(This is about 2500 words, so you may like to print it for reading.)
Marriage is important – Reflect before you change it” say the Irish Catholic bishops. When we address the matter of marriage and same-sex relationships in Ireland, who are we talking about? Both the individual LGBT (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender) people you or I may know, and the picture on a national level? With some knowledge, can we have a calm rational debate rather than a shouting match? With entrenched positions, this seems difficult to achieve. I hope this article may help.
The Irish Times on Friday 10 April reported that the Yes Equality group is planning 40 events nationwide. The recent Methodist Synod didn’t take a position, but recommended congregations to hold their own meetings to offer people a forum to discuss the matter. It might be good if our parishes, or groups of parishes, did something similar, to offer a safe respectful place for discussion. Perhaps there’s some national plan coming from the Bishops’ Conference? Their letter The Meaning of Marriage could offer starting material for reflection.
Projected Irish statistics:
We don’t have Irish statistics that I know of. The U.S. Department of Health did a survey of Sexual Orientation and Health Among U.S. Adults: National Health Interview Survey (NHIS), 2013. The survey of 34,557 adults aged 18 or over was published July 2014. They were asked: “Which of the following best represents how you think of yourself?”’ The replies were: Straight 96.6 %. Lesbian or Gay 1.6 %. Bisexual 0.7 %.
UK statistics in 2013 are lower. The Integrated Household Survey (2013) found 1.2% of adults identified themselves as gay or lesbian; 0.5% of adults identified themselves as bisexual.
If the US percentages are similar for Ireland, we may project the following numbers of people, based on the 2011 Census: Total population 4,588,252. Of these, 3,439,565 were aged 18 or over.
We may then estimate the following aged 18 or over: Lesbian or Gay: 55,033; Bisexual: 24,076. Total: 55,033+24,076 = 79,109.
The Central Statistics Office (CSO) for Ireland reported that in 2013 there were 20,680 marriages registered in the State, and 338 Civil Partnerships, making a total of 21,018. The 338 Civil Partnerships are 1.61 percent of the total. The percentages may help in having an idea of how many people in your local parish or area identify as Lesbian, Gay or Bisexual – that is, if numbers are evenly distributed around the country. It is possible that the percentages are higher in urban areas and lower in rural areas, due to migration.
Same-sex couples: statistics for Ireland:
According to the 2011 Census, there were 4,042 same sex couples living together in 2011. Of these, 2,321 (57.4%) were male while 1,721 (42.6%) were female. These 4,042 same-sex couples are 0.34 per cent of families in the State. The Census was taken on 10 April 2011, so we do not know how many of those 4,042 same-sex couples in the 2011 Census are included in the total of 1304 Civil Partnerships registered 2011 – 2013.
According to the CSO, the number of same sex couples living with one or more children was 230 (reply received from the CSO in March 2015). This is 5.69% of all same-sex couples.
The Catechism of the Catholic Church (First Edition, 1997) said:
“2358. The number of men and women who have deep-seated homosexual tendencies is not negligible. They do not choose their homosexual condition; for most of them it is a trial. They must be accepted with respect, compassion, and sensitivity. Every sign of unjust discrimination in their regard should be avoided. These persons are called to fulfil God’s will in their lives and, if they are Christians, to unite to the sacrifice of the Lord’s Cross the difficulties they may encounter from their condition.”
The second edition of the Catechism changes the second sentence of 2358 (“They do not…”) to read: “This inclination, which is objectively disordered, constitutes for most of them a trial.”
In a three-part interview in August 2013 with Antonio Spadaro, S.J., Pope Francis said:
“In Buenos Aires I used to receive letters from homosexual persons who are ‘socially wounded’ because they tell me that they feel like the church has always condemned them. But the church does not want to do this. During the return flight from Rio de Janeiro I said that if a homosexual person is of good will and is in search of God, I am no one to judge…
“A person once asked me, in a provocative manner, if I approved of homosexuality. I replied with another question: ‘Tell me: when God looks at a gay person, does he endorse the existence of this person with love, or reject and condemn this person?’ We must always consider the person. Here we enter into the mystery of the human being. In life, God accompanies persons, and we must accompany them, starting from their situation. It is necessary to accompany them with mercy.”
