Ireland’s Same Sex Marriage Vote and the New Morality of Self-Fulfillment
The overwhelming vote in Ireland’s national referendum to make same sex marriage a constitutional right – the first time this result has been achieved by popular mandate – might raise questions about why this has occurred in a nation known for its intense commitment to Catholicism. But the real questions that the Irish vote raises are different: why did it take so long, what does this mean for the Catholic Church, and what does it mean for the issue of gay rights in general.
Ireland is, in fact, the last northern European nation to legalize same sex marriage by one means or another. Pointing out the obvious fact that it’s the only Catholic nation in the region is not an explanation, because Ireland is also the last Western European nation to take this step. Spain, Portugal, Belgium and Luxembourg, all heavily Catholic, have approved same sex marriage as well; Belgium, which owes its political existence and identity to its Catholic faith, was second only to the Netherlands in doing so. The reason Catholic opposition seemed to matter more in Ireland that in these other Catholic nations is that the Catholic Church allied itself in Ireland, as it did in Poland, with a national liberation movement. That gave it a legitimacy that it lacked elsewhere. In other words, the Church gained the exceptional loyalty of the Irish people because of its political stance, not because of its moral or religious influence.
The message that this vote should convey to leaders of the Catholic Church is that, even in a nation where it possesses such extraordinary political legitimacy, people are no longer willing to go along with its opposition to gay rights. The traditional idea that sex is only moral if it is for the higher purpose of procreation has been replaced by the new morality’s view that sex between consenting adults is a valid source of human self-fulfillment. Of course, the Catholic Church is entitled, if it chooses, to continue to declare homosexuality a sin and to refuse to marry gay couples in its own religious ceremonies. After all, every one of the Western European nations that has approved same sex marriage also guarantees religious freedom, which gives all denominations the right to make their own decisions on marital issues. But that does not justify denying rights to others. The Catholic Church, quite understandably, also refuses to conduct marriage ceremonies for Protestants and Jews, but it no longer insists that their marriages aren’t valid.
In the past, of course, the Catholic Church claimed that its refusal to marry people of different religions was based on the nature of marriage itself, and that these people should be denied political and civil rights by the government. That position caused two centuries of savage war in Europe. The first attempts to resolve these wars was to invoke the principle that the nation’s ruler determines the religion. This has a nice, sonorous ring to it (it sounds really good in Latin – cuius regio, eius religio) but it didn’t work. Beginning about three hundred years ago, people in Europe, and in predominantly European colonies like the future United States, came to realize that only freedom of conscience would bring religious peace and serve as the basis of a just society.
It is time for the Catholic Church to embrace this principle, to stop opposing civil rights for gay people because of its own choice not to recognize the validity of their relationships. After all, as a minority religion in all the northern European nations other than Ireland, and in the United States, it is the beneficiary of religious tolerance. There seemed to be some possibility that Pope Francis, who comes from still another predominantly Catholic nation that has legalized same sex marriage, was going to adopt a more tolerant stance when he responded to a question about homosexuals by saying: “who am I to judge them?” But since then the Church has only reaffirmed its previous position. This has all the hallmarks of its disastrous decision about birth control, when a reformist Pope who was considering revision of antediluvian Church doctrine was opposed, and ultimately defeated, by arch-conservative Italian cardinals. In that case, and in the case of same sex marriage, such intransigence will only lead to Catholicism’s continued decline.
As for the third question, the Irish vote clarifies a basic truth that everyone in Europe and the United States should recognize by now: denying gay people the right to marry is not an act of religious devotion but rather just plain old discrimination. The modern conception of religion is that it provides a way for people to fulfill their spiritual desires, not a basis for denying rights to those who choose a different path. To prohibit people from acting on the basis of their own beliefs, it is necessary to show that those actions are harming others, and mere disagreement with one’s own beliefs simply does not count as harm. Irish voters have recognized this feature of the new morality and, with their vote, have made it the law of their land.