Minding our language…Church communication and the referendum debate

The Church in Ireland needs a new generation of articulate lay people and serious leadership from the bishops, writes Fr Andrew McMahon

Fr Andrew McMahon

The most newsworthy item to emerge from the Irish summer school season, just past, must be the Archbishop of Dublin’s expression of regret over that ‘reality check’ call he issued in May. Expressed on RTÉ News in the wake of the same-sex marriage referendum, the archbishop’s call immediately went viral. 

He told the MacGill Summer School, however, that he since regrets ever using the phrase ‘reality check’: “What I said was taken up in the press – national and international, ecclesiastical and lay – all over the world,” Dr Martin explained, “and no two stories had the same interpretation of what I intended, indeed of what I actually said”. “Perhaps I gave mixed messages,” he added.

It seems ironic that the archbishop found his phrase so widely misinterpreted, given that it emerged in the midst of an appeal, by him, for the Church to rethink its language and find better ways of communicating with today’s Ireland. Nothing, it seems, is as simple as it first sounds. There remain, however, serious issues to be addressed here. How effectively did Church leaders communicate – or attempt to communicate – in the context of the recent referendum? And did Archbishop Martin, in particular, give mixed messages in the course of the referendum campaign?

Dr Martin had brought this question centre-stage himself, while speaking at All Hallows’ College a few weeks before the referendum. There he highlighted an accusation, attributed to the Catholic Voice, that he had previously confused the press and given solace to the ‘yes’ campaign. 

The archbishop explained how, according to the accusation, “the occasion for the ‘confusion’ was a lengthy address I gave the Iona Institute”. 

To avoid any misunderstanding, he told those gathered, he wished to clarify that he would be voting ‘no’ to same-sex marriage.

Charges of confusion in respect of his Iona address of March 19, appeared to focus on the following remarks of the archbishop. He had said: “A pluralist society can be creative in finding ways in which people of same-sex orientation have their rights and their loving and caring relationships recognised and cherished in a culture of difference. I am not saying that gay and lesbian people are unloving, or that their love is somehow deficient compared to others. I am talking about a uniqueness in the male-female relationship.” 

Lancaster diocese deacon Rev. Nick Donnelly went on to argue that “the confusion comes from the fact that the archbishop presents homosexual relationships as being equivalent to, but different from, heterosexual relationships. His omission of any reference to the morality of chastity and continence is at the heart of this confusion”.


Within days of that All Hallows’ address, Archbishop Martin was receiving further publicity around the issue. The Irish Examiner reported him, on May 11, under the heading ‘Archbishop says civil partnership not enough’. Regarding legal recognition of gay and lesbian relationships, it quoted him as saying: “We have to find ways of examining that and I don’t think we have done that far enough. I think civil partnership is not adequate, I think it could be tweaked”. 

According to the Examiner, the archbishop had added “Am I happy voting ‘no’? The answer is that I am not happy. I don’t think that simply voting ‘no’ is going to find the answers that I’m looking for”.

Responding to these remarks, US-based website Church Militant would subsequently contend that the archbishop’s approach “is clearly at odds with 2003 directives of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith”. 

The website quoted the concluding paragraph from Considerations regarding  proposals to give legal recognition to unions between homosexual persons issued that year, on behalf of the CDF, by Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger: “The Church teaches that respect for homosexual persons cannot lead in any way to approval of homosexual behaviour or to the legal recognition of homosexual unions… Legal recognition of homosexual unions, or placing them on the same level as marriage would mean not only the approval of deviant behaviour, with the consequence of making it a model in present-day society, but would also obscure basic values which belong to the common inheritance of humanity.”

Church Militant concluded that Dr Martin had “inadvertently, obscured basic values”. Such arguments are likely to continue well into the future. 

Archbishop Martin undertook one of the more controversial initiatives of the campaign, however, when he used an opinion piece in The Irish Times on May 19, to launch a scathing attack on his critics. Emphasising his reluctance to publicly articulate a position, the archbishop explained that he had “no wish to stuff my religious views down other people’s throats”. 

“I have no affiliation with any group of ‘no’ campaigners,” he proposed.

