‘Maybe’ isn’t on the ballot paper

Friday is D-day for the Equality (same-sex) referendum. And despite the fact that both sides (Yes and No) would have us believe that the issue is simple and straightforward (and, therefore, the decision obvious) the truth is that changing the Constitution is never simple, even when it appears so.
Back in the 1983 referendum, when the people decided to write into the Irish Constitution an amendment specifically protecting the life of the unborn and ‘the equal right to life of the mother’, it all seemed simple and straight-forward but, as we subsequently discovered, it was anything but simple and straight-forward.
Traditionally with referendums, one side tells us that we should vote Yes and everyone will live happily ever after; and the other side tells us that if the Yes vote is carried, Armageddon awaits us.
Both are usually wrong but what we can take for granted is that whatever we write into the Constitution has a knock-on effect on law (which is always subservient to what’s in the Constitution) and so another generation of lawyers will become millionaires, working their way through a legal minefield, explaining to us what we meant when we said Yes to what seemed at the time a simple which intended to outlaw abortion for all time – or until the Irish people decided otherwise – ended up authorising abortion in certain circumstances.)
A strange aspect of this referendum debate is that the arguments on both sides don’t seem to intersect, apart from one side telling the other that this or that focus has nothing to do with children or surrogacy or whatever the opposing side is saying. On the one hand there’s an analytical discussion of rights, identity, parenthood, equality, complementarity of the sexes and the various Armageddons that come from the law of unintended consequences; and on the other hand there’s an effort to give gay people their rightful place in Irish society.
It would be unfair and inaccurate to say that it’s contest between an analysis of issues and a full  acceptance of the gay community in Irish life but it hovers around those two centres. And inevitably so. Because, as I argue, this is no simple matter.
My own understanding of the complexity of gender issues and the hidden Gethsemane of so many gay people was heightened in two ways. One was during a discussion on suicide some years ago on live radio. Another participant was a young man, a university student, who had attempted suicide on three separate occasions. When the chairperson asked what was the main, defining reason why he had felt a compulsion to take his own life, he thought for a moment and then said simply, ‘The attitude of the Catholic Church, because I’m gay’.
This was at the time when the Catholic Church was describing gay people as ‘intrinsically disordered’ and the after-shocks of that rejection, felt particularly by gay sons and daughters in strong faith-families, had terrible and sometimes fatal consequences. It was unnerving to be confronted so clearly with evidence of that pain – especially when the chair of the discussion asked me, as a catholic priest, to respond.
More recently I had a letter from a gay young man whom I know. He wrote that although he was a practising Catholic all his life, had a deep faith and didn’t want to compromise that faith, he felt that for his own mental well-being he was contemplating cutting off all contact with his Church.
Some might contrive those two responses as simplistic or generalising from individual experience but there was no doubting the pain involved from the sense of rejection they experienced in their Church.
I have to say that I’m unconvinced by many of the arguments offered by both the Yes and No sides. For example, I have some difficulties around language. Words like ‘equality’ and ‘marriage’ are being stretched to include realities that are at variance with the usual meaning of the words. On the other hand I have a problem with the notion that ‘marriage’ and ‘family’ are being redefined when it is clear from the society we live in that the words have already been stretched beyond recognition in Irish life today.
On the one hand I don’t see how gay marriages with children will militate in any way against heterosexual marriages. On the other hand I find it hard to accept, in the event of a Yes vote being carried, that while the word ‘marriage’ will describe as equal in law a variety of relationships, it takes a creative leap of imagination to describe them all as ‘equal’ in reality.
On the one hand while I recognise the need for every child, in so far as this is possible, to have a father and mother, the lived reality of Irish life is that there are thousands and thousands of Irish ‘families’ where such a situation simply will never exist.
On the one hand, while I have huge reservations about ‘surrogacy’, including the donation of sperm and the renting of wombs, it is clear that the reality in Irish life is that this applies overwhelmingly to  infertile heterosexual couples – though clearly, for everyone’s sake, the law in Ireland needs to be regulated.
So how will I vote? I expect that many Irish people will be asking themselves the same question.
First I resent being told by elements on the Yes side that I’m an idiot if I don’t vote Yes. And I resent being told by elements on the No side that I’m not a good Catholic, if I don’t vote No. The danger with such knee-jerk reactions is that they provoke an unconsidered opposite reaction.
But, come Friday, there’s no middle ground between Yes and No. ‘Maybe’ isn’t on the ballot paper.
Perhaps the best guide is the advice given by the Church of Ireland to its members – vote, using your conscience.

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  1. ‘Intrinsically disordered or evil’. Unlike their frontline men, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith can not be accused of using ‘wiley’ ‘sanctimonious’ or ‘deceiving’ words to expound their teaching. The Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, aka the Congregation of the Holy Office, aka the Congregation of the Inquisition, would certainly put the fear of God in anyone who opposed their views, such as Joan of Ark, John Hus, and closer to our own time, Leonardo Boff, Bernard Haring, Sean Fagan, Tony Flannery and many more. I was trying to think of all the people I know who are ‘intrinsically disordered or evil’ according to Church criteria and I know an awful lot, myself at the top of the list. Someone commented recently that the Church is in a no win position in that it will be blamed no matter which way the Referendum is carried. I believe the Church will have scored an own goal if the ‘no’ vote is carried. But no matter which way the Referendum goes I think homosexuality will be far more accepted in society. This debate has blown away quite a few cobwebs and myths. I think a new understanding, openess and acceptance of homosexuality will emerge with love and compassion.

