Bishops have received an unprecedented avalanche of queries from anxious Catholics seeking direction ahead of the same-sex marriage referendum, the Sunday Independent has learned.
any dioceses report it is the biggest demand for information on a single issue they have ever witnessed - including the divisive abortion and divorce referendums.
Some Catholics fear voting No will label them as homophobic. Other devout Catholics are torn because their children, family members or friends are gay and they fear for their future happiness.
Others are simply seeking clarity on the Church's position on gay marriage.
At least 16 bishops will respond in pastoral letters and parish newsletters at Masses today, and over the next two weekends.
In response to the queries, Archbishop of Armagh and Primate of All Ireland, Eamon Martin, this weekend issued a statement in which he said many people of faith won't stand up for what they believe marriage represents for fear of being labelled "against freedom and equality".
"We have got ourselves into the situation that many people won't even raise these issues in their families and workplaces for fear of being ridiculed or condemned as homophobic," he said.
Archbishop Martin said it is a "fact of nature" that same-sex unions are "fundamentally and objectively different" from the sexual union of a woman and a man, which is "naturally open to life."
Speaking earlier to the Sunday Independent, Bishop Francis Duffy, head of the Ardagh and Clonmacnoise Diocese in Co Longford, said he has "never received so many queries on one issue before".
"It is the single biggest issue that I have been asked about."
Over the past six months, Bishop Duffy, who is not directly involved in the No campaign, has been quizzed by Catholics on a number of issues.
"Some people are very worried about a family member who happens to be gay. They are wondering if they will be happy if the referendum is defeated or will their children experience discrimination and homophobia.
"Others can't believe that the issue is being debated in Ireland at all and are very keen to keep the traditional teaching of marriage and see that it's upheld," he added.
A number of bishops have reported anxiety among voters. Many have voiced fears of "unknown consequences" and "future implications" for society, and the education system, if the referendum on May 22 passes.
"It's a very sensitive debate. We all have sympathy for people and it's very important that we respond," he said.
"I get the impression that some people are afraid to come out and say 'no'. People are afraid of being labelled homophobic. That is an opinion that has been expressed to me by people against the wording and the change, but are afraid to say that out loud."
Bishop Duffy said he regards marriage as "a unique form of love between a man and a woman that predates Christianity and major religions and is a benefit for society".
However, he refused to comment on claims by the No side of implications related to surrogacy.
Last week, three of country's largest children's charities - Barnardos, the Irish Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children (ISPCC), and the Children's Rights Alliance (CRA) - called for a Yes vote. In response, Bishop Duffy said: "There are a lot of people and a lot of organisations on the Yes side and it is their right to do so."
Over the past five months, the Irish Catholic Bishops' Conference (ICBC) has published two pastoral statements on marriage. In December, 'The Meaning of Marriage' advised the faithful that "to redefine the nature of marriage would be to undermine it as the fundamental building block of our society". In March, a second paper, 'Marriage is important - Reflect before you change it', was published. A new website called 'Meaning of Marriage' has also been launched by the ICBC.
Bishop Duffy will circulate three short messages in his parish newsletter, and on the diocese website, over the next few weeks. At least 14 other bishops, including Archbishop Diarmuid Martin of Dublin, will promote the Church's pastoral message on marriage over the coming weeks.