the loaded language you used.

For example, the heading on your statement said “to interfere with the definition of marriage is not a simple or trivial matter”. I’m puzzled at your use of the word ‘interfere’. Nobody is proposing to change the definition of marriage — the only proposal is to extend the definition of who can get married to include a group of people that historically has been excluded from society.

As you know, Archbishop, gay people have been discriminated against and unjustly treated for generations, including by, and within, the Catholic Church. Now, it is proposed that they be able to declare lifetime commitment to each other as every other citizen is entitled to do, and to declare themselves to be part of a family within the constitutional meaning of that term. I cannot see how that constitutes interference, or anything like it. Marriage is still marriage, the family is still the family.

Related: Yes side 'disappointed' with Archbishop's referendum statement

If two people get married and they can’t have children, or don’t want to have children, they’re still a family.

I’m guessing that you have officiated at many joyful and happy wedding ceremonies, involving, for example, an older woman and man who were never going to have children. You were still happy (as you should have been) to declare them man and wife, and to consecrate their union as a family.

You say that “many of the arguments being made for the proposed amendment appear to be based on a misunderstanding of ‘equality’.” As one who wants to understand your point of view, I have, nevertheless, believed from the beginning that this is a basic issue of equality. As a heterosexual man, I can get married. If I were a gay man, I could not. What am I misunderstanding?

Nowhere do you define what you mean by equality. You simply assert that “it is a fact of nature” that same-sex unions are different, because they’re not “naturally open to life”.

But isn’t being gay a fact of nature? Isn’t being old a fact of nature? Isn’t it a (cruel) fact of nature that some people can’t conceive children? If one of these facts of nature is enough to bar people from marriage, why aren’t all of them?

READ MORE: Bressie: ‘I find it really hard to believe that we have to vote on whether two people who love each other can get married’

In essence, Archbishop, you make two arguments. The first is that marriage has never changed — it has always been between a man and a woman, and it has always been about procreation. The second is that if we adopt a new “orthodoxy”, as you call it, and allow same-sex couples to marry, the corollary of that will be that some people (those who oppose same-sex marriage) will be “forced to act against their faith and their conscience”.

To take the first point first. Marriage has changed. As you know, it’s not that long ago since black people weren’t allowed to marry white people in many parts of the so-called civilised world. That has changed, and, I’m sure you’ll agree, the world is a better place on that account.

But you argue, Archbishop, that we must reject same-sex marriage to hold up the example of a “faithful, life-long and committed marriage relationship between a man and a woman as something beautiful and special”. Isn’t it the case, though, that the Church’s teachings make it abundantly clear that not all marriages between a man and a woman are beautiful and special?

For example, during a good deal of my life, any Catholic who married outside the Church committed an unforgivable sin. My wife and I were married in a registry office, for instance — a marriage that was between two heterosexual people, that was open to children and family, that formed the basis of a strong stable family of children and grandchildren. Because we weren’t married in front of a priest, we were sinners in the eyes of the Church. We encountered considerable difficulty even in having our children baptised.

RELATED: Archbishop Martin: Clerics 'cannot support' marriage amendment

Has that changed? Is it still the view of the Church that a registry office marriage is not marriage in the eyes of God? If I wished now to ‘recelebrate’ my wedding in the Church (I don’t), would that be possible, or would I first have to be absolved from the unpardonable sin of having married the person I love in a civil ceremony?

There are thousands of people in Ireland — all Catholic — who married people of other faiths, and who tried to do that within the Church. These were heterosexual people, who married out of love and the desire for a family. None of them was ever welcomed in the past — many had to go abroad. Those who were allowed to marry here (and I wonder if this is still the case) had to have the permission of their local bishop, and both parties (Catholic and non-Catholic alike) had to agree to stringent and life-changing conditions before they could start a family. How beautiful and special were they made to feel?

In short, if it really is the Church’s position that all marriages between heterosexual couples, which are intended to be life-long and open to the possibility of starting a family, are truly beautiful, wouldn’t it make everyone feel less hypocritical if these rules and conditions were abandoned?

Your other main argument is the one about what happens when society “adopts and imposes a new orthodoxy of gender-neutral marriage”. You wonder will religious people be inhibited in their teaching, or even be subject to lawsuits if they don’t share this new “vision”.

I’m sorry, Archbishop, but I can’t accept that you really believe that. The Church opposed the introduction of divorce in Ireland, and the legalisation of contraception — and many of these arguments were made then.

Perhaps you don’t remember, for instance, the debates about whether pharmacists would be in breach of the law if they refused to stock condoms.

RELATED: Archbishop speaks of victimhood, but his Catholic Church persecutes gays

But guess what? In all the years since the law changed around contraception, and the Constitution changed around divorce, not one person, priest or otherwise, has ever had their freedom of conscience infringed. In legalising contraception, we didn’t outlaw the Church’s teaching. In allowing divorce in cases of irretrievable marriage breakdown, we didn’t prevent the Church from continuing to preach about the indissolubility of marriage.

These were pretty fundamental changes that affected Irish society for the better. The one thing they didn’t affect was freedom of conscience.

You ended your statement, Archbishop, by calling on all of us to reflect carefully about these issues before we vote. I agree with that. I have tried to do so, and it remains my unwavering conviction that marriage must be an inclusive, respectful and equal institution. That’s why I’ll be voting yes — and doing so with the clearest conscience imaginable.

READ MORE: Bressie: ‘I find it really hard to believe that we have to vote on whether two people who love each other can get married’.

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