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
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
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.