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Irish hierarchy leaves it to the laity

29 May 2015

The marriage vote revealed a new tone, says Paul Vallely

MUCH attention has been focused on the extent of the swift transformation in social attitudes in Ireland which has been revealed by its referendum vote to allow gay marriage, in what was previously routinely described as the most Catholic country in Europe. And certainly it has disclosed the extent to which the Roman Catholic Church has, in just one generation, lost its ability to define the social and political mores of that nation. But there was something else striking, too.

The nature of the argument shifted as well, suggesting a modulation in the language with which the Church must seek to make its interventions in the public square. This could have wider implications.

In previous votes in Ireland - on divorce and on abortion - the church hierarchy had spoken out strongly. This time, clerics in Ireland largely left it to the laity to hold the line. This was an implicit recognition that a succession of priestly sex scandals and episcopal cover-ups had eroded the moral authority of the Church. "I have no wish to stuff my religious views down other people's throats," the Archbishop of Dublin, the Most Revd Dr Diarmuid Martin, said in a startlingly new tone.

Other bishops used muted language in their statements on the issue, deploying phrases such as "carefully consider" rather than direct instructions in religious command mode. One old-style prelate who said that gay people could indeed get married, just not to each other - and also compared being gay to being born with Down syndrome or spina bifida - was upbraided by his superiors for "divisive" language. "The era of the Church as the moral conscience of Irish society is over," one sociologist pronounced.

So arguments were couched in less philosophical or theological terms, with appeals that were framed in political, cultural, and emotional language. There were slogans such as "Two men can't replace a mother's love" and appeals against "a needless and reckless social experiment". But subtler arguments were also deployed.

Marriage is a much more complex business than two people falling in love, the "No" campaigners said. Society's support for marriage was not simply a recognition of love: it was about subsidising an institution that produced the next generation - the next set of young taxpayers who would pay the pensions of the previous generation. Reduce marriage to love, they argued, and there was no need for the State to subsidise the institution at all.

There was an interesting shift towards the end of the campaign. Early on, the "Yes" camp had succeeded in framing the choice as one between modernity and the past, between equality and dogmatic statement. The revival of the row over the Christian bakers who refused to ice a cake with pro-gay-marriage slogans threatened to reframe the debate as one of equality versus freedom of speech - an altogether more modern-sounding conflict. But it came too late.

A "No" vote was not a vote against gay and lesbian people, Archbishop Martin insisted, conceding that the Church had in the past treated gays and lesbians in a "harsh and hostile way". Some 38 per cent of the population agreed with him. But an overwhelming majority voted "Yes", in what most seemed to regard as a vote to support their gay friends and family members. Lived experience triumphed over philosophical fear of change.


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