The son of an Indian father and Irish mother is set to become Ireland’s first gay prime minister. Many observers suggest his election is a sign that Ireland is leaving its Catholic roots further behind, but just as with the passage of marriage equality, this interpretation may not be the most accurate.
Leo Varadkar won a leadership contest in his political party last week. The Dail, Ireland’s lower house of parliament, is now set to elect him Taoiseach, or prime minister. The Los Angeles Times reported:
“Many observers see Varadkar’s rise in politics as a milestone that highlights changing attitudes in Ireland’s once religiously conservative population of 4.6 million people.
“Ireland decriminalized homosexuality in 1993 and overturned its ban on divorce two years later.
“The decline of the Catholic Church’s influence in Irish society over the last 20 years following revelations that some priests were sexually abusing children was a significant factor that has contributed to Varadkar’s rise in politics, said Henry Farrell, a political science professor at George Washington University.
“‘Young people are becoming less religious and more secular and the Catholic Church’s moral authority has diminished,’ Farrell said.”
There is no question that abuse and other ongoing scandals have gravely wounded Ireland’s Catholic Church and almost completely undermined the bishops’ moral credibility. The Irish church is in crisis.
This reality, however, is not, synonymous with a decline in the influence of the Catholic faith. The church is not the institution, but the people of God. Most Irish were raised Catholic, with many receiving their education at church-sponsored schools. Varadkar was himself raised Catholic, though he is no longer practicing, and attended a Catholic elementary school, reported The New York Times.
When marriage equality passed by popular referendum in 2015, some commentators said then it was the end of Catholic Ireland. But others objected, including pundit E.J. Dionne who wrote on Commonweal’s blog, “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.”
This remains true in the ascent of Leo Varadkar, who came out as a gay man during the debate over marriage equality and is credited, per the New York Times, with significantly helping the pro-equality campaign. He said at the time:
“I want to be honest with people, I don’t want anyone to think I’ve a hidden agenda…Whatever decisions are made on any issue, I’ll make them according to what I believe is in the public interest.”
It is precisely this honesty and authenticity, along with his moderate political views, which political observers say made him so attractive to the Irish public. Ultimately, when Varadkar soon becomes Taoiseach, it will not be a sign that Catholicism is ending in Ireland. It will be a sign that Catholic teachings on social justice, human dignity, and inclusion have so permeated Irish society that LGBT rights have become nearly undisputed goods.
—Robert Shine, New Ways Ministry, June 5, 2017