The referendum: Pastoral letters address the issue

Greg Daly looks at the five missives issued about the same-sex marriage question

Archbishop of Armagh Eamon Martin says “to interfere with the definition of marriage is not a simple or a trivial matter”, maintaining that “the Church’s vision for marriage and the family is based on faith and reason”.

“As people of faith,” he says, “we believe that the union of a man and a woman in marriage, open to the procreation of children, is a gift from God who created us ‘male and female’. But we are also people of reason, who hold to the truth about human sexuality, grounded in the natural law, that the relationship between a man and a woman is unique.”

How, he asks, have we reached a point where those who would seek to guard the dignity of sexual difference and defend the traditional understanding of marriage are painted as enemies of freedom and equality? “How is it,” he wonders, “that many people won’t even raise these issues in their families and workplaces for fear of being ridiculed or condemned as homophobic? Could we not expect at least some of our legislators to engage in public discussion on both sides of this debate?”


Recalling Pope Francis’ description of marriage as a “noble vocation” for which we ought to care, he says marriage is unique among relationships by being a union of a man and a woman which is open to life.

To remove this specific distinction, Dr Martin says, would be not “a development or evolution of our understanding of marriage” but “a very definite break with human history”, such that “we end up using the term ‘marriage’ for something that it is not”.

Many arguments for the proposed amendment, he says, appear to be based on a misunderstanding of ‘equality’, and a failure to acknowledge that marriage is not just about a loving relationship between consenting adults, but about an openness to children.

The State supports marriage not only because it satisfies individual adults’ love, but because “it also ensures the future of society and forms the ideal environment for the development of children”.

Not that all marriages are successful, Dr Martin recognises, adding that many parents generously and successfully raise children alone or through adoption or fostering, but this does not mean, he says, “that we should not continue to hold up the example of a faithful, life-long and committed marriage relationship between a man and a woman as something beautiful and special”.

Finally, he cautions against claims that ‘religious’ marriage will not be affected by constitutional change.

Pointing out that “religious freedom means much more than simply the freedom to worship”, he says it is “linked very closely to freedom of conscience and freedom to express publicly our values and beliefs in daily life”.

“If society adopts and imposes a ‘new orthodoxy’ of ‘gender-neutral’ marriage”, he predicts increasing difficulty in publicly speaking or teaching about marriage as being between a man and a woman.

“Will those who continue to sincerely believe that marriage is between a man and a woman be forced to act against their faith and conscience?” 



We can protect civil rights without changing marriage

Bishop John Buckley of Cork and Ross points out that neither Church nor State can change the “natural reality” of marriage, which is an institutional expression of how, “since human life began, men and women have come together to love each other, to have children and to care for and educate their children”.

Despite the impossibility of changing that fact, the family is currently threatened, he says, quoting Pope Francis, “by growing e-fforts to redefine the very institution of marriage”.

The union of a man and a woman is by nature quite different, he says, from the union of two men or two women, the biggest difference being that “the marriage of man and woman has the capacity to create new life and provide the best possible environment for that life to grow”.

That men and women differ, he stresses, is “no reflection on people of a gay orientation”, insisting that “everyone should be treated with compassion, respect, sensitivity and even the protection of the law”.

“Surely,” he appeals, “a way can be found to protect the civil rights of gay people while also maintaining the fundamental meaning of marriage as commonly understood across cultures, religions and down the ages.”

Central to the referendum is a question about “the nature of marriage and the importance that society places on the role of mothers and fathers in the bringing up of their children”, he says, quoting Pope Francis’ cry that “children have a right to grow up with a father and mother”.

Acknowledging that sometimes it is not possible for a child to be raised by his or her own parents, he says Catholics cannot support a legal redefinition of marriage saying there is no difference between a union of two men or two women and a marriage between a husband and wife which is open to the procreation of children.

Dr Buckley also considers the reality that constitutional referendums tend to have unintended repercussions proponents of change can dismiss as peripheral and even irrelevant, when they are foreseen at all.

“It will become increasingly difficult to speak any longer in public about marriage as being between a man and a woman,” he warns. 

“Redefining marriage will inevitably demand a revised curriculum in our schools. What will we be expected to teach children in school about marriage? Will those who sincerely continue to believe that marriage is between a man and a woman be forced, as a result of this referendum, to act against their conscience?”

Above all, he says the referendum – in combination with the Children and Family Relationships Bill – would create a wholly new legal understanding of the family, one which “effectively says to parents, children and society, that the State should not and will not promote any ideal family environment for raising children, and implies that the natural ties between a child and its father and mother have no real value for the child or for society”.



A complex and sensitive issue that cannot be ignored

Kildare & Leighlin’s Bishop Denis Nulty says while the marriage referendum is “a complex and sensitive topic”, it is one he “cannot in good conscience neglect to address”, given how many people – including clergy – have sought his guidance on the issue.

Praying that his words “will in no way offend or hurt anyone”, he says he believes a letter by Pope Francis from when he was Archbishop of Buenos Aires sums up the situation well.

“A marriage (made up of man and woman) is not the same as the union of two people of the same sex,” he quotes, continuing: “To distinguish is not to discriminate but to respect differences; to differentiate in order to discern is to value appropriately, not to discriminate. At a time when we place emphasis on the richness of pluralism and social and cultural diversity, it is a contradiction to minimise human differences. A father is not the same as a mother.

