The Marriage Referendum and the Bishops

The upcoming referendum on Marriage Equality is the sixth such referendum we have had on a social issue since the first abortion referendum in 1983.  We have had two on abortion, two on divorce, a recent one on children, and now this one.  Along with that we have had intense debates over the availability of artificial contraceptives.  In other words, for the past thirty two years this country has been almost constantly engaged in social, qua religious, debates.

None of them have been particularly productive or pleasant, in that they tended fairly quickly to develop into a dialogue of the deaf between the more extreme views on both sides.  Maybe it is a sign that things have moved on a bit, but I have the impression that this one, so far, has been slightly more civilised that what has gone before.

But there is one characteristic of them all that has remained constant. The leaders of the Irish Church, the bishops, have without fail lined up with the more conservative, even the more extreme, groups of lay people. In my opinion, no matter how the result panned out, the collateral damage to the Church has been enormous. I can never remember any bishop, with the exception of Willie Walsh, speaking out for the more open, liberal section of the Church. This is yet a further indication of the very narrow criteria by which bishops have been, and continue to be, chosen. A whole, probably majority, section of the Irish Church has never been represented by the authorities in these  debates.

It is still quite uncertain how this referendum will go.  We know that, when it comes to referenda, polls are very unreliable.  But I know this for certain;  that if it is defeated, large number of young people will be even further alienated from the Church. Listening to the bishops who made statements this weekend, they are taking exactly the same line as Mothers and Fathers Matter, and the Iona Institute. This is harking back to the days of Pope Benedict, and the notion of a smaller, more pure and faithful Church.  Both the tone and content of their statements will serve to drive away, rather than welcome, those on the periphery and the margins.

I am pleased to see that an increasing number of priests are coming out publicly to say they are voting YES, and I hope we will hear from many more between now and polling day. At least this shows that there is more than one opinion and voice in our Church regarding this matter.