The Marriage Equality Referendum

This article was written by me, and published in today’s (May 3rd) Sunday Independent.

The upcoming Marriage Equality Referendum is not the first time that committed Catholics of my generation have been confronted by significant moral questions as to how we would cast our vote. It is a good exercise, because it helps us to clarify for ourselves what exactly we believe and where we stand. As in all the other social debates we have had over the past forty years, there are no clear black and white answers, because each one of them in its own way dealt with an issue that deeply concerned human persons, and where the individual human being is concerned black and white answers are usually not that helpful: the human condition does not fit easily with rigidity.

Having considered the question that is being presented to us on this occasion, and after having listened to the debate so far, and given it a great deal of thought, I will be voting Yes. I do not consider this decision to be in any way in conflict with my faith, or with my position as a priest.

It has been recognised by most of the great thinkers in the Church, and is currently being emphasised again by our present pope, that there is a hierarchy of teachings, or of values, in the Catholic Church. In other words, not all teaching is of the same order of significance. Marriage is undoubtedly important, both for the proper ordering of civil society, and for moral living. But the Church did not declare marriage a sacrament until the thirteenth century. Long before that it was a civil, and often for the ruling classes, a political institution. Now we are being asked to grant to people of a same sex orientation authorisation to marry the person they love.

In the argument whether same sex orientation is part of the plan of nature or is due to cultural or family experiences, in other words nature or nurture, I am firmly of the belief that, while there may be influences of nurture in some particular cases, it is definitely part of the natural order. Consequently, I do not accept that any blame or moral fault can be attributed to someone who is gay. It is the way that God created them, and part of his plan for their life, or, as one might say, part of the hand of cards they were dealt. So, to suggest that a gay person is in any way less a human being, less perfect or less moral, is totally wrong. They are as much entitled to their dignity as human person as anyone else. God’s love for them is not in any way diminished because they are gay.

We must be honest and admit that the teaching of many Christian Churches in respect of any sexual contact between people of the same sex has hardly been helpful. Some of that can be partly excused in previous generations by a deficit of knowledge and understanding of the orientation. But more recent statements by the Catholic Church, which included phrases like ‘intrinsic evil’ and ‘disordered state’ cannot claim that excuse. There is no doubt that they have caused great pain, and made many gay people feel that they were not welcome in the Church, that they were people of lesser dignity because of their orientation. For this the Church, in my view, stands condemned by the teaching of the Gospels. We have not made much progress. The present teaching of the Catholic church says that there is no moral fault in being attracted to a person of the same sex, but that any physical expression of that attraction is seriously sinful. I find that hard to accept. Sexual expression plays a very important part in growing and deepening the bond of love between two people, and to the degree that two people of the same sex, created by God to love each other, cannot express that love physically, under pain of moral sin and eternal damnation, is an inhuman type of teaching.

We have come out of a period in the Church that I would classify as doctrinaire, when the rigid observance of doctrine seemed to be the yardstick by which living the Christian life was measured. To me it always sounded more like the attitude of the religious teachers of Jesus’ time, rather than what he himself proclaimed. Pope Francis has brought us back to some of the very basic teachings of Jesus. He constantly tells us that love, compassion and mercy are fundamental Christian attitudes. If this country rejects the proposal put before us in this referendum, I fear that gay people will hear it as a further rejection, another example of society telling them they are lesser human beings. Many of the people who will vote against it will certainly not intend that, but those of us who are not gay can have little real understanding of what it has been like to grow up gay in this country in the past, and even to this day. Because of the struggle they have experienced, first in coming to terms with themselves, and then with the negative attitudes in society, they have developed particularly sensitive antennae to rejection of any sort. For me, the really Christian thing is to give them a strong and clear message that they are loved and accepted just as they are, and that they deserve to be treated with the same dignity as the rest of us.​