Strong youth vote in gay marriage poll shows gulf between the church and younger people
Published 04/06/2015 | 02:30
The mixed messages coming from prelates in Ireland and the Vatican in the wake of the same-sex marriage referendum could hardly be starker. Roman cardinals have compared the Irish to pagans and insisted that the Yes vote represents a "defeat for humanity". In Ireland, meanwhile, Dublin's Archbishop Diarmuid Martin has characterised the result as a "reality check" for the church and the Primate of All-Ireland Archbishop Eamon Martin said the hierarchy had many lessons to learn from the referendum.
Bishops are scheduled to meet in Maynooth later this month. Few - if any - will disagree with the need for a reality check. The church and mainstream Irish opinion are out of step: the referendum is resounding proof of that. The stumbling block is agreeing on what that reality check should be.
For liberal Catholics, this reality check rests in realising that a lot of Catholics no longer agree with their church on many issues. The referendum result, they will argue, proves that the people are ahead of the church on such issues.
On the other hand, for conservative Catholics, the referendum result is a damning indictment of a church that has failed miserably to present its teachings in a coherent way. The large number of Catholics who voted Yes, they will argue, is as a result of the fact that the bishops have been asleep at the wheel for decades and have failed to prioritise teaching.
So, the prognosis on what the church needs to do now depends largely on where one stands on ecclesiastical politics.
The depth of feeling around the referendum has come as a genuine surprise to many members of the Catholic hierarchy. While bishops' pastoral letters spoke of ontology and complementarity, those advocating a Yes vote spoke simply of love and equality. What was an ideological battle for the bishops, was, for many Mass-going Catholics, simply an issue of rights for a much put-upon minority.
The strength of the youth vote in the referendum starkly illustrates the gulf between the Church and the majority of younger people. Archbishop Diarmuid Martin observed that "the Church has a huge task in front of it to find the language to be able to talk to and to get its message across to young people."
Archbishop Martin will undoubtedly be making this known to the Vatican. He and Archbishop Eamon Martin will represent Ireland at a key synod in Rome in October discussing homosexuality and other controversial church teachings like divorce and the ban on artificial birth control.
Last year's instalment of the synod provoked controversy after a midway document said that homosexuals had "gifts and qualities to offer" and asked if Catholicism could accept gays and recognise positive aspects of same-sex relationships. In the end, the wording was watered down, but it's a debate that will intensify as the October meeting nears.
It would be a mistake for the church to think that the referendum Yes/No divided neatly along the lines of the Catholic faithful and those who have long since left the church behind. Many Mass-going Catholics voted in favour of same-sex marriage. Tom Curran, Fine Gael's general secretary, was at pains to point to his time as a student-priest to bolster his Catholic credentials. Similarly, former President Mary McAleese said she supported a Yes precisely because she believed in the Christian understanding of marriage. It almost constituted an alternative Magisterium that the church had to counter.
Don't expect any shift in core teaching, but rather one in tone and emphasis. Catholic leaders will take solace in the fact that there's little evidence from other traditions that radical change is a recipe for growth. The Church of England, which has embraced virtually every liberal reform, has seen its membership halve in just 30 years while the number of Catholics has remained stable. The Church of Ireland, which had two bishops publicly support same-sex marriage, recently announced that weekly church attendance had plummeted to just 15pc. Of that 15pc, just 7,540 (13pc) were under 30.
In their deliberations in Maynooth, the hierarchy will have to face up to and come to terms with the fact that many Mass-going Catholics who seek spiritual sustenance in the arms of the church have little interest in church pronouncements on marriage or issues of human sexuality.
At the same time, many of the 734,000 people who voted No were likely motivated by their faith.
This creates an obvious tension, but Catholicism has always survived precisely because it has been able to manage and grapple with tension.
The most-vexed question remains what to do about younger people. The famous US televangelist of the 1950s, Archbishop Fulton Sheen, once said the church doesn't suit any age because it is made for all ages. "If it marries the spirit of one age,' he said, "it will find itself a widow in the next generation".
Perhaps, but it's a stark truth that a church without young people in one generation, is a church without a future in the next.
Michael Kelly is Editor of 'The Irish Catholic'