“Some such groups will quote me, but I know how short-lived such affirmation can be,” he said. The archbishop continued “I have said that I intend to vote ‘no’, yet there are those of the ecclesiastical right-wing who accuse me of being in favour of a ‘yes’ vote, since I do not engage in direct condemnation of gay and lesbian men and women.” 

Thereafter he concentrated on outlining the rationale of his opposition to what the referendum was proposing.

This intervention seemed potentially confusing at a number of levels. Dr Martin began by proposing that he wrote “primarily as a citizen of Ireland,” seeking to express his views “in the reasoned language of social ethics,” as opposed to what he termed “dogmatic utterance”. 

This was a contentious start, appearing to suggest that a religious perspective on the debate would be inevitably ‘dogmatic’ – unreasoned in comparison to the contributions of other constituencies. Such a portrayal of religious-based critique had been challenged by the archbishop, himself, during his Iona Institute address in March.

Observing how Church leaders were often expected to “limit themselves to the religious sphere” Dr Martin had asked “does this mean that views which emerge from a Christian tradition are considered inappropriate for the discussion of issues of public concern?” 

He then challenged his Iona audience: “Should we Christians return to a Nicodemus-style existence and keep the insights of faith within our own hearts alone?” 

It was unclear how sharing such faith-inspired ‘insights’ had now become tantamount to stuffing his religious views “down other people’s throat” in the thinking of the archbishop.

More bewildering, however, was Dr Martin’s treatment of those he termed “the ecclesiastical right-wing”. The phrase itself was extraordinary – a fairly primitive kind of typecasting. Furthermore, where and how this ‘right wing’ had advocated the “direct condemnation of gay and lesbian and lay people” Archbishop Martin did not specify. 

Scant evidence

Yet, days from the climax of a divisive referendum campaign, it was no small charge to lay.  There remains, it must be said, scant evidence in the public domain that those opposing same-sex marriage were out to simply vilify others. None of the sources quoted above had advocated such an approach.

What they had condemned was quite specific – the support of civil or legal recognition of homosexual unions, and any implied approval of homosexual behaviour, on the part of Church leaders. Such views may be wholly unpalatable to many within and beyond the Catholic Church today, bishops perhaps among them. 

They are not, however, the rantings of some aberrant pressure group but, rather, specific elements of Church teaching, reiterated in documents like that CDF declaration of 2003. His critics hardly needed to remind Dr Martin of this. He was an archbishop when the teaching was promulgated.

The archbishop’s insistence upon his lack of affiliation “with any group of ‘no’ campaigners” also remains problematic. He is a very senior member of the Irish Bishops’ Conference which only last year published its new Irish Catholic Catechism for Adults. That catechism teaches unambiguously about same-sex unions, and much besides, declaring: “While the Church clearly teaches that discrimination against any group of people is wrong, efforts to make cohabitation, domestic partnerships, same-sex unions and polygamous unions equal to marriage are misguided and also wrong.”

All in all, the opinion piece seemed a strange kind of input for any bishop to offer. Surprising, perhaps, that it came from the pen of one who had cautioned parishes to keep bulletins free from comment, or personal views, in the context of referendums of this kind. 

Surprising, too, its coming from one who had previously warned about bloggers becoming ‘partial’ and ‘sectarian’ and had decried a tendency towards ‘tabloidism’ in sections of the Catholic press.

Whatever the archbishop’s wider reasons for opposing same-sex marriage, they were lost amid media enthusiasm for his ‘right wing’ offensive. Like his ‘reality check’ call, days later, it seemed irresistible. Back at The Irish Times, Patsy McGarry offered advice to Catholic bishops, on May 25, which managed to combine both sound bites. He proposed “they might begin their ‘reality check’ by consigning that ‘ecclesiastical right wing’ to where it belongs”. Mr McGarry suggested the campaign had been something of a via dolorosa for Archbishop Martin. Proposing that the archbishop had “had close pastoral relations with gay people and their representative groups” he concluded “it was clear his heart was with them in this campaign, but his Church was not”.

