The great unknown

Ireland’s vote to legalize same-sex marriage is stunning in itself but even more so given the fact that it represented a massive rebuke of the Catholic Church’s teaching well enunciated in this case by the country’s bishops.

Veering from traditional Catholicism seems unbelievable for Ireland considering how staunchly the Irish remained true to the Church during five centuries of Britain’s intense effort to smother all things Catholic in Irish life.

In another sense, it is not surprising. The religious statistics for Ireland have been bad for a generation. One Irish bishop recently remarked that, in the early days of his service as a bishop, he routinely had 100 children in a confirmation ceremony. Today, he said, he feels lucky if 10 children appear — or, in other words, if the parents of 10 children decide to bring them for confirmation.

Vocations are rare.

It is part of a pattern in Western Europe. Institutional religion, be it Catholicism, the Lutherans in Germany and Scandinavia or the Anglicans in England, is fading away.

This pattern is occurring here in this country. When institutional religion diminishes, when religion is “private” without churches, morality begins to go, then belief in God, and then anything is acceptable. You can put it on a timetable. In this sense, the Irish vote is nothing new.

Archbishop Diarmuid Martin of Dublin said he voted against legalizing same-sex marriage not because he wanted to restrict anybody’s rights but because he was unwilling to redefine marriage. This redefinition was the major point.

He made an excellent distinction.

In every civilization, marriage has been seen as a formal, public, social contract between male and female, precisely with procreation and the rearing of the next generation an essential consideration.

Changing all this is a colossal, unprecedented experiment — a risk of unparalleled dimension. What will be the result? No one has the slightest clue.

We know this: Observing traditional marriage throughout recorded history, everywhere on earth, has brought order to society, even if difficulties in individual circumstances are admitted.

Banking everything on rights obviously raises the question of imposing barriers in any way regarding marriage.

Following ancient Hebrew and then Christian tradition, the United States always has outlawed polygamy, by which one man has more than one wife, and, by inference, polyandry, when one woman has more than one husband.

Polygamy was an issue 150 years ago when Utah, heavily populated by Mormons, first petitioned to enter the Union. Mormons accepted polygamy. Congress dismissed Utah’s request, and it unincorporated the church, because of polygamy. Under today’s popular thinking, how can any government forbid polygamy, or polyandry? Is it not a person’s right to marry, regardless of anybody’s opinion? Do not be surprised if legalizing polygamy becomes an issue.

Why cannot siblings marry? It is illegal in 50 states, but does not this interfere with a person’s right to marry whomever he or she chooses? The procreation aspect of marriage generally, almost universally, has gone away. Even many Catholics regard the Church’s stated doctrine about artificial birth control as old fashioned at best, ridiculous at worst.

The Church’s teaching on birth control is neither a ban, nor a mandate to have as many children as possible. Rather, it affirms what Christianity, and every other major philosophy across human history, has seen as integral to marriage.

Here we go. God help us.

Msgr. Owen F. Campion is OSV’s associate publisher.