Tuesday, May 26, 2015

What just happened in Ireland?

    On May 22, 2015, the people of Ireland voted 62% in favor of including the following words in the Irish Constitution: that “marriage may be contracted in accordance with law by two persons without distinction as to their sex.” The turnout for the vote was 60% of registered Irish voters. The result was therefore not a squeaker. Moreover, the census of 2011 shows that Catholics make up 84% of the Irish population. This means that many many Catholics voted in favor of the constitutional amendment.

    Polls taken prior to the referendum suggested that the amendment was going to carry. Nonetheless, I have to say that I was very surprised at the outcome.

    As I grappled with a way to make sense of it, I recalled being in Ireland in 2012 for a tour of the country and to attend the Eucharistic Congress in Dublin. Hanging over the Congress was the ugly specter of the history of child sexual abuse by members of the clergy over many years. Also hanging in the air and producing palpable anger in the Irish people was the realization that the abuse had been denied, that priests had been moved, and that documents had been withheld from investigators.

    Given that history, which remains fresh in the minds of people, I was certain that the outcome of the referendum was an act of revenge against what was perceived to be an autocratic ecclesiastical authority. Moreover, it appeared to be a repudiation of the Catholic Church itself.

    It seems that I could not have been more wrong.

    We had a gathering of our local Deacon support group at our house last night. We always have a topic for discussion, chosen by the hosts. The referendum seemed both timely and urgent, so I started to read up on it, confining myself to the Irish secular press. The most prominent headlines tended to focus on Dublin Archbishop Diarmuid Martin’s comment that the Church needed a reality check in the wake of these results, “… A reality check right across the board, to look at the things it’s doing well, to look at the areas where we really have to start and say, ‘Look, have we drifted away completely from young people’?”

    In an article titled ‘All churches in Ireland in need of ‘reality check’‘, Patsy McGarry, a writer with the Irish Times said the following: “It’s not just young people. The people who voted for this referendum included tens of thousands of practising older Catholics in the cities, towns and country side of Ireland. People who will continue to practice their faith but who no longer accept that their gay sons, daughters, brothers, sisters, grandchildren, even their gay parents, are “objectively disordered” with a tendency to evil, as their Church teaches. Rather, by voting Yes last Friday, they embraced their gay minority and trumpeted to the world “You are my son, you’re my daughter you are my brother, you are my sister, you are my grandchild you are my mother, you are my father, you are my equal in law whatever the church may teach. It is an irony that those who opposed the referendum out of concern for the family were defeated by the family. The difference being that the No family was a concept, whereas last Friday’s Yes families were flesh and blood, living, breathing, flawed, impossible, loving humanity.”

    The writer goes on: “where our major church is concerned, the facts are stark and indicate that the Catholic Church as it was throughout the 150 years from the mid-19th century until the 1990s is gone.… Yet, there is hope. It rests with those priests who listen to and remain close to their people; those men in parishes throughout Ireland without whom the church would have been washed in the tsunami of scandals. It is such priests who bring solace and comfort to gay people in their congregations as they discover their identities and who then help ease families into accommodating that identity.”

    The take away from this and several other articles I read, is that Ireland voted to keep their gay children, relatives, and friends, in the family, with all the meanings of the word family. The tone is not at all about revenge on the clergy or on the church in general. The interesting thing, though, is that the Irish Catholic Church more than anywhere else in the world, will now be challenged to make this meaningful within the life of the Church. It will be the first real proving ground of everything Pope Francis has been saying about welcoming everyone. The tension of course will be that Church teaching has to dialogue with the pastoral mission of the Church. Where does all this go? I do not know the answer to that, but I am pleased in the end that this is happening in Ireland and not in North America.  Over here it would have been framed entirely along the lines of ‘my rights’ with an aggressively anti-religious overtone, perhaps. In Ireland, the faithful will remain faithful. The Church is going to grow up in a way it had not anticipated.

    I can’t help but think that the Holy Spirit is really up to something here.   

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