Catholic Church Ponders Future After Same-Sex Marriage Vote in Ireland

By Danny Hakim
New York Times
May 24, 2015

Gerry Adams, head of the Sinn Fein, greeted supporters of same-sex marriage at Dublin Castle on Saturday. The referendum was passed with 62 percent of votes.

Same-sex marriage supporters celebrated at Pantibar, in Dublin, on Saturday.

A celebration at Dublin Castle as Ireland became the first nation to approve same-sex marriage by a popular vote. "Your world is different from mine," Archbishop Diarmuid Martin told children awaiting confirmation on Sunday.

DUBLIN — The morning after Ireland learned it had become the first nation to approve same-sex marriage by popular vote, Diarmuid Martin, the archbishop of Dublin, looked out at the future of the Roman Catholic Church.

It could be found at St. Mary’s Pro-Cathedral here, in downtown Dublin, as two rows of children awaited confirmation before him in the lofty, column-lined church.

“Boys and girls, I made my confirmation 60 years ago,” he told them, adding, “Your world is different from mine.”

Not far away, the streets were quiet after a long night of celebrating. Revelers filled the bars, beeped horns, waved rainbow flags and drank Guinness after the result was announced on Saturday. The size of the victory energized supporters, with the referendum affirmed by 62 percent of the electorate and passed in all but one of Ireland’s 43 districts.

After the votes were counted, the carefully planned and executed campaign by activist groups seemed as much about putting behind a past entrenched in theocracy and tradition as it was about marriage for gays and lesbians. And it underscored how different Ireland is today for the young, who turned out in droves to vote. In a little more than a generation, Ireland has both distanced itself from the church and sharpened its secular identity.

At St. Mary’s, the results of the referendum, as one might expect, did not come up — the archbishop instead quipped about his first experience with a cellphone. But afterward, speaking at a house next to the church, he conceded that much had changed.

“The church needs to take a reality check,” Archbishop Martin said after the Mass, repeating a comment he had made Saturday. “It’s very clear there’s a growing gap between Irish young people and the church, and there’s a growing gap between the culture of Ireland that’s developing and the church.”

The country’s cultural evolution reflects a blend of disaffection with the church, and Ireland’s willingness to embrace a wider vision of itself in the world. As the church lost many people in its scandals and its unwillingness to yield to sexual freedoms, the European Union found itself with a willing and eager member.

The shift didn’t happen overnight. After Ireland broke from Britain in 1922, it was a virtual colony to the Vatican, a theocracy in all but name.

John Charles McQuaid, the longtime archbishop of Dublin, played a central role in drafting Ireland’s Constitution before he became archbishop, hewing to conservative church doctrine and closely involving himself in details as small as the placement of commas in the document. That kind of unchecked dominance by the church continued for decades.

In 1979, more than one million people turned out for Pope John Paul II’s visit to Dublin, a staggering crowd in a country with a population of about 3.4 million at the time. In 1983, by a two-thirds majority, Ireland hewed to church teachings and passed a referendum outlawing abortion except in cases where a mother’s life was at risk, after a divisive campaign.

But signs of resistance had already been showing. In 1971, women’s rights activists organized a “condom train,” going over the border to Belfast and bringing back condoms to a country that outlawed contraception.

Tony Flannery, a priest who was suspended in 2012 because of his criticism of the church’s views on women and homosexuality, said contraception was a seminal issue for a generation that became the parents of today’s youngest voters.

And it “was the first time that Irish Catholics first questioned church teaching,” Mr. Flannery said. “That opened the door, and after that they increasingly began to question a whole raft of Catholic sexual teaching, and then the child sexual abuse scandal came along which destroyed church credibility in the whole area of sexuality.”

Even the reputation of Archbishop McQuaid, who died in 1973 after more than three decades at the helm of the Dublin archdiocese, crumbled in the tide of child sex scandals. In 2009, his role in covering up abuse was excoriated in a report commissioned by the Irish government and the headline of a commentary in The Irish Times likened him to Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini. By 2011, abuse allegations surfaced involving him.

“The people have changed their relationship with the Catholic Church because they’ve been disappointed and let down,” said Christina Breen, 54, who visited Dublin Castle on Saturday to see the results of the vote, a show of support because one of her sons is gay.

Or, as Mr. Flannery put it, “The day when the church had the power to influence social debate in Ireland, or to swing it, is gone.”

The legal system began to chip away at the laws restricting homosexuals. In 1988, a lawyer named Mary Robinson successfully argued a case in the European court system challenging Ireland’s law that made homosexuality a crime. Five years later, after Ms. Robinson became Ireland’s first female president in 1990, she signed a law decriminalizing homosexuality.

At the same time that the church’s moral authority was flagging, the Irish were finding a new identity within the European Union. They share the euro, and are more willing to take advantage of low-cost airfares for weekend jaunts to the Continent and beyond, broadening an outlook that for their parents and grandparents had been molded by the church and Britain.

The country’s economic road has been more fraught. The Irish economy boomed in the 1990s, cratered after the global financial crisis and is now recovering. Unemployment this week dipped below 10 percent for the first time since the crisis began, though economic output is still below its 2007 peak.

While young people are still emigrating for opportunities elsewhere, they are not as inclined to leave for good, as previous generations had. The return of thousands to vote showed a connection to their homeland that had been largely lacking in earlier emigrants.

An influx of young people from Eastern Europe and elsewhere has made Ireland more diverse. The Irish political scene has largely avoided the toxic anti-immigrant rhetoric that has surfaced in much of Europe. In large part, that is because Sinn Fein, the opposition party that was once the political wing of the Irish Republican Army, has gained ground by attacking austerity instead of immigrants. The same-sex marriage referendum had broad support across the political parties.

“The biggest change I see is the young people,” said Annie Dillon, 58, who works for a community-based health organization.

“I’m thinking of my 20-year-old nephew; it was like a no-brainer for him,” she said. “He was like, ‘Of course, why wouldn’t we want to be including everybody?’ That seems to be the prevailing attitude.”

Ms. Dillon said that when she came out, at 21, “you had to have a dual existence almost.”

“It was easy to be out when you’re with other people who were gay, but I came out to my brothers and sisters gradually,” she said, adding, “I never talked about it much to my parents.”

Even as it widely celebrates the change that the same-sex marriage vote indicated, Ireland is not entirely beyond the kind of cultural battles that have led to far more contentious political campaigns in the past. Many believe there will be a much more fierce cultural debate over legalizing abortion.

With the vote for the same-sex referendum going nearly two to one in favor, Archbishop Martin said Sunday that the church needed what he called “a new language that will be understood and heard by people.” Many young people, he added, “go in today and find a church that is for the like-minded,” as opposed to being inclusive.

But he did not offer a solution for attracting young people back to the church, and reiterated his opposition to same-sex marriage.

“For many, and I’ve said this before, inside the church becomes almost alien territory to them in today’s society,” he said. “If the leadership of the Irish Catholic church don’t recognize that, then they’re in severe denial. Have I got a magic formula? Certainly not.”


Any original material on these pages is copyright © 2004. Reproduce freely with attribution.