Bishops may use 'nuclear option' if same-sex vote is passed
Published 15/04/2015 | 02:30
The fact that the Church has raised the prospect of priests refusing to carry out the civil registration of marriages if next month's referendum is passed is a sign of how fundamental the hierarchy think such a redefinition would be. It's also a high-risk strategy that could dramatically affect the decisions couples make about their weddings.
Of the roughly 22,000 marriages in Ireland last year, about 60pc (13,072) took place in the Catholic Church. In these circumstances, the priest who presided at the ceremony, as well as fulfilling the religious function, acted as the solemniser on behalf of the State. In other words, he witnessed the solemn contract which gives the relationship legal status.
This has never presented a problem in the past, since the Church and State more or less had a common agreed understanding of marriage as an exclusive relationship between a man and woman. But all of that changes if the traditional understanding is no longer shared.
Many in the hierarchy think that if the Constitutional understanding of marriage is redefined, the Church will have to be more assertive in distinguishing between the sacramental nature of marriage, what the Church calls holy matrimony, and the civil marriage contract.
An obvious way of very publicly articulating this distinction would be to withdraw the names of priests from the list of solemnisers empowered to act on behalf of the State.
In the short term, it would present a massive difficulty for the State. Civil registrars who now perform about 6,000 weddings a year would see their work treble, as Catholics wishing to get married in their local church would also have to have a civil ceremony witnessed by a registrar. But it's a strategy not without risk. One senior adviser to the hierarchy described it to me as the "nuclear option".
Couples choose to get married in the Catholic Church for all sorts of reasons. For many, it is because faith is an important part of their lives and they want this to be reflected in the life-encompassing commitment that is marriage. For others, it may be as prosaic as the length of the aisle or the location of the church. Still others will opt for a Catholic wedding out of a concern for tradition, a desire not to offend parents or sentimentality.
If such couples had the added dimension of going elsewhere to have the civil requirements of marriage fulfilled would they opt for the religions part at all? A Church move away from civil solemnisation could see a collapse in the number of couples having Catholic weddings.
While priests grumble that a lot of their work in modern Ireland is reduced to hatching, matching and dispatching (christenings, weddings and funerals), many insist weddings are an important opportunity to help a couple reconnect with the faith.
On the other hand, a lot of priests will privately admit that many couples give little thought to the sacrament or the religious nature of the commitment. There would inevitably be fewer Catholic weddings, but, arguably, those who got married in the Church would take that side of their marriage more seriously.
In large parts of continental Europe, including Catholic countries, the civil and religious elements of marriage are separate.
The bishops have not made any firm commitment that they will definitely step away from presiding at the civil elements of weddings if the referendum passes. The earliest such a decision would be made is at the next plenary meeting of the hierarchy in June. It would be a radical step and one, I suspect, that would be a bridge too far for most bishops. But make no mistake, the fact that the issue has been raised is no mere act of petulance. If the May 22 poll is carried, Church and State will mean radically different things when they use the word marriage.
Michael Kelly is editor of The Irish Catholic