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Rome and Ireland split on gay vote

05 June 2015

RC responses to same-sex marriage are now sharply divided, says Paul Vallely

MORE interesting news from Ireland, where I have just spent the weekend. The place is buzzing with the aftermath of the world's first popular vote to enshrine same-sex marriage in the constitution. Last week, I noted the striking shift in rhetoric in the debate. This week, the marked development has been the opening up of a distinct gap between the reaction to the vote in Rome and among the Roman Catholic hierarchy in Ireland.

The 62-per-cent "Yes" vote was greeted by one of Rome's most senior cardinals, Pietro Parolin, the Vatican Secretary of State, as "not only a defeat for Christian principles, but also something of a defeat for humanity". This was not the kind of language many might have expected from the man who, when he was appointed by Pope Francis, was described as something of a reformer, and certainly a deal more open-minded than the average curial conservative. The Pope himself has used the phrase "a defeat for humanity", but he was talking about war rather than gay marriage.

Underlying the Cardinal's words was the acknowledgement "the Church must take account of this reality", but, he added, "in the sense that it must strengthen its commitment to evangelisation".

The reaction in Rome contrasts sharply with that in Ireland, where the Archbishop of Dublin, the Most Revd Diarmuid Martin, described the vote as "a silent revolution", and said that the Roman Catholic Church needed "a reality check". The Archbishop of Armagh, the Most Revd Eamon Martin, was similarly measured and conciliatory. "Among the many lessons that we as Church can learn from the referendum debate is to re-commit ourselves to the pastoral care of anyone in society who experiences victimisation and stigmatisation," he said.

What explains this divergence between Rome and Ireland? In Rome, the bottom line seems to be that the Church needs to explain its existing teaching better. In Ireland, there seem to be signs of a recognition of a new reality.

This was made clear by one heterosexual Catholic woman who told me the other day: "It's not that we don't understand what the Church is saying. We disagree with it. The gospel carries a message of love and the inclusion of the marginalised which church leaders seem to be denying. That's what this vote was about. We've stopped voting Catholic and started voting Christian. And if gay people marry, that doesn't undermine the value of my marriage, as the Church seems to suggest. It underscores the value of it."

It is clear that the Irish Bishops have picked up some inkling of this. But the message has yet to filter through to Rome. It may have implications for the Church of England, too, given this week's dramatic figures of decline in the number of people in the UK who describe their beliefs as Anglican.

Perhaps they, too, are no less Christian, but simply feel that a Church - with its own reluctance about the acceptance of gay people, and its decades of foot-dragging over acknowledging the part women have to play - does not speak for their understanding of the gospel message. Food for thought.


Paul Vallely is Visiting Professor in Public Ethics and Media at the University of Chester.

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