Irish Catholicism After Gay Marriage

Irish Catholicism After Gay Marriage May 28, 2015


As Samwise Gamgee once said: “I’m back.”

For the past few months, I’ve been occupied – no, fairer to say “consumed by” – participating in the campaign for a No vote in Ireland’s referendum to legalise same sex marriage.

I was very much a reluctant warrior on the whole question. As a friend put it to me: “I know the arguments, I know this is right, I know it’s important. But it just feels mean.”

But I thought that it was a position worth defending nonetheless, for more or less the reasons outlined by Michael Brendan Dougherty in his recent piece for The Week, “In Defence of the Natural Family”. It was a battle that it was important to try to win, and to try to win with grace and respect.

We lost. 62-38. The Yes side won a majority in every parliamentary constituency in the country save one.

Now, I don’t think that getting nearly 40% of the vote is anything at all to be sniffed at, considering that the Yes side was supported by every political party in the Irish parliament, the much-respected former President Mary McAleese (telling the nation that a No vote would “cost our gay children everything”), most of the multinational tech companies from which Ireland gets a substantial amount of foreign direct investment, the police’s representation body, millions of dollars from Chuck Feeney, what felt like every Irish celebrity bar one brave gaelic footballer, and newspapers that ran 3 articles arguing for a Yes vote to every 1 for a No.

But still.


This was an argument about civil marriage. We had people of all faiths and none on our side (one of the leading No spokespeople was a gay agnostic). But much of the commentary after the fact has focused on the Catholic Church’s changing role in Irish society.

What’s known as the “conjugal view” of marriage is not just a Catholic position – but the Church does believe in it… rather strongly, and notions of male-female complementarity are woven very deeply into the Church’s sexual ethics.

So the fact that Ireland, a country where nearly 90% still identify as Catholic, voted the way it did is hugely significant. Reaction’s been divided into roughly two camps: the first pessimistic about what this means for Catholicism. Diarmuid Martin, the Archbishop of Dublin,  (who, I must say, played a blinder in this referendum campaign) said that the referendum was a “social revolution” and that the Church needed a “reality check” in how it preached the gospel to young people in particular (my age group voted Yes in overwhelming numbers).

Tim Stanley at the Telegraph put it pithily: “Ireland Has Said Yes to Gay Marriage and No to Catholicism“.

On the other hand, you have Christopher J. Hale’s piece in Time Magazine, making basically the opposite case:

In fact, many who voted “yes” on gay marriage did so because of their faith, not in spite of it. One elderly Irish couple put it this way: “We are Catholics, and we are taught to believe in compassion and love and fairness and inclusion. Equality, that’s all we’re voting for.”

This is a new, thoroughly modern Irish Catholicism. As lawyer and human-rights activist Maeve O’Rourke puts it:

Being Catholic in Ireland today does not necessarily mean believing in all of the church’s teachings.

Ninety percent of Irish state primary schools remain Catholic Church-run today (where first holy communion and confirmation are de rigueur), along with a large proportion of secondary schools. However, the church now educates in a society which does not remotely resemble the Ireland of the 1970s, or 1980s even.

The Catholic education I received in the 90s and 2000s had little to do with “should not’s” or “do not’s.” The lessons concerned mainly social justice and personal development.

The avoidance of significant parts of Catholic doctrine in schools and churches throughout the country is, I am sure, what makes a lot of Irish Catholics comfortable to acknowledge at least a residual belief.

I think the optimists are wrong, and the pessimists are right. When commentators call this referendum result a rejection of Catholicism, they’re correct. That’s not all it is: but it is that. Not a revision, not a new spring: a rejection.

“Well”, you say “you would say that!” But I’m not for a second making same-sex marriage a totem, and nor am I saying that holding the line on that question is The Most Important Part of being an orthodox Catholic (that would be lunacy). I used to disagree with the Church on this issue, and I know people who still do who are much better Catholics than I am.

But this is a symptom of a wider problem. The Church is ill in Ireland, and it’s ill in the West. It’s not metamorphosing into something new and beautiful. It’s shrinking, withering, declining.

If the same-sex marriage vote was coming from a place of bold, confident faith, from a laity that was dynamic, exercised, catechised, and confident; steeped in the faith and boldly arguing that this was a development in accordance with Tradition, then people like me would really have to stop, take stock, and think very very hard about what we consider to be unchangeable. There would be a real and powerful argument that the senses fidelium was speaking.

It would be a different story too, if Catholics in Ireland were embracing the argument put forward by Jody Bottum, Leah Libresco, and others, that civil marriage and Christian marriage are now more or less two completely different institutions, and that there is more to be gained than lost in opening up the civil one to gay couples.

But let’s not fool ourselves. Neither of those things are happening. Almost every Catholic Yes voter I’ve spoken to would change the Church’s teaching on marriage tomorrow if they could. And the impulse for same-sex marriage didn’t come from within the Church, nor is there any evidence of any kind of “new spring”.


I know many teachers in Catholic schools, and they all tell me the exact same thing – growing numbers of students don’t know the most basic things about their faith. Nothing about the Eucharist, only the very basics of Jesus’s life, no grasp or even awareness of the countless prayers, rituals and practices that form the scaffolding around which lasting faith can be built.


