As the Friday referendum approaches, Ireland seems poised to become the first nation to legalize same-sex marriage by popular vote. The Catholic Church itself opposes the measure.
In at least a few cases, though, Irish Catholics may vote “yes” not in spite of their priests, but alongside them. Standún, O’Donovan and Dolan are among a group of priests who have bucked Church leadership to voice support for the amendment. Speaking to BuzzFeed, The Rev. Tony Flannery, founder of the reform-minded Irish Association of Catholic Priests, estimated that 25 percent of the country’s clergy would vote”yes.”
Recent polls show a significant majority of voters favor a constitutional amendment to expand the definition of marriage to include same-sex couples — one of many signs in recent decades of the greatly diminished influence of the Catholic Church, which also unsuccessfully opposed a 1995 referendum in which Ireland legalized divorce.
Standún, a parish priest from Carna, in western Ireland, has expressed controversial opinions — at least, controversial for a member of the clergy. In 2013 he praised Irish Prime Minister Enda Kenny for passing legislation that legalized abortion under certain circumstances, announcing that public representatives should reflect the views of their constituents, not their church, according to the Irish Times.
Standún made much the same argument in a column supporting the same-sex marriage referendum published earlier this month — only this time, he directed his plea toward Church leaders.
“… [N]ow is the right time. The people of God have moved on. Leaders please follow,” he urged in the Connaught Telegraph, the newspaper of Ireland’s western Connaught province.
The priest went on to say that he’ll be voting for the amendment “not to cock a snoot at the leadership of my church, or to jump on a popular bandwagon, but because I think it is the right thing to do.”
In a phone interview with The Washington Post, Standún said he had no qualms going public with his vote, and he doesn’t expect to face any repercussions from Church leadership, who have for the most part expressed their opposition to the amendment in measured terms.
“They haven’t really said anything besides ‘think carefully,’ which I did,” Standún said. “It’s a free country and it’s a political choice.”
O’Donovan, an Augustinian priest based in Limerick, argued that a “yes” vote is about separating the church from the state.
“We have inherited a tradition which has associated religion and politics in a way that has excluded some of our fellow citizens,” he wrote in a op-ed for the Irish Times, referring to Ireland’s long tradition of viewing politics and religion as virtually inseparable.
“When we become legislators, though, as we do when we vote in referendums, we legislate for ALL our fellow citizens,” he continued. “We do not vote as members of this or that church or faith.”
Church leaders in Ireland have quietly but firmly opposed same-sex marriage legalization. In recent weeks, several bishops have issued statements on the issue, using muted language and phrases like “carefully consider” and “the natural order.” Archbishop Kieran O’Reilly of Cashel and Emly in mid-western Ireland, wrote in a pastoral statement that marriage should be understood as “the union between a man and a woman,” but added “There is no desire, on my part or that of the bishops, to alienate or denigrate any person or group of persons in our society. We uphold the dignity of each person.”
As The Post’s Griff Witte reported last week, the Catholic Church is practically the only major Irish institution opposing the referendum. The government supports it, as do major media organizations, unions and business groups. Even elderly church-going ladies have said they’re voting “yes.”
“I’m just going to vote for gay people because I have nothing against them. I can’t understand why anybody is against it; they’ve done no harm to anyone,” 83-year-old Rita O’Connor told the Irish Times on her way out of Sunday morning Mass in Dublin this month. “I think it’s a stupid carry-on the way the Church is going on at the moment, ridiculous.”
Deepening disaffection with the Church could explain why bishops have been “circumspect,” in the words of politics professor David Farrell, about urging a “no” vote.
The number of Irish citizens who identify as Catholic has slowly declined to around 84 percent, according to Reuters. And the number of people who actively practice is even lower — in a 2011 address, Archbishop Diarmuid Martin of Dublin estimated that only 18 percent of his parishioners attended Mass any given week. The abuse scandals of the 1980s and ’90s accelerated the trend.
“They’ve been a bit more circumspect — and they have to be, because people are still sore with them for all that they’ve done,” Farrell, chairman of the politics department at University College Dublin, told The Post.
But Rev. Flannery, who was suspended by the Vatican in 2012 for contradicting Church orthodoxy on issues like homosexuality and the ordination of women, said even the Church’s muted opposition could be damaging.
“This referendum in particular is one that is very attractive to the younger generation. For the official Church to be taking such a consistent no line on it, they’re just further alienating a group that has largely left the Church anyway,” he told Reuters. “I would have thought that, that was foolish.”
Flannery announced that he, too, will be voting yes in an op-ed for Ireland’s Sunday Independent. Rejecting Church doctrine on homosexuality as “inhuman,” he said he sees the referendum as a chance to demonstrate Ireland’s potential for inclusivity.
“For me, the really Christian thing is to give them a strong and clear message that they are loved and accepted just as they are, and that they deserve to be treated with the same dignity as the rest of us,” he wrote.
And Rev. Standún said that win for the ‘yes’ side wouldn’t indicate that Irish Catholics are done with the Church.
“A lot of people who vote ‘yes’ on Friday will be at church on Sunday,” he said. “They won’t be any less Catholic. In fact they might be even more so, because they’re following the words of Jesus and showing more love.”