By Ed Harper
44 years ago, around this time of year, I found myself, as a student teacher, trying to comfort a distressed teenage student. She was losing her faith in the Catholic Church because her uncle, a priest, was an alcoholic and a confirmed and passionate gambler. I tried to get her to see that her uncle, despite his role in the Church, was a human being and suffered from the problems and the faults we are all pray to, and that she shouldn’t judge the institution by one of its workers.
I wasn’t a Catholic, just someone who felt sorry for another’s distress. From my position of inexperience I felt she would be happier were she to continue to believe in the Catholic Church.
With the benefit of hindsight I would not make the same decision today.
The Catholic Hierarchy has made it known, not just that they are opposed to a vote in favour of gay marriage in the up-coming referendum on the 22nd of May, which would be expected from their standpoint of marriage as a sacrament of their church and definitionally a union between a man and a woman, but that they would refuse to complete the civil portion of the ceremony, legalising the marriage in the eyes of the State. In case there is any confusion, this is not a refusal to act as a “Civil solemniser” of gay marriages, which they would not allow to take place on their premises at all, but a refusal to act for conventional opposite gender marriages of Catholics. A Church wedding would become exactly that, a marriage in the Church alone. A religious and social statement, within the Catholic community would have been made, but there would be no change in legal status of the partners.
Unless the hierarchy were to ban priests from dealing with the civil aspect of a marriage, there would seem to be nothing stopping a priest from going to the reception after the service and, along with cutting the cake, the couple could sign the register and have the marriage legalised. But this announcement seems to have two possible targets. It could be aimed at forcing the State, in fear of disruption to marriage and a backlash from voters in an election year, to call off the referendum, but this would involve a major loss of face for the government, to say nothing of the cost already contracted for; or it could be more plausibly aimed at the Irish People.
However, It may be strategically a bad move on the part of the bishops. Their calculation that their hold over their congregations is such that they will simply bow the knee to this bullying tactic and vote against same sex marriage may back fire. The bishops seek to cause social and economic disruption to the process of marriage, or at least to threaten it, in advance of the referendum.
The last time that the Church took on the people and the civil power in a stand up fight was over divorce in the 90s. Despite scaremongering amongst the farming population about gold digging women seducing farmers, marrying them, and subsequently divorcing and seeking half their land, or possibly in reversed gender if the farmer were female, the church lost ignominiously.
This fight may be easier to win, in that those who will benefit from a “yes” on the referendum are a minority, which the majority probably can’t imagine they might ever join at sometime, but following on the disgrace of the Church’s priests, bishops, nuns and monks, over there active widespread child abuse, or their complicity in covering it up, over many decades, both physical and sexual abuse on an industrial scale; added to which has been the unwillingness of that institution to pay the agreed share of the compensation owed to its victims, plus the revelations about the killing fields of the “Mother and Baby Homes” and the slave labour laundries; This move may rather result in a further drift from the congregations, away from a body which still seeks to wield an authoritarian whip, when its moral authority is evaporating.
Couples may simply choose to save the money on the church element of the marriage and opt for a civil ceremony altogether. Others may decide that being married in the “Sight of God” is enough for them and skip the civil ceremony. Such a decision would have the advantage that no divorce would be necessary to legally unwind their economic affairs if they wished to part later.
Either way it may result in a healthy separation between the Catholic religious concept of marriage and the legal contract of marriage. It might even result in a serious consideration of the merits of marriage as a form of multifaceted contract binding two people together and result in the separation of contracts on property rights and childrearing responsibilities.
It is very likely that the hierarchy simply see this as a threat they will never need to carry out, because it will so frighten their parishioners that they will have succeeded in nobbling the referendum and in the process will have demonstrated their power over the Irish State.
Perhaps they would do well to remember that Jesus, when Jewish religious lawyers questioned him on the marriage law of the time, remarked that there is no giving and taking in marriage in heaven.
This is a gamble they may live to regret.
Ed lives in West Cork and is a member of the People Before Profit Alliance.