Catholic Family Values and Same-Sex Marriage in Ireland: Three Years Later

Cormac Gollogly and husband Richard Dowling at their wedding

“We’re united now, we can all get married, and ultimately let’s focus on the more important issues like trying to get by, trying to get a house, doing all those normal things instead of ‘where can we go tonight that’s safe.’ “

–Cormac Gollogly, half of Ireland’s first married same-sex couple, on life since the Irish people voted to approve same-sex marriage

Nearly three years after Ireland’s successful 2015 referendum on same-sex marriage, it’s worth asking how such a Catholic country is faring afterward and how it managed to pass same-sex marriage legislation in the first place.

According to Irish journalist Ellen Whinnett, the answer to the first question is pretty straightforward.  Yes, there has been profound change, especially surprising because homosexuality was decriminalized only in 1993.  As  writer Jade Wilson notes, not only can same-sex couples marry, but they can also adopt, and everyone over the age of 18 has the right to alter their birth certificate to match the gender with which they identify.

Despite these fairly dizzying changes in the law, as former Labour Party MP John Muir said, “The sky most certainly didn’t fall in.’’  The compulsory curriculum for Christian schools has not been amended to tout same-sex marriage. No business owners have yet been prosecuted for refusing to serve same-sex couples. No one has proposed legalization of polygamy.  In short, the law seems to have created an opportunity for same-sex couples to marry if they wish (over 1000 did so in the first year the law was in effect), and that’s that.

The more interesting question is why the referendum (and related legislation) succeeded.  Embracing conventional wisdom, Wilson notes that “a huge component of discrimination against the LGBT+ community in Ireland has undoubtedly stemmed from the country’s deep roots in Catholicism.”  In other words, a victory for same-sex marriage was a defeat for the Roman Catholic Church.

While that may be true in some respects, Tiernan Brady, the Irish Executive Director of Australia’s successful Equality Campaign, thinks the referendum passed not in spite of traditional Irish Catholic family values, but because of them.  In September, he wrote,

“We knew that marriage equality would sit very comfortably in a country which values strong families; since this was about cherishing everyone in our families whatever their sexual orientation. The values that underpinned the faith of most Irish people, respect, dignity for every person and treating people as you would like to be treated, were also complimentary to supporting marriage equality.”

And he noted that it turned out to be an easy sell, based on shared love of family and commitment to community:

“Every day and evening, thousands pounded the streets and together an entire country pulled back the lace curtains and see the people who had been living beside them all that time. People who loved their community just as much as everyone else, cheered the local team just as loudly and raised money for the local school.”

He said the consequence of all this was:

“We did not see marriage equality as a radical change in all those values we held dear. Rather, we saw it as a confirmation of those values. It was not a big leap into the dark but rather a final small step on a remarkable journey towards equality for our lesbian and gay community.”

To be sure, as Dean Cornish also pointed out last fall, Irish opponents of same-sex marriage are still stinging, still feeling that “what they saw as a fashionable movement [rode] roughshod over the institutions and beliefs they held dear.”  There’s a need to heal and reunite.  But thanks to Brady, we can see how Ireland can accomplish this:  through shared stories of family and shared commitment to community, rooted in a shared faith.  In the country with “the second highest weekly Mass attendance rate in Europe,” the potential for mending fences is high.

In this season of the Resurrection, may the family values and the practical, ordinary down-to-earth efforts we share with our wider family in Christ draw us together across divides of anxiety and distrust.

And may all people, everywhere, have the freedom to focus on getting by and finding a place to live with their loved ones rather than spending all their energy avoiding violence.

–Cristina Traina, New Ways Ministry, April 16, 2018

2 replies
  1. Mary Jo Hoag
    Mary Jo Hoag says:

    Cristie, thank you for the usual beautiful reflection. I will say I have trouble seeing gay marriage ultimately reflecting Catholic family values. The church worked so hard fighting gay marriage everywhere, and still bemoans it’s passage anywhere, it’s hard to place the church anywhere but in the loser column. And I know it’s not a contest with winners and losers but marriage equality is a huge step Civil rights step forward for LGBTQ folks and the church doesn’t see it that way at all. Now, the folks in the pews might be pleased on some level, but they are made to feel wrath and guilt for that attitude.


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