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Ireland on the brink: the referendum will be a test of tolerance

By Phil Lawler (bio - articles - email) | May 19, 2015

On Friday, if the polls are right, Ireland—once a staunchly Catholic nation—will become the first country in the world to ratify same-sex marriage by a popular vote.

To be sure, the polls show a late surge of opposition. But public support for the referendum had been overwhelming, and it would take a huge last-minute swing in public opinion to close the gap.

Every recognized political party in Ireland, and virtually every noteworthy politician, supports a ‘Yes’ vote on the referendum. Corporate executives, schools, unions, the media: every major institution has signaled support for the ‘Yes’ side.

Every institution, that is, except the Catholic Church. But the Catholic hierarchy, still recovering from a disastrous loss of public confidence in the past decade, has been careful to avoid a direct confrontation with the ‘Yes’ campaigners. Rather than an outright call for rejection of the referendum, the bishops issued a pastoral letter with a curiously ambivalent title: “Marriage is important: Reflect before you change it.”

Following up on that collective message, individual bishops then released their own statements, in two volleys: one batch of statements released during the first weekend of May, the next last weekend. All those statements left the clear impression that the bishops hoped their people would vote against the referendum, but there were no clear instructions or directives—let alone warnings or threats.

Refusing to play the role of “heavies” in the national debate, the Irish bishops were scrupulously polite. They demanded respect for the ‘Yes’ campaigners and condemned any disparagement or mistreatment of homosexuals. They carefully sought to explain that the referendum is not simply a matter of equal treatment, but a bid to re-define marriage. They called for quiet, civil, rational discussion.

But was anyone listening? The government, led by Taoiseach (prime minister) Enda Kenny, seemed determined to avoid any public debate. ‘Yes’ campaigners denounced their opponents as bigots, claiming that the only positive reason for a ‘No’ vote would be intolerance—which, they suggested, should not be tolerated.

According to their own rhetoric, the ‘Yes’ campaigners were advancing the cause of mutual respect and tolerance. In practice, the referendum campaign was marred by overt efforts to stifle and intimidate the opposition. The result, wrote Brendan O’Neill in the Spectator, has been the systematic excoriation of ‘No’ voters: “But in Ireland, to be a naysayer in relation to gay marriage is basically to make yourself a moral leper, unfit for polite society, ripe for exclusion from respectable circles.”

But if the ‘Yes’ campaign had rolled up a huge advantage in public opinion, and shut down most debate, what would explain the last-minute tightening in the polls? Perhaps the supporters of same-sex marriage overplayed their hand. Perhaps their scorched-earth campaign worried Irish voters. Perhaps they pushed too hard, too fast, and neglected to take into account the stubborn independent streak that is a national characteristic.

As the referendum campaign moved toward a close, columnist John Waters compared it to a “mental civil war”—not only because the cause of same-sex marriage would mark a radical change in society, but also because the opposition had been so thoroughly demonized. “This has been the most comprehensive betrayal of democratic principles by an establishment in living memory,” Waters wrote in The Independent. “Whereas the scars of this ugly campaign may acquire a superficial healing in time, the deep tissue damage to our most fundamental protections will persist until some saner generation, perhaps chastened by disaster, grows to sense in this Republic.”

In the earlier stages of the referendum campaign, the ‘Yes’ side spoke of fairness, tolerance, and equal treatment. But as the weeks wore on, there was very little fairness or tolerance on display, and still less equal treatment of the question. Maybe the striking gap between rhetoric and reality prompted Irish voters to think about the implications of a ‘Yes’ vote, and the implications of allowing a powerful cabal to bulldoze the political opposition.

The Catholic bishops, in their last set of statements, urged the public to recognize the dangers of stifling public debate. In this case, Archbishop Eamon Martin of Armagh pointed out, stifling debate on same-sex unions would mean banning a discussion of Catholic teaching on marriage. If the referendum were to pass, the archbishop warned, “then it will become increasingly difficult to speak or teach in public about marriage as being between a man and a woman.”

Then, as if on cue, the Irish government cut off funding for a Catholic marriage-counseling agency, illustrating Archbishop Martin’s point. At just about the same time, the poll numbers began to show a serious slippage in support for the referendum. Was that a coincidence? I doubt it.

Ironically both ‘Yes’ and ‘No’ advocates say that the referendum will be a test of tolerance. They disagree radically on what the word ‘tolerance’ implies.

Phil Lawler has been a Catholic journalist for more than 30 years. He has edited several Catholic magazines and written eight books. Founder of Catholic World News, he is the news director and lead analyst at CatholicCulture.org. See full bio.

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Show 4 Comments? (Hidden)Hide Comments
  • Posted by: skall391825 - May. 23, 2015 3:16 PM ET USA

    "every major institution has signaled support for the ‘Yes' side...except the Catholic Church. But the Catholic hierarchy, still recovering from a disastrous loss of public confidence in the past decade, has been careful to avoid a direct confrontation with the ‘Yes’ campaigners." So, abuse by gay clergy long ago took away Church credibility to stop a gay victory today.The circle is complete. As for today's timid clergy, I am reminded of "I will vomit thee out of my mouth."

  • Posted by: nix898049 - May. 20, 2015 4:40 PM ET USA

    It just seems to me that when teaching about sodomy and the practitioners thereof,that is, being respectful and avoiding unjustified discrimination just doesn't work when dealing with this matter. The Catholic is in a no-win situation. Practitioners see it as comparable to having black skin. Catholics must understand it as a vice. So we will always be seen as condescending when trying to be 'sensitive'.

  • Posted by: geoffreysmith1 - May. 20, 2015 10:49 AM ET USA

    The legality of SSM may be enforceable in Ireland in the near future, but as elsewhere the reality of it will be totally lacking. Gay duos will be no more married at the end of a wedding ceremony than they were before it began. They will remain a sodomising couple - that's all.

  • Posted by: Randal Mandock - May. 20, 2015 12:23 AM ET USA

    According to the Wiktionary, the obsolete definition of tolerance is: "The ability to endure pain or hardship; endurance." This definition accords with my own. OTOH, the more acceptable definition is: "The ability or practice of tolerating; an acceptance or patience with the beliefs, opinions or practices of others; a lack of bigotry." And here we find the key concept: lack of bigotry. The only bigotry a Catholic can be accused of is a bigotry against sin. This form of bigotry is virtuous.