The government of the Republic of Ireland will hold a referendum on the legalisation of same-sex marriage on Friday. The current government, a coalition of the centre-right Fine Gael and centre-left Labour parties, decided to hold the referendum following a report of the Constitutional Convention in 2013. The Labour party had earlier committed to support same-sex marriage in its 2011 election manifesto.
While public opinion currently seems generally favourable towards the proposals, there is still considerable opposition. This includes from the Catholic Church in Ireland. Four Catholic bishops recently called upon their flock to vote No.
A number of these Catholic bishops have claimed that voting Yes will redefine the nature of marriage. The church argues that marriage must be between a man and a woman, for the purposes of having and raising children. The rights of children are central to the Catholic Church’s case for a No vote.
In bygone days, such statements may have carried considerable weight. Nowadays, however, they are unlikely to decisively affect the result. This is, in part, due to the diminished moral authority which the Catholic Church commands, particularly concerning issues such as the welfare and rights of children.
History of abuse
The Catholic Church’s influence on Ireland’s social, moral and cultural mores has been waning for almost 30 years. Recently, however, its authority has been further eroded. Over the past decade, a number of official reports have highlighted the often atrocious historical abuse of children which took place throughout Ireland, often involving Catholic clerics.
The Ferns (2005), Ryan and Murphy reports (2009) brought to light shocking information about child sexual abuse in dioceses throughout the country. It also highlighted abuse in institutions run by the Catholic Church on behalf of the Irish state.
The Ferns report pointed to a failure among church (and state) authorities to protect children from abuse at local level. Similarly, the Ryan Report noted the state’s failure to adequately supervise and protect children left in the church’s care.
The Murphy Report made for equally grim reading. It highlighted shortcomings in how allegations of child abuse were dealt with by both church and state authorities in Dublin. This was not only a human tragedy. For many people, the series of reports seriously undermined the moral authority of the Catholic Church.
In 2011, a further report concerning the handling of abuse allegations in the Catholic diocese of Cloyne was published. The report provoked a furious reaction from the current taoiseach (prime minister), Enda Kenny.
In a parliamentary speech, Kenny castigated the Catholic Church for the way it handled such allegations. While, as Kenny noted, the Catholic Church has since committed to ensuring high standards of child protection, these shocking reports are likely to linger long in popular memory.
The year 2011 also witnessed a diplomatic spat between the Irish government and the Vatican. In November that year, the Irish embassy in the Vatican City was closed. This was part of a package of cost-saving measures across the entire Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade. Nevertheless, such a move would have been unthinkable in earlier years.
In 2014, however, the embassy was re-opened, ending what one official described as a “painful period” in Dublin-Vatican relations.
Break with the past
Together, these reports painted a sorry picture of the Catholic Church’s record on child welfare. It is therefore not inconceivable that many might be cynical about the bishops’ call for Catholics to vote No in order to preserve the traditional definition of marriage, and protect the rights of children.
Current opinion polls suggest that the hierarchy has not yet succeeded in persuading Catholic voters of the merits of their case.
According to these polls, 58% will vote Yes, 25% No, with the rest undecided. Given Ireland’s religious demographics, these figures suggest that many Catholics are currently inclined to vote Yes.
Enda Kenny has argued that a Yes vote would signal the extent to which “Ireland has evolved into a fair, compassionate and tolerant nation”. The polls suggest that Kenny’s preferred outcome may soon be within reach.
People who vote No would doubtless disagree with Kenny’s assessment. A Yes vote would, however, signal a decisive break with the past regarding the influence of Catholicism on the social, moral, and political landscape of the independent Irish state.