  2. Cornelius Martin says:

    “On the one hand while I recognise the need for every child, in so far as this is possible, to have a father and mother, the lived reality of Irish life is that there are thousands and thousands of Irish ‘families’ where such a situation simply will never exist.”
    Firstly it’s good to see the acknowledgment of the need for every child to have a father and mother. Secondly the facts that many children don’t have such is due to circumstances and tragedy. A yes vote will create many more such children deliberately, in a planned fashion. This cannot be justified, because, thirdly, the fact that many children are either fatherless or motherless is never an argument for causing more of them to suffer the same plight.
    In relation to surrogacy, is it not true that it is totally unnatural for a woman to set out to resist, or to expect or demand her to resist developing a loving relationship with the child she protects in her womb until birth. The revised article 41 will make it incumbent on the state to facilitate such inhumane and unnatural practices.
    Lastly, given the €30m plus of money from the US poured into the coffers of the promoters of the Yes vote, should this referendum not be called “the best referendum money can buy?”

  3. “when the Catholic Church was describing gay people as ‘intrinsically disordered’”. When was the church saying that? The current catechism (which has been around for about 20 years), says “homosexual acts are intrinsically disordered.”, it doesn’t say that homosexual people are ‘intrinsically disordered’. It also mentions that “masturbation is an intrinsically and gravely disordered action”. I checked the sixth commandment in the Council of Trent Catechism, I didn’t find any mention of intrinsically disordered there.
    Maybe you explained the term “disordered” to him. For example, a surgeon shouldn’t try to transplant a lung to where a heart is required as they are ordered towards different ends, the heart for pumping and the lung for breathing. It’s not because the surgeon used a bad lung in the transplant that it couldn’t pump but it is because the intrinsic function of all lungs is breathing and not pumping.
    Perhaps you told him that the Church teaches that his body is a temple of the Holy Spirit, that he was created in the image of God and that God loves him so much that He died for him so the He could with him forever in paradise.

  4. Joe O'Leary says:

    Not the past but the current teaching of the church is given in the 1986 CDF document Homosexualitatis Problema which is on the Vatican website. Here is what it says about “disordered”:
    “3. Explicit treatment of the problem was given in this Congregation’s “Declaration on Certain Questions Concerning Sexual Ethics” of December 29, 1975. That document stressed the duty of trying to understand the homosexual condition and noted that culpability for homosexual acts should only be judged with prudence. At the same time the Congregation took note of the distinction commonly drawn between the homosexual condition or tendency and individual homosexual actions. These were described as deprived of their essential and indispensable finality, as being “intrinsically disordered”, and able in no case to be approved of (cf. n. 8, $4).
    “In the discussion which followed the publication of the Declaration, however, an overly benign interpretation was given to the homosexual condition itself, some going so far as to call it neutral, or even good. Although the particular inclination of the homosexual person is not a sin, it is a more or less strong tendency ordered toward an intrinsic moral evil; and thus the inclination itself must be seen as an objective disorder.”
    Such a difference from the human and Christian voice of Mary McAleese!

  5. Peter Clifton says:

    Thank you, Brendan, for a balanced article. Observing the debate from outside the jurisdiction,
    I am thankful that I do not have a vote. The discourse on both sides has been snything but
    edifying. I find grossly insulting the suggestion, sometimes explicit but always present in the Yes campaign, that a negative view is evidence of homophobia and/or opposition to ‘equality.’ Equally objectionable is the near-hysterical scaremongering in the No camp to the effect that an affirmative result spells disaster for family life.
    It all makes one question the value of entrenching matters of this kind in a constitution.

  6. Joe O'Leary says:

    I think very many Irish people, bishops included, are acclimatized to insidious oppression from an early age, so that the language of the Yes campaign seems Utopian to them, and Forbidden. This silent weight of cynical masochism is what is most to be feared on Friday.

  7. Neil Bray says:

    “Perhaps the best guide is the advice given by the Church of Ireland to its members – vote, using your conscience.”
    Conscience is an interesting idea. Two people A and B consider voting on the issue of capital punishment. Having consulted their consciences, A votes “yes” and B votes “no.”
    Question 1. Who is right? Or does it matter?
    Question 2. If it does matter, who decides which conscience is right? Is it a matter of majorities? If it doesn’t matter, where does that leave the significance of conscience? Would not voting on the basis of the colour of ones eyes be an equally acceptable criterion for A or B to make a decision?
    Having been on the campaign trail for 3 weeks and entered a few thousand “gates” and roused a similar number of dogs, I am not sure how much impact conscience has had on people’s decisions either way. Sentiment, bias, antipathy to the Church yes. Knowledge no. A phrase akin to “No matter what the arguments, I’m voting yes” was a common attitude on the yes side.
    Canvassing leaves no doubt in ones mind as to the differences between male and female. Many of the male “yes” side allowed some space for discussion and at times welcomed it. In the case of the females, with a few exceptions, interaction halted abruptly accompanied by appropriate body language and extra stress on the odd hinge.
    My favourite response, paraphrased: “you bigot, how could anyone consider voting “no”? This created good engagement, sometimes followed by “so you are not against gay people,” combined with obvious signs of doubt.
    Even among the legislators and legal people, this referendum is a shot in the dark constitutionally, legally and socially.
    The Church: There is an absolute void about the Catholic teaching on marriage and the sacrament of matrimony among most of the baptised. If not tackled, it will lead not so much to a shortage of priests but to an absence of practicing laity. As regards conscience, very often it seemed based on pragmatism, sentiment and home-baked theology.

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