“We cannot teach future generations that preparing yourself for planning a family based on the stable relationship between a man and a woman is the same as living with a person of the same sex. 

Supposed claim

“Let us also be aware that, in seeking to advance a supposed claim on behalf of the rights of adults, we may be setting aside the far greater right of children (who are the only ones who should be privileged in this situation) to rely on models of father and mother, mum and dad.”

The Holy Father has made similar points on many occasions since he became Pope, something that should be remembered by those who would pluck from their context papal comments in misguided attempts to appropriate Pope Francis’ popularity for the ‘yes’ cause.

Pointing out that the referendum, contrary to the claims of many on the ‘yes’ side, “is not a single-issue referendum but is very complex and demands careful reflection”, Dr Nulty says the result will have many serious implications. Recalling the title of the bishops’ collective March statement ‘Marriage is important – reflect before you change it’, he invites all in his diocese to do so.

“In making your referendum decision, I encourage you to value the model of Christian marriage which is the fundamental building block of our society,” he writes, urging people to make sure they vote: “Only by voting, can you ensure your voice speaks in the referendum result.”



The right to have a father and a mother


Raphoe’s Bishop Philip Boyce adopts a systematic catechetical approach to explain why he cannot, with a clear conscience, vote ‘yes’.

“Equality and human rights should be afforded to everyone”, he says, arguing this should be done “without sacrificing the institution of marriage and the family”.

Pointing out that “the Church respects an equality that recognises difference – not an equality that destroys all difference,” he says: “To recognise the difference in the way we are made is not discrimination and it does not undermine equality.” 

Same-sex unions are already recognised by the State through civil partnerships, which can be given further legal rights without changing how the State understands marriage and the family, he continues, recalling the Church teaching that people with homosexual tendencies are entitled to “respect, compassion and sensitivity”.

To explain the importance of upholding the constitutional ideal of the family based on marriage, Dr Boyce says “fathers and mothers are most important”, forming their children through their distinctive attributes and examples.

“We should not deliberately deprive children, yet to be born, of a father or a mother, leaving them fatherless or motherless by design,” he says, recalling Pope Francis’ observation that by treating men and women as though they are identical, “we risk taking a step backwards”, with the removal of difference creating “a problem, not a solution”.


Our Lord can hardly be co-opted as a supporter of same-sex marriage, he adds, noting how Jesus quoted Genesis 2:24 to describe marriage as a union of men and women: “Have you not read that he who made them from the beginning made them male and female?… for this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife. And the two shall become one.”

Pointing out that the referendum aims to change our constitutional understandings of the family and of marriage, Dr Boyce notes that two persons of the same sex simply cannot procreate, observing: “The reason why the State recognises and supports the family is precisely because of children. The future of a nation depends on them.”

Ultimately, he says, “every child, no matter what sexual orientation he/she may have, has the human right to a father and a mother”, so that “for the sake of marriage, for the sake of the family, for the sake of children”, he is voting ‘no’.



The Constitution should serve the whole of society

Meath’s Bishop Michael Smith points out that the Constitution belongs to the Irish people and should serve “the whole of society and the common good”. He warns against the “blinkered” approach of seeing the marriage debate as “a clash between Church and State”.

“The Church’s beliefs around the Sacrament of Marriage are not at issue,” he stresses, “and will not change regardless of the outcome of the referendum.”

Recalling how the bishops had already urged voters to think carefully before changing the constitutional understanding of marriage, he writes: “we respect the views of people who think differently to us, trusting that our sincerely held views will also be heard and respected”.

He frankly acknowledges that “homosexual people living in Ireland have undoubtedly suffered discrimination over the years” and welcomes “measures adopted in recent years to address this injustice”. 

This, of course, is utterly in line with Gospel values, which, he says, “make compellingly clear to us the dignity of every human person”, such that “all must be treated equally and with respect”.

Agreeing that “addressing inequality is undeniably an obligation of society”, he says the referendum “is about the people’s understanding of marriage and family life”, highlighting something clear from Bunreacht na hÉireann but too often glossed over by ‘yes’ campaigners: the constitutional understanding of the family rests on the constitutional understanding of marriage, such that marriage cannot be changed without the family following suit.

“The current proposal,” he says, “introduces a profound change into our understanding of marriage, of the family and of parenthood”.  Recognising that constitutional amendments don’t take place in a vacuum, he says “the proposal, taken together with the provisions of the Children and Family Relationships Bill, removes the mention of ‘mother’ and ‘father’ from a whole range of existing legislation”.

This is not merely a legal problem but a cultural one. He cites how government ministers and others “no longer believe that there is a special value in a child having the love of a mother and a father, or that men and women bring something distinct or unique to the lives of their children”. 

Lamenting how willingness to redefine marriage leads to redefinition of the family and indeed parenthood, he says: “Denying children the right to a mother and a father is not, I believe, an appropriate way to address the question of inequality in our society.” 

Lack of scrutiny

Castigating the haste and lack of scrutiny that marked the Dáil’s adoptions of the Children and Family Relationships Bill and the proposal to amend the Constitution, he says such change “merits detailed consideration since unforeseen consequences so often arise”. 

“The search for equality in our society,” he concludes, “will not be advanced by undermining the very cornerstone on which a just and stable society is built.”