Times Have Changed, The Catholic Church Hasn’t


The Catholic Bishops’ document condemning same-sex marriage features very similar wording to their document in advance of the referendum on divorce 20 years ago. They didn’t win back then, so do they stand a chance now, asks Brian Finnegan?


It was no small thing that Enda Kenny turned up in Pantibar for a Fine Gael LGBT event this week. The Taoiseach may have already voiced his support for a Yes vote in the forthcoming referendum on same-sex marriage, but this was a ‘quiet’ opportunity to show he was firmly rowing in behind the LGBT community as 2015 approaches. One may be cynical about the courting of gay votes, but the overriding message is that Enda’s happy and relaxed to be in a gay bar; that our country’s leader comfortably accepts and endorses the value of the LGBT community.

In stark contrast to this unprecedented show of support and intention from the leader of any country, the Catholic Church set out its uncomfortable stall in the lead-up to next year’s referendum with a 16-page document, distributed by the Catholic Bishops of Ireland to every parish in the country, which says that same-sex marriage would be a “grave injustice” and a “disservice to society”.

The lines have been clearly drawn between church and state for the fight ahead, and it would seem from the outset that the church is on the back-foot, with the latest Irish Times/Ipsos MRBI poll, showing that 67 per cent of Irish people support a yes vote, with just 20 per cent on the No side.

Those same lines were clearly drawn back in 1995 in the lead-up to Ireland’s second divorce referendum, with the then Fianna Fáil government campaigning for a Yes vote, while the Catholic Church vehemently spoke out against divorce and remarriage.

At that time the Catholic Bishops of Ireland released a leaflet arguing that “any undermining of the meaning of the marriage promise would profoundly damage the stability of society.”

They were, of course, wrong. The introduction of divorce only ended the lifelong suffering of people in loveless and/or abusive marriages and allowed them to seek happiness elsewhere. Society soldiered on as it always had, with some happy lifelong marriages, and some unhappy ones that ended. There was no profound damage.

Of course, I’m preaching to the converted here. Gay and lesbian couples do not believe that their marriages would be a disservice to Irish society. But what’s clear from the Taoiseach’s apperance at Pantibar as opposed to the Catholic Bishops’ leaflet is that we are entering a period as fiercely divided and divisive as the lead-up to the divorce referendum 20 years ago. The church still believes it has the duty and ability sway public opinion to influence state law, and is again using words like “profound” and “grave” and “damage” to state its case.

During the divorce referendum, campaigners on the side of the church used frightening and misleading tactics. Billboards appeared across the country shouting “Hello Divorce… Bye Bye Daddy,” as if the introduction of divorce would be tantamount to child neglect. Pundits declared that it would divorce would chip away at the family, much in the same way as the Bishops’ current statement says that same-sex marriage would undermine “the fundamental building block of our society”.

The Bishops’ leaflet is an indiciation that the entire campaign against gay marriage is going to be run on these lines. Marriage is for men and women to naturally propogate so that society can continue to thrive. Change the equation to include same-sex couples, who do not naturally propogate, and society will wither.

The argument does not take into account all the same-sex couples who have propogated and are therefore fundamental buildiing blocks of society. Sadly, neither does it take the welfare of their children into account, but as we have seen the welfare of children has historically not been at the forefront of the church’s motivations in this country.

But, I’ll come back to that later.

During the first divorce referendum, which took place in 1986, polls suggested that the abolition of the ban on divorce would be approved by two to one. In 1986, however, 63 per cent of the Irish electorate voted No to divorce. In 1995, the referendum was carried by just over 0.5 per cent. Two messages can be taken from this: one, that polls don’t really count for much when it comes down to brass tacks, and/or two, the virulent anti-divorce campaigns in the lead up to both referenda stirred doubt, leading many who’d said they’d vote yes in the polls to vote no on ballot day.

Times have changed, though. In 1995, the pathological enabling of child sex abuse was still being covered up by the Catholic Church and the media had barely a whiff of it. Nobody knew what went on in the Magdalen Laundries. The idea that the bodies of infants who died in their droves in Irish Catholic mother and baby homes would be buried, hidden away in septic tanks would have been as outlandish as it is abhorrent, as would the idea that children from said homes might be sold to American families from under the noses of their mothers.

Since the grave, profoundly inhumane sins of the Catholic Church, mostly against children, have been revealed, many Irish Catholics have still managed to hold on to their faith. But what they haven’t hung on to is blind acceptance of what the church tells them.

The lines may be as starkly divided between church and state as they were 20 years ago, but Ireland has grown into a vastly different place over those two decades. The Catholic Church’s problem, as abundantly evidenced at the Constitutional Convention that led to this referendum in the first place, is that it can’t quite believe this is true. The language of its Bishops hasn’t moved on, but the Irish people have.

© 2014 GCN (Gay Community News). All rights reserved.

0 comments. Please sign in to comment.