It is clear that the Catholic Church has not yet succeeded in entering into the mystery of the human being with homosexual orientation (nor indeed of many others). The challenge here with those who feel that the church has always condemned them is to act to ensure it is true that “the church does not want to do this.”
The Extraordinary Synod of Bishops in October 2014 on the Pastoral Challenges for the Family stated the challenge in the “Relatio Post Disceptationem”, the discussion document on which they voted before arriving at their concluding report. The following paragraph of that draft document did not receive the two-thirds majority approval required:
“Homosexual people have gifts and qualities to offer to the Christian community. Are we capable of providing for these persons, guaranteeing them a place of fellowship in our communities? Oftentimes, they want to encounter a Church which offers them a welcoming home. Are our communities capable of this, accepting and valuing their sexual orientation, without compromising Catholic doctrine on the family and matrimony? … the Church affirms that unions between people of the same sex cannot be considered on the same level as marriage between man and woman.”
It seems a pity that this, especially the first sentence there about gifts and qualities to offer the Christian community, did not make it into the final document. God is present in every love. Every member of the Church, by virtue of their human nature and by virtue of their Baptism, has gifts and qualities to offer. We have also, each one of us, our failings and disabilities, but these do not negate the gifts and qualities.
Although they did not make it to the final document, the two important questions still remain before the Church: “Are we capable of this?” They require answers.
Civil Law and the State:
In the coming May we in this State will be asked by our government whether we approve of the 34th Amendment to the Constitution: The Marriage Referendum.
It is not a question of what each person’s moral viewpoint is on homosexuality or on formalised same-sex relationships. While moral values and civil law are related, they are not identical. We see tobacco and adultery and lack of physical exercise and telling lies as harmful, but we have not criminalised them. Aquinas asked about law and moral evil: “Whether it belongs to the human law to repress all vices?” (Summa Theologica Ia IIae Q96, Article 2). Human law, he says, forbids “chiefly those that are to the hurt of others, without the prohibition of which human society could not be maintained: thus human law prohibits murder, theft and such like.”
Aquinas advised that unwise imposition of law when many are unable to deal with it would lead people to “break out into yet greater evils: thus it is written (Proverbs 30:33): ‘He that violently blows his nose brings out blood’; and (Matthew 9:17) that if ‘new wine,’ i.e. precepts of a perfect life, ‘is put into old bottles,’ i.e. into imperfect human beings, ‘the bottles break, and the wine is lost,’ i.e. the precepts are despised, and those people, from contempt, break into evils worse still.” (For Proverbs 30:33 see the Vulgate or Douai translation.) Aquinas had a lot of common sense about him!
So, for example, a person who is unhappy about same-sex relationships could in good conscience make a wise decision to vote in favour of appropriate legislation. Given that same-sex relationships are an established fact of life, as we see from the statistics at the start of this article, it is wise to have provision in law to address those relationships.
It is not good to have a situation where people with homosexual orientation, or any other people, experience the Church as always condemning them. Similarly, it is not good to have a civil society where people, on account of their sexual orientation, learn to live in constant fear and even to hate themselves. Many lesbian and gay people feel deeply hurt and unjustly treated and angry at being made invisible. What may seem to be an explosion of demonstrations and campaigning for Gay Pride is a very understandable reaction to a situation where gay and lesbian people have not been respected, have been seen as an embarrassment and are marginalised and subject to socially tolerated discrimination and violence.
The Marriage Referendum
The key to the matter must be to discern what the “appropriate” legislation may be. Any provisions which may be introduced are of interest immediately to the perhaps 79,109 people who identify as Gay, Lesbian or Bisexual, but they affect all the people of the State in that they have an immediate effect on the society in which we live. This is of even greater import because of the form of change proposed: not the introduction of an enhanced Civil Partnership, but the changing of the established legal and social context of what we understand by “Marriage.”
