Post-vote, Church in Ireland facing ‘huge task’

If anyone doubted the international significance of Ireland’s vote on same-sex marriage, the impromptu media center at Dublin Castle was an eye-opener. Journalists had gathered from dozens of countries to report the outcome, and a temporary village of satellite trucks had been assembled to beam the news around the world.

Having become the first country in the world to put same-sex marriage to a popular vote, Irish voters backed the proposal by a comfortable margin of 62 percent to 38 percent.

It was always going to be an uphill struggle for supporters of traditional marriage. The government had been very successful in framing the debate. This was simply about equality and love, campaigners repeatedly insisted. And that simple message proved to be very effective.

However, David Quinn, director of the pro-marriage think tank the Iona Institute and de facto leader of the “no” campaign, said those who opposed the constitutional amendment should be proud. “We started this campaign with very limited resources with the opinion polls saying that just 17 percent of people would vote ‘no,’ [and] on the day, 38 percent of people decided to vote ‘no,’” Quinn told Our Sunday Visitor.

The imbalance of resources played a key part in the campaign. All political parties backed a “yes” vote and therefore were able to marshal their considerable grassroots campaigning organizations to advocate for the redefinition of marriage. The campaign for same-sex marriage was also heavily funded from the United States, particularly from Atlantic Philanthropies, which pumped millions of dollars into lobbying politicians on the issue.

Youth vote

The Irish bishops’ response to the outcome has been measured. Archbishop of Dublin Diarmuid Martin has insisted that “the Church needs to do a reality check, a reality check right across the board, to look at the things it’s doing well, to look at the areas where we really have to start and say, ‘Look, have we drifted away completely from young people?’”

Archbishop Martin described the result as a “social revolution.”

“It’s a social revolution that didn’t begin today,” he said. “It’s a social revolution that’s been going on — and perhaps in the Church, people have not been as clear in understanding what that involved. ... It’s very clear that if this referendum is an affirmation of the views of young people, then the Church has a huge task in front of it to find the language to be able to talk to and to get its message across to young people, not just on this issue, but in general.”

The youth vote was crucial in the outcome of the referendum, with estimates that up to 90 percent of those under 35 voted “yes.” The ironic thing facing Church leaders is that the overwhelming majority of these young adults will have attended Catholic schools for at least 12 years.

Archbishop Eamon Martin, president of the Irish bishops’ conference, said the Church needed to learn “many lessons” from the result of the referendum. Speaking at Mass in Ireland’s national Marian shrine in the village of Knock on May 31, he said the Church had to recommit itself to the pastoral care of anyone in society experiencing “victimization and stigmatization.”

The hierarchy, he explained, undertook to inform voters both nationally and locally by explaining, from faith and from reason, the Church’s position on marriage and why they disagreed with changing the meaning of marriage in the Constitution.

“At the same time, we emphasized that gay people should always be treated with respect and sensitivity,” he said.

Uphill battle

Breda O’Brien, a longtime Catholic activist, believes that campaigners “have learned a lot from the gruelling campaign,” she wrote in a column for the Irish Catholic. She said media was a key reason why “no” supporters struggled to be heard in the campaign. “We cannot rely on mainstream media to get our message out. With notable exceptions, radio and television current affairs were unbalanced during the three weeks of the campaign. Articles in newspapers ran 3-to-1 in favor of a ‘yes,’” she wrote.

“For months leading up to the vote, and even during the campaign, every possible media outlet produced soft-focus profiles on gay relationships and unquestioning pieces about children conceived through assisted human reproduction, while assiduously refusing to interview contrary voices,” O’Brien wrote.

According to Quinn, “what is disappointing is that more Mass-going Catholics did not vote ‘no.’ We can’t know what percentage voted ‘yes’ or ‘no,’ but clearly many weekly Massgoers did vote ‘yes,’ because about 1 million adults go to Mass each week, and if each of them had voted ‘no,’ we would have won the day.”

Quinn believes that “the fact that many Mass-going Catholics voted ‘yes’ — a substantial minority probably — is indeed a ‘reality check’ for the Church.”

This reality check, he believes, “is that the Church has done almost no catechesis in the area of marriage for years and years. It has done lots of pastoral counseling, but it has not taught on a systematic basis what marriage is and why it is so important to society and why it can only be between a man and a woman by its very nature.

“It has not explained why this is not ‘exclusionary’ but in fact protects the very basis and rationale for the institution.

“The failure to teach in this way is why many Catholics were bowled over when the referendum came, especially as they have been subjected by the media to such relentless propaganda in favor of gay marriage for years,” Quinn said.

Going forward

The bishops are due to meet later this month to discuss the result.

Looking for direction on where to go from here is sure to be top of the agenda. An obvious source of concern for the hierarchy is the Church’s inability to convince younger voters.

It would be wrong to interpret the “yes” vote for same-sex marriage as a rejection of Catholicism. Around one-third of Irish people are still weekly Massgoers. What the vote demonstrates, however, is a key issue that emerged at last year’s Synod of Bishops on the Family, namely that for many Catholics, Church teaching on human sexuality is either poorly understood or poorly followed. Irish bishops will undoubtedly share their experiences at this October’s follow-up synod in Rome.

Michael Kelly writes from Ireland.

Changes in Ireland
Over the last 40 years, Ireland has embraced many social changes.