The stunning vote of the Irish to legalize same-sex marriage will be taken as one more indication (along with the legalization of divorce and homosexual behavior and abortion if the mother’s life is at risk, plus the decline in Mass attendance and priestly vocations) of the collapse of the Catholic Church in a country where it once bestrode the sod like a colossus. Such would appear to be the wages of a rolling sexual abuse scandal, particularly acute because of the church’s control of public education, and the ugly history of its abusive homes for wayward boys and girls.
But for all that, Ireland remains a country where over 70 percent of the population identifies as Catholic, where a higher proportion of Catholics go to Mass than in the U.S., where the divorce rate is low. And yet, every Irish political party supported the referendum and the citizenry voted in favor by a 62-38 margin. What gives?
What gives, in part, is that Catholicism, understood as a religious culture rather than as a set of official doctrines, is far more amenable to same-sex marriage than is generally thought. Unlike Protestantism, it never valorized the nuclear family as the church in miniature. Catholics have, by contrast, exercised their analogical imaginations in understanding nuns as married to Jesus and bishops to their dioceses. Priests are fathers; abbeys are governed by mother superiors; monks are brothers; nuns are sisters. In Catholicism, there have always been different kinds of holy families that love makes — and so, why not add one more? It’s no accident that Catholics in the U.S. — white, Hispanic, and otherwise — support same-sex marriage at the same rate as the Irish voted.
Beyond that, the Church in Ireland, whatever its faults, understands itself as linked to the populace in an integral, even tribal way, so that it must be where the Irish people are. That, I think, is why the Irish bishops, while opposing the referendum, did so in a way that made clear that church would not condemn a yes vote. As Bishop Donal McKeown of Derry said during a radio debate, “I don’t doubt that there are many people who are practicing churchgoers of whatever church background who will in conscience vote yes and that’s entirely up to them. I’m not going to say they’re wrong,”
In contrast to the bishops of France, who leapt to the barricades to fight same-sex marriage as if fighting the French Revolution all over again, in Ireland the bishops understood that the community mattered more than the doctrine, that they would have no part of a culture war that divided their country.
The Irish vote will resonate around the world, and perhaps even ring a bell with the two Irish Catholics on the U.S. Supreme Court, John Roberts and Anthony Kennedy, who represent the swing votes on next month’s decision to determine whether same-sex couples have a constitutional right to be married in the United States. For the vote is not just about which way the winds of public opinion are blowing. It’s also about the spirituality of marriage equality.