Careful reflection needed before marriage is changed forever and we are being asked to change it
Published 16/05/2015 | 02:30
With all the debate - at times heated and passionate - and the posters concerning the upcoming marriage referendum, it might seem strange that I would say that both sides are actually talking about the same important thing.
What is being discussed is our understanding of the philosophical principles that we wish to embrace to sustain our common social ethic.
It is not as such a debate about religious views. It is an important philosophical debate. Reflection and critical debate about the type of society we wish to attain and sustain and the values which should underlie it are part and parcel of the democratic process. Citizens should be encouraged to express or criticise or challenge the principles which buttress our vision of society.
Such discussion is not a luxury or a waste of time. We can see, even recently, how a lack of deeper reflection and debate has led to many failures in Irish society. A lack of appropriate challenge to an individualistic understanding of what economy and its social function meant ended up harming many individuals and communities. We need such a debate to identify what has left our health care system in such a perilous condition. Behind all these failures lies some kind of social philosophy or lack of social philosophy or some form of compromise or simply cynical or superficial pragmatism.
Politics may be the art of the possible, but politics which does not reflect on its own vision loses its way.
That is why, from the beginning of the debate on the marriage referendum, I appealed that the debate should always be respectful. We should always be respectful to people whose views are different to those of our own. The debate on issues which touch on the understanding of our common values, however, affect every citizen and should be the concern of every citizen and every citizen should be allowed to express his or her views respectfully yet vigorously. Hurtful or untruthful comment is not a sign of mature societal debate. Neither is the attempt to suffocate real debate by spin-doctoring. To what am I referring?
Some say that the referendum is not about changing marriage but simply about extending marriage rights to others. I believe that marriage is linked with the family where mothers and fathers bring different, yet complementary gifts and strengths into a child's life. Marriage is not simply about a wedding ceremony or about two people being in love with each other.
A fundamental question we have to ask is why do humans exist as male and female? Is it simply an accident or a social construct? I do not believe so. There is a unique complementarity between men and women, male and female, rooted in the very nature of our humanity. Modern usage rightly demands that we talk of "her or she"! I believe that this complementarity belongs to the fundamental definition of marriage. The vast majority of States in Europe and worldwide interpret marriage in that sense.
Others say that the referendum is just about civil marriage and not about religious marriage. What happens in Church, we are told, will not change. No politician can promise that. For Irish civil and constitutional law, what takes place at a wedding in Church is a civil marriage, albeit celebrated within a religious ceremony. It is a civil marriage subject to all the laws regarding civil marriage and it is not within the power of today's politicians to determine how it will be interpreted tomorrow. It is something which will belong exclusively to the courts who alone interpret the Constitution. And we simply cannot know.
Some say that the change will not affect those who do not agree with it. I believe that what is being proposed constitutes a fundamental change in the philosophic vision of marriage and the family and therefore of society and thus it affects and concerns every citizen. Marriage is important and we are being asked to change it.
Rights and social goods at times clash. I have said I will vote 'No', but that I am not totally happy at having to do so. A principled 'No' vote is not homophobic. My 'No' vote is not against gay and lesbian people. A 'No' vote leaves many issues unresolved which I would have preferred to see teased out differently.
What can we do better in our society to make our gay sons and daughters, brothers and sisters, and uncles and aunts and friends feel that they fully belong and are not somehow "less". How can we change that without changing marriage? Even if we change marriage, will we really achieve that? I fear we might not.
For me, marriage matters and I urge you to reflect very carefully before attempting to change it.