How Did Catholic Ireland Achieve Such a Definitive Victory for Marriage Equality?

The marriage equality referendum in Ireland is still making waves–and headlines–around the globe.  Except for last October’s Vatican synod on marriage and family, I can’t think of any single story on Catholic LGBT issues which has generated so much commentary and analysis as the Ireland vote has.  It’s been a challenge to keep up, and though we have presented a few posts already on the subject, we expect to do at least one more this week after this one.

Today, I’d like to focus on the ways that people have answered the question:  “How did Catholic Ireland achieve such a definitive victory for marriage equality? ”

Probably the best answer that I read was one of the first published. A few days after the vote, Fr. Paul Morrissey, OSA, a priest of Irish descent who lives in the U.S., wrote an op-ed in USA Today,  in which he asserted “Ireland is for gay marriage because it is Catholic.”   Morrissey observed that the Catholic hierarchy has lost all credibility with its people in Ireland, but that the Irish people have not lost their Catholic value of the importance of marriage and family:

Because the Irish have been brought up by the Catholic Church to view marriage as a sacrament is the reason they can shift sideways to see a same-sex relationship in the same God-blessed way. Because marriage is a beautiful commitment of love, taught to them by the Church, is why the Irish can make the connection to two people of the same sex loving each other with a similar commitment. It is the love commitment they value, and have come to see in their friends and family members who are gay and lesbian as well. Love conquers. The Irish are lovers. It doesn’t matter who the partners are — ‘I promise to love you all the days of my life, so help me God.’ “

(Father Morrissey recently authored The Black Wall of Silence, a novel about a gay Catholic priest who is fighting for the rights of sexual abuse victims, while also fighting the church’s homophobia.)

Irish nuns voting in the marriage referendum.

E. J. Dionne, noted political commentator, followed a similar line of thought in a blog post for dotCommonweal. Dionne saw the vote as having a very traditional religious cast to it:

“For advocates of gay marriage, the issue is about the equal dignity of human beings — a thoroughly Christian principle — far more than it is about a particular view of sexual morality. Indeed, the very embrace of marriage as a central goal of the gay rights movement can itself be seen as a turn toward an updated brand of traditionalism.”

The National Catholic Reporter (NCR) editorialized about the Irish vote and noted that the Catholic voters had reached a “watershed moment” on the church’s sexual teaching:

“It is time for church teaching to reflect what social science tells us and what Catholic families have long understood: Catholicism must cast off a theology of sexuality based on a mechanical understanding of natural law that focuses on individual acts, and embrace a theology of sexuality that has grown out of lived experience and is based on relationships and intentionality.”

NCR Publisher Tom Fox was even stronger in his own blog post about the referendum.  For him, the Irish vote was the voice of the Catholic lay people:

“What a gift the Catholic hierarchy has been handed by the Irish with their overwhelming vote to legalize same sex marriages. Coming just months before the Synod on the Family set for next October in Rome, the vote by this Catholic nation is nothing less than a church plebiscite – a vote of the Catholic sensus fidelium for all to see that official Catholic teaching on human sexuality is wrong, hurtful, and even, at times, immoral.”

Faith, though, was not the only factor that spurred on the Irish victory.  Demographics played an important role, as well as what can only be described as “the personal touch.”

Margaret Spillane, writing in The Nation, commented on how the vote showed a new demographic which confounded seasoned political observers:

“The huge Yes vote debunked the conventional dichotomies that even leftists use to describe the Irish public: Catholic versus non-Catholic, youth versus the old, rural versus urban. Quite the contrary: This triumph owes a great deal to an unofficial coalition of LGBT activists, millennials, the elderly, those overseas citizens who returned home, and members of the clergy—as well as to citizens in none of the above categories.

“Take the presumption that the marriage-equality movement belonged to Ireland’s cities and cosmopolitan elite. Fact: If you wipe Dublin, Cork, and Limerick, Ireland’s three largest cities, off the electoral map, the Yes Equality margin was still prodigious—61 percent to 39 percent. The Yes Equality campaign held majorities in the most rural, tradition-bound constituencies in the West—Mayo, Donegal, Kerry—counties with typically older and more conservative populations. And in Roscommon–South Leitrim—the single constituency in which the No campaign held a majority—a 2.8 percent swing would have sent results the other way. Many of the rural people, who it was once presumed were herded to voting booths by their pastors with instructions on how to cast their ballots, this time made plain that they voted with their minds not on the pulpit but on the lives of their own and their neighbors’ children.”
And, indeed, several commentators noted the personal dimension of this vote.  People were swayed because they knew the stories of lesbian and gay people who lived next door to them.  Donny Mahoney penned an analysis in Politico in which he praised the power of personal contact for the victory:
“In a way, it was the ideal country for a referendum on this issue. It is a tiny country; some two million votes were cast Friday. There is no such thing as seven degrees of separation in a place this small. That tight-knit sense of community allowed for a national conversation about the place of gay people in Irish life. Those discussions happened on television and social media, but more importantly, they took place on doorsteps and around dinner tables and pub counters up and down the country. Many well-known public figures—former Presidents, elected parliamentarians, journalists, sports personalities—chose to come forward and share their experiences either of being homosexual or having homosexual children. It was these interventions—and not the broad political consensus behind the Yes vote—that won the referendum.”
And the role that youth played in this vote cannot be overestimated. But, as Michael Barron in the Irish Times pointed out, youth had been quietly changing Irish society on LGBT years long before this referendum:
“A quiet revolution underpins the weekend’s historic victory for LGBT rights. This revolution has gone on among Ireland’s young people, with tens of thousands having the confidence to come out all across the country.
“It has been far from easy for them but they did not leave home, they stayed put and their voices changed their communities, culminating in this marriage equality referendum victory. Those teenagers who have been coming out for over a decade – together with their friends and families – are now today’s voters and have secured marriage equality for us all.”

For Catholic advocates of LGBT equality, there are still more lessons to be learned from Ireland’s vote, and we will try to synthesize those in a few more blog posts this week.

–Francis DeBernardo, New Ways Ministry

Related articles

National Catholic Reporter Blog: “When Irish eyes are smiling”

The Week: “Why are Catholics so supportive of gay marriage?”

9 replies
  1. Joseph S O'Leary
    Joseph S O'Leary says:

    For a moment I thought I was reading a whistle-blower RC bishop when I read the following. But no, he is an Anglican priest, a decent man:

    The Irish missionaries must have done a lot to reinforce the insane homophobia on display among African bishops — will the “amazing grace” of our referendum have any effect there?

  2. Trish Fowlie
    Trish Fowlie says:

    Talking to a fellow- parishioner, who’s Irish, over post-Mass coffee, last week, in our wealthy church in the Home Counties of England, she said she’d been so often confronted by folk who said “country people” (i.e. “peasants”) would vote “yes”. She replied that almost all her “peasant” nephews nieces cousins were certainly turning out to vote “yes”!


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