I know a man, a man who I respect and admire, who takes his Catholic faith seriously and lets it inform his life. He was delighted with the referendum result, seeing it as a victory for the compassionate, kind Catholicism he believes in, and which he hopes is now ascendant.

None of this man’s children are practising Catholics. One of five believes in God.


There are a number of people in my parish, people I’m close to and who are active in various forms of ministry, who don’t actually believe in God. There are a larger number who are vaguely theistic, or basically spiritual-but-not-religious but for their weekly Mass attendance. The proportion of “orthodox” Catholics is probably less than a third.

I would bet a substantial amount of money that a majority of the weekly Massgoers in my south Dublin parish voted Yes in the referendum.


I heard a priest deliver a homily a few months ago on the topic of the priesthood itself. He concluded by talking about the vocations crisis, and among his suggested remedies was that the Church look again at admitting women to the priesthood.

I spoke to him about it afterward, telling him I had no intention of telling any tales on him but that I’d like to hear his reasoning. It became clear to me very quickly that this kind, decent pastor, over 80 years hold, had never once heard a coherent argument for the fact that the Church ordains only men.


What has happened in Ireland is not, much as many sincere and good people might wish it, a step on the road towards a different sort of Catholicism: it’s a step on the road out of the Church. And it’s not just Ireland: it’s most of the modern West.

There’ve been some really good reflections recently on the whole concept of the “Benedict option” from Eve Tushnet and Leah Libresco. Both of them try to explore the possibility of, in Leah’s words, creating and sustaining “spaces where joyful piety happens to you more often; a few spaces where your Catholicism doesn’t feel like an act of resistance, any more than eating does.” And their conception of the  “Benedict Option” is very much separated from the specific circumstances of the “culture wars”, or whatever they’re calling them these days. I get the impression that they want to move very far away indeed from any connection to the current battle over same-sex marriage.

That’s why Leah writes the following:

I kinda liked Alan Jacobs’s choice of metaphor to explain why returning/building a community doesn’t need to be a matter of fleeing or rejecting the world:

But here’s the key thing. What do they always tell you before the plane takes off?Secure your own oxygen mask before assisting others. When Christians stride confidently out to change the world without having first taken care to be fully shaped and formed by the Christian account of things, they (a) have very little that’s distinctive to offer others and (b) are themselves easily swayed by thoroughly non-Christian ways of thinking and acting, with results we have recently had thoroughly documented for us.

Ultimately, whatever specific form the Benedict Option takes, this is what it’s about: securing our own oxygen mask first before attempting to assist others.

My main problem with it is the background image of a plummeting plane.  The oxygen mask idea is a little too tinged with catastrophe; it makes it sound like Benedict Option-style thinking is a response to exceptional, apocalyptic circumstances (and that framing tends to divert everyone into discussing the crisis-or-lack-thereof, not the response).

I’m instinctively and dispositionally disposed towards the version(s) of the Benedict Option that Eve and Leah are sketching out. More than that, I think their project is essential: any attempt to build Christian community worth its salt has to be more than just a reaction to current events.

But I have to push back a bit here, because the plane is crashing. The ship of orthodox Catholicism in the western world is sinking.

This is an inconvenient truth. It’s unpleasant, because it requires a degree of confrontation, a degree of focus on the areas of culture-clash and controversy that I, personally, would rather avoid, and I suspect Eve and Leah would too.

But the game has well and truly changed. Take just one example: all the – absolutely crucial – efforts the Church must make to better welcome and include gay people that Eve, Ron Belgau and others have spent years working on. They’ll now be taking place in the context of overwhelming legal, cultural, and social pressure to recognise and approve of same-sex marriage. This pressure will be coming from without: but also from within.

As time goes on, there’ll be an ever-growing group of people in most American and European parishes, some of them in leadership positions, who think that the position articulated on is anachronistic at best and self-hating at worst, and that the Church should just “skip past them” and affirm same-sex marriage, in practice if not principle. And they’ll have a huge amount of support from the world around them: the same-sex marriage movement demands affirmation and agreement for its cause in a way that similar movements for contraception and divorce never did. 

That, in turn, could easily drive the many sceptics of Eve’s position even more towards defensiveness and retrenchment. A lot of them will see it not as the authentic development of doctrine that I think it is, but as a Trojan Horse, which will probably intensify the otherising and exclusion that has all too often greeted out gay people who come to the door of a Catholic Church.

And that’s just one issue on which the balance between complete cultural capitulation on the one hand, and the fearful retrenchment of “fortress Catholicism” on the other is going to be really, really difficult to strike. I don’t agree with Damian Thompson’s prediction that the Church will soon face formal schism, but I do agree with Ross Douthat that the potential for a whole host of little schisms in parishes and dioceses and Catholic movements all over the world is very real.

If we want to avoid that, we have to start by acknowledging just how much trouble we’re in. If we as a Church don’t know where we stand, we’re not going to stand at all.

I ended up curating the @Ireland twitter account for a few days towards the end of the referendum campaign, where in between being ritually denounced and having really fascinating chats about the right way to make tea, I was able to answer 27 questions from people voting Yes as to why I wasn’t.

It’s actually not bad for 10,000+ words written between the hours of 8 PM and 6 AM. If anyone’s curious about the civil arguments made against the referendum’s passage (or my thoughts on Noam Chomsky) feel free to pore through that Storify.

Couldn’t figure out where else to put this, so I put it here!

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