The government have opted for the simplest possible development: taking an already existing social institution, and expanding its remit to be inclusive of same-sex couples who were previously excluded from this particular institution due to its being designated only for opposite-sex couples; and doing this in the name of a move to equality.
This is where my concern lies: that in choosing what seems to be the simplest approach, the government, and we, may choose a simplistic approach to embrace two kinds of relationship which on a surface level appear equal (two people loving one another), but are different biologically and socially. Sexuality and Marriage are highly important components of human life. There are many and varied valuable relationships, but there can be an expectation that a relationship, however casual, will quickly turn sexual. Marriage can be elevated into a Holy Grail to which all must aspire; and now, Lesbian and Gay people.
Perhaps the most immediate obvious difference relevant to law is that we have prohibited degrees of relationship in (heterosexual) Marriage. These are quite irrelevant in a same-sex relationship. As Patrick Treacy wrote in The Furrow in October 2014: “If we lived for sixty years with no homosexual relationships, we would continue to survive. If we lived for the same period with no heterosexual relationships nor union between the gametes of a male and female, we would become extinct.”
Minister Aodhán Ó Ríordáin (Irish Times, 14 Feb) asked people to consider a hypothetical No vote and the impression such a result would make abroad. Fear of that scenario, he said, should “galvanise us as much as we possibly can [be] to win this thing”. Taoiseach Enda Kenny said in Castlebar on Saturday 21 February: “… a Yes vote would, I believe, send out a powerful signal internationally that Ireland has evolved into a fair, compassionate and tolerant nation.” I believe they meant well. However, the implication is that a No vote means we will show ourselves to be an unfair, non-compassionate and intolerant nation. They do not allow that a No vote to the Referendum could be sound judgment.
Civil Partnership as introduced in 2011 has not achieved an honourable status on a par with Marriage. Could the legal differences between the two could be changed by legislation, without a Constitutional change? If all of that were done, would it satisfy what is being asked?
If I declare myself Gay or Lesbian, I declare that a same-sex relationship reflects my orientation rather than a heterosexual relationship. This is where my “Gay Pride” resides. If we seek to formalise our status with civil authority, we declare that our relationship is not just a matter of our individual choice and rights, but is in some relationship with civil society. When the State registers such a relationship, it needs criteria to regulate who may be officially registered; these regulations may change with time.
If we as a people subsume same-sex partnerships on “equal” terms and status with heterosexual relationships, we declare that the heterosexual relationship is not normative for Marriage. We declare also that a same-sex relationship also is not normative. Hitherto Marriage was defined in terms of heterosexual relationship, and this determined an essential boundary line. This boundary line of definition is now moved, making the specific kind of sexual relationship non-normative, non-defining, non-essential. We have therefore made my sexual orientation, a component of my identity of which I am proud, a non-essential criterion for Marriage. In doing so, we also change “Marriage”, not just for me, but for all in the civil society of which I am a part. Twenty years from now, will we have any specific word in our language for what we know today as (heterosexual) Marriage?
If the current line of definition is moved on the grounds of claiming equality, will there be any rational grounds to refuse to move the line again to respond to those who identify as bisexual and who claim the right to enter equal marriage corresponding to their orientation? Will there be yet further grounds again on which people will claim their right to marriage equality?
We must not be afraid of difference, but embrace it. For the sake of both same-sex relationships and heterosexual relationships, it seems to me it would be advisable not to bring them under just one legal framework, but to develop legal frameworks for each which will honour their distinct characteristics. Not the “separate but equal” of apartheid, but acknowledging diversity in unity. We have many different close personal relationships, without any question of putting them in a hierarchy of superior and inferior.
We may decide in our Referendum to include two distinct kinds of sexual relationships under the same legal framework, despite the different implications. If we do not do so, let it not be because of fear, nor of homophobia, nor discrimination, but because we decide that the relationships are sufficiently different to warrant distinct legal provisions, in order to fully respect both.
Where there are real and relevant differences, to make a distinction is not discrimination. It is wisdom.
(The full original version of this abbreviated and amended article is in the April 2015 issue of The Furrow, which I recommend.)
(This is about 2500 words, so you may like to print it for reading.)