Slide Into Secularism: What the Marriage Referendum Says About Ireland

NEWS ANALYSIS: Although 84% of Irish residents still self-identify as Catholic, the nation has witnessed a social revolution in recent decades, putting it at the forefront of the social-liberal vanguard.

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DUBLIN — It was as a senior official in the Vatican’s Secretariat of State in 1946 that Msgr. Giovanni Battista Montini — later to be elected Pope Paul VI in 1963 — predicted that Ireland was “becoming the most Catholic country in the world.”

The contrast with Cardinal Pietro Parolin’s assertion that Ireland’s May 22 vote in favor of same-sex “marriage” was a “defeat for humanity” could hardly be starker.

Ireland — where 84% of people still self-identify as Catholic — has witnessed a social revolution in recent decades putting it at the forefront of the liberal vanguard.

Famed as keeping the light of Christianity alive during Europe’s Dark Ages, Ireland has now been described as a “beacon of light” by its current Minister for Health Leo Varadkar, who also said the country will try to exert pressure on other countries worldwide to redefine marriage.

The margin of support for same-sex “marriage” — a comfortable 62%-38% — surprises many. Surprising, too, is the rapid pace at which Ireland has been transformed from a country that sent thousands of missionaries around the world to a country whose government has vowed to use global influence to spread support for same-sex “marriage.”

Pope St. John Paul II became the first pope to set foot in Ireland when he made a pastoral visit in 1979. The reaction was phenomenal and the Masses surrounding the papal visit were the largest gatherings in Irish history. It’s estimated that more than one third of the people of Ireland saw the Pope in person during the three-day visit. The following year, 1980, 10% of boys born in Ireland were named John Paul. It seemed that the faith was as strong as ever.

Looking back, however, the Pope brought with him a warning — a warning that, perhaps, if heeded, might have left Ireland a different place today.

Speaking in Limerick, St. John Paul II said “the Christian family has been in the past Ireland’s greatest spiritual resource. Modern conditions and social changes have created new patterns and new difficulties for family life and for Christian marriage. I want to say to you: do not be discouraged, do not follow the trends where a close-knit family is seen as outdated; the Christian family is more important for the Church and for society today than ever before.”

At the time, laws banning contraception had just been relaxed, but divorce, abortion and homosexual acts were firmly illegal. St. John Paul made an appeal: “It is true that the stability and sanctity of marriage are being threatened by new ideas and by the aspirations of some. Divorce, for whatever reason it is introduced, inevitably becomes easier and easier to obtain and it gradually comes to be accepted as a normal part of life.

“The very possibility of divorce in the sphere of civil law makes stable and permanent marriages more difficult for everyone. May Ireland always continue to give witness before the modern world to her traditional commitment to the sanctity and the indissolubility of the marriage bond.”

“May the Irish always support marriage, through personal commitment and through positive social and legal action,” the Holy Father said.

Of course, John Paul II made no mention of same-sex “marriage.” Speaking as he did in 1979, the concept was virtually unimaginable.


‘Social Revolution’

How does one explain Ireland’s rapid slide into secularism and embrace of liberal values?

There’s no doubt that the clerical abuse scandals have been a major factor. The scandals have dramatically undermined the Church’s moral authority. And Father Vincent Twomey, professor emeritus of moral theology at St. Patrick’s College, Maynooth, has written a book provocatively entitled The End of Irish Catholicism?, rooting the dramatic transformation in the Church in Ireland’s failure to prioritize education.

“Traditional Irish Catholicism, for all its other greatness, was to large extent an unthinking, if cunning, entity,” Father Twomey said in an interview with The Irish Catholic. A narrow education meant that most were not exposed to world literature, art or serious theology that would have broadened their minds and made their faith a questioning one.

“Parochialism and conformism reigned supreme,” Father Twomey believes.

Archbishop Diarmuid Martin of Dublin has described the referendum result as a “reality check” for the Church.

Speaking on State broadcaster RTÉ, the archbishop said: “I think really that the Church needs to do a reality check, a reality check right across the board, to look at the things it’s doing well, to look at the areas where we really have to start and say, ‘Look, have we drifted away completely from young people?’”

Dublin’s archbishop described the result as a “social revolution.”

“It’s a social revolution that didn’t begin today,” he said. “It’s a social revolution that’s been going on, and perhaps in the Church people have not been as clear in understanding what that involved.

“It’s very clear that if this referendum is an affirmation of the views of young people, then the Church has a huge task in front of it to find the language to be able to talk to and to get its message across to young people, not just on this issue, but in general.”

David Quinn, director of the pro-marriage Iona Institute and de factor leader of the referendum ‘No’ campaign believes the Church does need a “reality check.”

“The reality check is that the Church has done almost no catechesis in the area of marriage for years and years. It has done lots of pastoral counseling, but it has not taught on a systematic basis what marriage is and why it is so important to society and why it can only be between a man and a woman by its very nature,” he told the Register.

Quinn believes this failure of catechesis “is why many Catholics were bowled over when the referendum came, especially as they have been subjected by the media to such relentless propaganda in favor of gay marriage for years.”


Mainstream Media Bias

That “relentless propaganda” Quinn referenced was demonstrated by the fact that an independent assessment of mainstream media in the run-up to the campaign found that articles in newspapers ran three-to-one in favor of a “Yes” vote.

Breda O’Brien, a longtime Catholic activist based in Dublin, said, “We have learned a lot from the grueling campaign. We cannot rely on mainstream media to get our message out.”

Archbishop Eamon Martin of Armagh, the primate of Ireland, also believes the Church has a lot to learn from the campaign.

“Among the many lessons that we as Church can learn from the referendum debate is to re-commit ourselves to the pastoral care of anyone in society who experiences victimization and stigmatization,” he said May 31 at Ireland’s Marian National Shrine in Knock. He added the Church has to continue “to reach out pastorally to different kinds of families and relationships while at the same time continuing to be advocates for a Christian vision of marriage and for the unique and fundamental contribution to society of the family founded upon the love and marriage of a man and a woman”.

Archbishop Martin acknowledges that the abuse scandals are “part of the reason” why some people have rejected the Church’s teaching. However, he said that the “wave of secularism” that has hit Ireland “has meant that even were it not for the scandals, we would be dealing with the same issues.”

Still, there are hopeful signs for the future of the Church in Ireland: Ireland’s primate said in his remarks that he is moved by the “many young Catholics who are committed to their faith and want to share their faith with others.” These signs of hope are acutely visible in some of the new ecclesial movements. Youth 2000 has a network of vibrant groups around the country, for example, and Pure in Heart — which aims to promote chastity — is growing in strength.

For Quinn, the lesson from the referendum campaign is clear. “Now that the referendum has been carried it is more imperative than ever that the Church teaches very clearly on the issue of marriage. It will need to contrast its belief about marriage with the state’s new version of marriage and make crystal clear to people why it believes what it believes.

“The Church must always teach what is true both in season and out of season. Its teaching on marriage is now out of season. So be it. It must teach it all the same,” Quinn said.

The counting of referendum votes was scarcely over when senior politicians — including Deputy Prime Minister Joan Burton — made it clear that the passing of the same-sex “marriage” referendum means that abortion is the next item on the agenda.

Petra Conroy, coordinator of Catholic Comment, a bureau of lay Catholics who work to present the faith in the media, thinks the bishops need to put more emphasis on catechesis in order to address such issues better.

Said Conroy, “The lesson of the referendum is that we must equip Catholics with the vocabulary of the faith to face the inevitable challenges that are coming.”

Michael Kelly is the editor of The Irish Catholic. He writes from Dublin.