I wasn’t present in any polling station when the votes on the same-sex marriage referendum were being counted. Having “come out” in an Irish Times column during the campaign, I had no professional function: Irish media regulations precluded me from reporting on the story. I could have been there as an interested bystander, but I wasn’t. I was in Glenstal Abbey, a Benedictine monastery in County Limerick, attending a weekend course on deepening my faith.
Therein lies the paradox in the Catholic Church revealed by this referendum. The most faithful of the faithful found ourselves, not just going against Church teaching, but going against it publicly. They included some very prominent Catholics including the former Irish president Mary McAleese, Fr Peter McVerry, Prof Linda Hogan, Sr Stanislaus Kennedy and Fr Gabriel Daly.
Tom Curran, the Secretary General of the senior Government Party, Fine Gael, announcing himself as “a card-carrying Catholic” and Mass-going former seminarian, appeared in media to say he would be voting for same sex marriage, against the stated stance of the hierarchy, because of his gay son.
Although some lay church members fought strongly on the “no” side, a majority of the people, on Friday, decided to vote for the possibility of men marrying men and women marrying women.
That represents not just a breakthrough for gay people or a deep separation between Church and state but also a magnification of tensions within the Church itself. For the first time, a country regarded internationally as Catholic, where a majority of the population describe themselves as belonging to that Church, went against the position taken by their bishops in massive numbers.
This is not the time to re-visit the issues raised by the hierarchy in positing their opposition to the referendum proposition. Significant, however, were two points made by Diarmuid Martin, the media-friendly Archbishop of Dublin. The first was that he, personally, would be voting No, but doing so with a heavy heart. The second was his response to a question from a TV news anchorman about how the archbishop was calling on the public to vote. The archbishop smiled and said the days of bishops instructing members of the public on how to vote were long past.
He is right. The issue is not how to instruct the faithful, but how to help the faithful address the complexities implicit in embracing its gay members. The institutional Church has conspicuously failed to do that in the past. In the piece I wrote in The Irish Times ten days ago – which went global as an account of a lifetime of passing as heterosexual – I pointed out that the worst of my miseries, growing up, were caused by me being a good Catholic girl, knowing that the Church I belonged to and loved regarded me as aberrant.
On Sunday, Catholic churches around the world celebrated Pentecost; the day the Holy Spirit descended on the apostles, energising and inspiring them to live and spread the Gospel values.
Today, the energy that enlivened the Early Church is in short supply at the higher echelons.
Perhaps, if there was more around it might inspire the hierarchy to reexamine its theology of human sexuality and its understanding of what it is to be human. In science when the facts don’t fit the theory, the theory gets changed to fit the facts. If the Church wants to stay relevant and in touch with human realities it will need to acknowledge that gay people are facts, not freaks of nature.
Ursula Halligan is the Political Editor of the Irish television station TV3
“The most faithful of the faithful found ourselves, not just going against Church teaching, but going against it publicly. They included some very prominent Catholics including the former Irish president Mary McAleese, Fr Peter McVerry, Prof Linda Hogan, Sr Stanislaus Kennedy and Fr Gabriel Daly.” – Ursula Halligan – ‘The Tablet’
The above-named are only a few of the Roman Catholics in Ireland who have voiced their support for a renewed understanding of human sexuality in the Church. It seems that, like the official sanction against contraception, many Roman Catholics are ignoring the current teaching about homosexuality. In a country like the Irish Republic, which is predominantly Roman Catholic, the fact that a public referendum voted overwhelmingly for a change to the Marriage Laws has given a shock to the Church hierarchy who had recommended the flock to vote against legislation for same-sex marriage.
Ursula, a self-acknowledged lesbian, was actually engaged in a spiritual retreat at a Benedictine Monastery on the weekend of the Referendum; which surely must prove something about the spiritual connection of Gay people with the Church – despite the degree of criticism that they most commonly receive from the clergy.
I admire the fact that her faith is strong enough to believe that the Church will one day alter its entrenched attitude on the issue of sexual orientation, which has led to others leaving the Church on account of outdated prejudice.
Father Ron Smith, Christchurch, New Zealand