Empathy and a capacity for compassion are unquestionably vital to any form of Christian leadership. It can only complicate a bishop’s position, however, if admirers in the press persist in portraying him as being at odds with his Church – with the implicit assumption that his public stance is at variance with his actual convictions. And what, moreover, about the wider ecclesial community the bishop is called to pastor and represent? Writing in the British weekly, The Spectator, Matthew Parris asked: “What does the Archbishop of Dublin now have to say to the 734,300 people who voted to uphold what their priests taught them was God’s will? These, and not the gays, are now the reviled ones.”

It was Mr McGarry’s thesis, however, that commentators here preferred to adopt. Succumbing to his analysis, Fionnuala O’Connor penned a piece for The Irish News, on May 26, headed ‘Archbishop Martin: a voice in the wilderness’.  

Ms O’Connor spoke of the archbishop’s ‘isolation’, telling readers how “his eyes were sad as he told RTÉ the Church needed ‘a reality check right across the board’”.

A prominent northern churchman, as it happened, was also sad at the turn of events in the Republic. Presbyterian spokesman, Rev. Norman Hamilton, told the media “we are deeply disappointed and saddened that the Constitution will no longer reflect the historic and Christian view of marriage, that it is exclusively between one man and one woman”. 

The former moderator lamented how, in the Presbyterian Church’s perception, “to express the historic view of marriage during the campaign often brought hostility and rejection”. Dr Hamilton’s sadness, however – in contrast to Archbishop Martin’s – did not merit mention from Fionnuala O’Connor. It is surely sad, at a very fundamental level, that an archbishop should find himself the champion in such a prejudiced and superficial narrative.

Back, however, to the much misunderstood ‘reality check’ call and Archbishop Martin’s RTÉ interview. In his remarks to Joe Little on May 23, the archbishop spoke of the referendum result as “an overwhelming vote in one direction” indicative, he suggested, of “a social revolution”. Viewed, though, from another perspective, the result was not so straightforward.  Amidst the propaganda which masqueraded as journalism in the wake of the result, the fact that 37.4% of the registered electorate had voted for same-sex marriage was generally underplayed, with emphasis on the ‘yes’ figure of 62.1%. 

The latter figure was endlessly trumpeted, without the important qualification that this was 62% of the 60.5% who actually turned out for the poll – not 62% of eligible voters. What needs to be remembered, and reflected upon, is that the majority of the Irish electorate (62.6 %) failed to support the referendum proposal on May 22 – remarkable in an atmosphere where, as the Rev. Hamilton recognised, the public pressure to conform was intense.

David Quinn has credibly argued, in this newspaper, that “if any of the major parties had been on the ‘no’ side, or any of the major media, the referendum could have been defeated”. 

Archbishop Martin was right to advise, in his interview, that there is no value for the Church moving into, what he called, “denial of the realities”. There is, at the same time, little worth in faith leaders – or anyone indeed – simply submitting to the mood of the moment and becoming little more than spokespersons for a pseudo-liberal machine in overdrive. 

Analysed in a sober and objective light, the referendum result was not exactly ‘overwhelming’. Nor, against the backdrop of a ridiculously one-sided, government- and media-driven campaign, could it be described as particularly revolutionary. It is, in fact, hard to escape the conclusion that a clear, consistent and committed voice from official Church leadership south of the border would have gone some distance towards making a critical difference. ‘Mixed messages’, on the other hand, may well have muddied the waters. And that is what a ‘reality check’ should now address.

Elsewhere in his MacGill address, Archbishop Martin suggested that “the Irish Church needs a new generation of strong and articulate lay men and women… Catholic lay men and women who are articulate in understanding their faith and feel called to bring the unique vision which springs from their faith into dialogue with the realities of the world”. Few would dispute that. 

Among those articulate lay men and women there will, presumably, be those who could conceivably be labelled ‘right wingers’, ‘left wingers’, those of the ‘middle ground’ and many others besides. They will expect their pastors to accord them respect and something resembling serious leadership, fully aware that Vatican II calls the bishop to fulfil a teaching office and be a figure of unity within the local Church.

The recent referendum campaign (and the abortion campaign of 2013) witnessed several such lay men and women already active in the service of Irish society and its future generations. They were strong, faith-filled, articulate and – perhaps even more inestimable – possessed the courage and integrity to take a difficult stand when it really mattered. We remain greatly in their debt.


Fr Andrew McMahon is a priest of the Diocese of Dromore.