Ireland's Reality Check - and Ours

by Michael Sean Winters

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The vote in favor of same sex marriage in Ireland was overwhelming. The Irish people, especially Ireland’s young people, turned out in large numbers to support a measure that was unthinkable ten years ago and unheard of twenty years ago. There is a palpable sense that the Catholic roots of Ireland are no more, that traditional marriage was not the only thing on the ballot this past weekend, but Ireland’s Catholic heritage.

There will be plenty of hand wringing in the days ahead. People will seek out a scapegoat. True, the clergy sex abuse crisis took an enormous toll on the moral credibility of the Irish Church. True, catechesis there, like catechesis here, has been weak the past few decades – although, in Ireland, most of those young people voting for same sex marriage went to Catholic schools. But, everyone, especially the leaders of the Church, should try to avoid making anyone or anything a scapegoat: The results point to a deeper reality.  

Consider these comments from Archbishop Diarmuid Martin of Dublin in yesterday’s New York Times story on the referendum:

“The church needs to take a reality check,” Archbishop Martin said after the Mass, repeating a comment he had made Saturday. “It’s very clear there’s a growing gap between Irish young people and the church, and there’s a growing gap between the culture of Ireland that’s developing and the church.”

“For many, and I’ve said this before, inside the church becomes almost alien territory to them in today’s society,” he said. “If the leadership of the Irish Catholic church don’t recognize that, then they’re in severe denial. Have I got a magic formula? Certainly not.”

It is impossible to disagree with +Martin’s call for a reality check. Is it possible that those Irish young people did not vote for same sex marriage despite their Catholic education but, in part, because of it? At a time when the face of religion on the nightly news is the face of inhumane intolerance, perhaps we should not bemoan a victory for tolerance, even if that tolerance extends to something the Church does not endorse.

It is not an easy question. The Church teaches that sexual relations find their full and proper place within the marriage covenant, and that the procreation of children is, like the unity of the spouses, an integral aspect of those sexual relations, a participation in God’s on-going creation. It is a beautiful teaching and, as I have written before, I think society can and should privilege traditional marriage. But, how often, instead of simply proclaiming our faith, have we wrapped it in judgment of others. I do not know the degree to which the people of Ireland rejected traditional marriage but I am one thousand percent certain they rejected the judgmentalism with which the Church has too long, and too often, associated itself.

The Church also teaches that we must show absolute, and unconditional, respect for all people and for their freedom to make their own choices. The Church proposes, it does not impose, as the last several popes have all insisted. We on the left, of course, support efforts to give some political juice to the Christian proposal when it comes to programs that assist the poor. Why should we not similarly give political support to a political agenda that privileges traditional marriage? We can and we should but only, repeat only, after we have made it clear that our support and our love for gays and lesbians is real, that our support for traditional marriage is not an attempt to discriminate against them. Here, I think we can all admit the Church’s leaders have not done the best job.

It is not easy to determine how to show love and support for someone whom you think is making a very bad and even dangerous choice. I recall a family member facing a difficult legal issue and she decided that she had read the law books and was determined to represent herself. She was not a lawyer but even if she were, this seemed like a bad idea. There is even an old adage about such situations: The lawyer who represents himself has a fool for a client. I voiced this concern and was chastised for not being supportive. I said that it seemed to me, when a loved one was holding a glass of poison, the loving thing to do was to knock it out of her hand. She was unmoved and, of course, in the sequel, she lost her case. It took me several years to repair that relationship.

What does a reality check look like? The first thing the hierarchy – in Ireland and in the United States – should do is have some long listening sessions with young people. Ask them why they support same sex marriage. They are not trying to destroy Western civilization. Most of them are not gay or lesbian themselves. To them, society must be first and foremost about mutual respect and religion should learn to be more tolerant. They are not wrong to think that. It is good Catholic theology. Bishops and pastors and lay leaders should ask them how they seek to follow the Lord Jesus in their romantic and sexual lives. Do they keep religion and sex separate? Do they think God has something to say about the subject? Before preaching to the next generation of Catholics, Church leaders are well advised to listen to them first, and not just to the choir a la Mrs. Clinton, but a real listening session with people who are not hand-picked for their docility.

The second thing the leaders of the Church must do is stop using phrases like “intrinsically disordered” which have been a disaster pastorally and misunderstood theologically. They should have the courage to admit in public what many will admit in private, that the Church’s theology on homosexuality is woefully inadequate. They must stop acting as if knowing this one discrete fact about a person, the fact that he or she is gay, is enough to form a judgment about the whole person. We don’t think our society is justified in sentencing Dzohkar Tsarnaev to death on account of his one, truly terrible act; We should not justify societal exclusion based on one characteristic. The Church at Her best never ceases proclaiming the integrity and dignity of the human person, the whole human person, no matter their choices and their preferences, still less something over which they have no choice whatsoever.

The third thing the hierarchy must do actually sit down with same gay and lesbian Catholics and listen to their stories, find out how they reconcile what the hierarchy currently sees as irreconcilable. Look for areas of commonality, instead of starting with how different each others’ views on human sexuality are. What do they mean when they say “marriage” and “equality”? And, the bishops are well advised to do this before both the Synod on the Family and, here in the United States, before the Supreme Court issues its ruling on same sex marriage at the end of next month. Their statements after that decision should be scrubbed of negativity and hand wringing.

In this morning’s Washington Post, Michael Gerson has an essay that examines the recent Pew study on religious identification and he touches on the need for Christians to return to their sources and recalibrate how they evangelize. He notes that one option is “to imagine [ourselves] as an aggrieved and repressed remnant….The church engages the world to diagnose decadence and defend its own rights.” Gerson rightly prefers a different option. He quotes Pope Francis: “We must always consider the person.” Gerson continues, “A faith characterized by humility and considering the person would be busy enough. The prevailing culture counts both virtues and victims. The broad decline of institutions leaves many people betrayed, lonely, and broken – not only unaffiliated with religion but unaffiliated with family, with community and with all the commitments that give meaning to freedom. And this social role is difficult to play with an angry and anxious public face.”  

I confess I would be more supportive of the fight for same sex marriage if it did not seem so trendy. I worry that the support for gay rights may be inch deep, a passing fad, and could, in the wrong set of circumstances, fail to grow deep roots and be unable to protect gays and lesbians from new hatreds. (The anti-immigrant fervor in Europe will not long be content with only one scapegoat.) If a nation as schooled in the faith as Ireland reaches the conclusion it did, then it truly is time for a reality check, but the reality might not be all gloom and doom. I do not know where such a reality check would lead. I know that our Catholic understanding of human sexuality will always be different from that achieved by merely human reason. But, I suspect the result in Ireland contains more good news for the Christian faith than many realize at first blush. It is not a catastrophe. Wake up calls are always unwelcome, but they help us avoid catastrophes.   

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