DUBLIN — In many ways, Ireland remains a heavily Catholic country.
Yet Friday’s emphatic “Yes” vote to same-sex marriage rights represents a seismic shift in the nation’s social liberalization and challenges the Roman Catholic Church to rethink its role in Irish society.
“We must not move into the denial of the realities,” Dublin’s Archbishop Diarmuid Martin said after voters approved a constitutional change that gives same-sex couples the same marriage rights as heterosexual couples.
“I appreciate how gay and lesbian men and women feel on this day,” said Martin, who voted against the measure. “They feel this is something enriching the way they live. It’s a social revolution.”
“The church has a huge task to get its message across to young people. (It) needs to do a reality check,” Martin said.
Sixty-two percent of voters rejected the nation’s traditional social conservatism to make Ireland the first nation in the world to approve full marriage rights to same-sex couples by popular referendum. Eighteen other countries have legalized gay marriage through legislation or the courts.
Ireland seems an unlikely place to make history on the issue given the Catholic Church’s dominant role in the country and its open opposition to passage of the referendum. About 85% of people polled in Ireland’s census in 2011 identified as Catholic. The church runs more than 90% of Ireland’s public schools. Twice a day, church bells ring out resoundingly on state radio and television to remind Ireland’s devoted to recite the Angelus prayer.
In one concession to the Catholic clergy, the measure does not extend an automatic right for gay couples to be married in a church.
The Iona Institute, a conservative Catholic think tank, said in a statement, “We hope the government will address the concerns voters on the ‘No’ side have about the implications for freedom of religion and freedom of conscience.”
Oran Doyle, a law professor at Trinity College Dublin, said that while the result clearly reflects the secularization of Irish society, its ultimate impact on Ireland’s ongoing debate about what type of society it wants to be may be limited.
“Opposition to the (constitutional amendment) came mostly from the Catholic Church and other religious groups aligned with it. The fact that they could only get 38% support is significant,” said Doyle, who is gay.
“Nevertheless, it doesn’t follow from this that there is a pronounced shift in attitudes to other questions, such as abortion,” he added. “The primary driver on change on this social issue was people’s feelings to and on behalf of gay people whom they know.”
For Irish voters who approved the measure, the vote represents a recognition that Ireland needs to catch up with Europe in liberalizing social mores.
Homosexuality was decriminalized in Ireland only in 1993. Abortion remains illegal except if a mother’s life is endangered. The right to divorce was granted only as recently as 1996. Contraception was illegal until 1980.
Young voters were a big reason the gay-marriage amendment passed, even though “most of those people who voted ‘Yes’ are products of our Catholic schools,” Archbishop Martin said.
Emily Neenan, a student from Dublin, epitomizes those voters. “It’s about time we had a better understanding of what the Irish people actually want,” Neenan said.
“Our society has changed a lot and the laws have not kept up,” she said. “We have had a strange dichotomy between those of us who are very young and liberal and welcoming, and these very old and outdated ways of the Catholic Church.”