Ireland, once dubbed “the most Catholic country in the world” by the
future Pope Paul VI, has become the first country in the world to adopt
same-sex marriage by means of a popular vote.
For months, opinion polls had been consistent is showing huge levels of
support for the constitutional amendment to re-define marriage.
On the day, 62 percent of people voted “yes” for same-sex marriage. It
was not the absolute landslide pundits had predicted, but it was an emphatic
rejection of the traditional understanding of marriage as between one man and
David Quinn, director of the Iona Institute and de facto leader of the “no” campaign, was magnanimous, conceding
defeat just over an hour after the counting of votes began and the pattern was
Archbishop of Dublin Diarmuid Martin described the result as a “social
“We [the Church] have to stop and have a reality check, not move into
denial of the realities,” Archbishop Martin said. “We won’t begin again with a
sense of renewal, with a sense of denial.”
The archbishopa former Vatican diplomat who has headed Ireland’s largest
diocese for more than a decadehad been criticized during the campaign by some
for being too timid in presenting the Church’s teaching on marriage. In the
final days, he did take to the airwaves to make a plea for a “no” vote.
However, he angered some “no” campaigners for refusing to say Catholics ought
to vote “no.”
The bishop of Elphin, Kevin Doran, was among the most vocal opponents of
the redefinition of marriage in the Irish hierarchy. He led a robust campaign
and frequently engaged in media debates in an attempt to have the proposal
Responding to the result, he said: “The outcome of the marriage
referendum is clear and decisive.”
Bishop Doran got to the heart of why the “yes” campaign proved so
convincing in the end. “It seems that many people voted ‘yes’ as a way of
showing their acceptance and their love for friends and family members who are
gay,” he said.
“Large numbers obviously believed that they could vote ‘yes’ without in
any way undermining marriage.”
How has it happened that a country in which 84 percent of people describe
themselves as Catholic has become the first state in the world to enact
same-sex marriage by means of a popular vote? How has it happened that a
country in which 43 percent of Catholics attend Mass weekly and 60 percent
attend Mass at least once a month was so deaf to the pleas of their shepherds?
Officially, the campaign for same-sex marriage began only months ago. Eighteen
months ago, for example, the prime minister, Taoiseach Enda Kenny was lukewarm
about the proposal. He later emerged as one of its strongest supporters.
To find the genesis of the campaign, one must look beyond the Emerald
Isle to the United States and wealthy philanthropists who use their money and
influence to buy radical social change around the world.
Pro-same-sex marriage campaigners in Ireland have benefited to the tune
of millions of dollars from Atlantic Philanthropies, the organization used by
billionaire Chuck Feeney to fund socially liberal causes.
According to Atlantic, the Irish Gay and Lesbian Equality Network (GLEN)
received $4,727,860 between 2005 and 2011.
In its own literature, Atlantic explains that in 2005, “GLEN was
essentially a voluntary organization with a single-funded post working on gay
HIV strategies.” According to the recent report “Catalyzing LGBT Equality and
Visibility in Ireland,” “[GLEN’s] multi-year grant from Atlantic enabled them
to ramp up their work into a full-time, highly professionalized lobbying
machine. It works ‘inside’ the machinery of government where it uses a ‘principled
pragmatist’ model in which it consolidates support, wins over the doubtful, and
pacifies those who are opposed.”
“GLEN leaders believed that the most viable way to embed long-lasting
social change was to legislate incrementally, waiting to advocate for civil
marriage until the population was acculturated to the ordinariness of same-sex
unions,” the report reads.
Breda O’Brien, a columnist with the Irish
Times and a longtime Catholic activist, has said she is stunned that the
Irish media are not interested in this overseas funding, and instead minimize its
influence. “The only acceptable narrative is that this is a benign grassroots
movement, because if we admitted that it is instead a slick, elite movement of
highly educated professionals funded from abroad, we might have to admit we
were skillfully manipulated. And that could not be true,” she said.
Feeney’s Atlantic Philanthropies credits itself with securing civil
partnership in 2010, describing it as “some of the most far-reaching legal
protections for gay and lesbian couples in the world.”
Civil partnership affords far greater rights than “US state-based civil
marriage because the latter cannot include federal rights in critical areas
such as immigration, tax, and health benefits.”
In 2009, GLEN had 348 media appearances179 broadcasts and the rest ranging
from national newspapers to the Law
Society Gazette. Almost one per day.
Another campaign organization, Marriage Equality, got one grant of $475,215
from Atlantic. It enabled the group to set up a full-time office, to lobby, and
to use “backroom” tactics like “hiring professional political advisers who were
working with the government on other issues to report back on the government’s
thinking on same-sex marriage,” according to an Atlantic report.
Another key backer of same-sex marriage, the Irish Council for Civil
Liberties (ICCL), from 2001 to 2010, received $7,727,700 from Atlantic, and
another $3,829,693 between 2010 and 2013.
O’Brien described Atlantic’s role as “foreign money being systematically
invested to change public opinion, to deliver seamlessly a ‘yes’ in a
referendum that has enormous consequences for family law for generations.”
The role of prominent Catholics who dissent from Church teaching was also
crucial in convincing many Mass-going Catholics to side with the “yes” campaign
against the Church.
Fr. Tony Flannery, a Redemptorist priest who is currently suspended for
holding views at odds with Catholic teaching, was vocal in telling Catholics
that supporting same-sex marriage was the right thing to do.
Fr. Flannery wrote: “I do not accept that any blame or moral fault can be
attributed to someone who is gay. It is the way that God created them, and part
of his plan for their life, or, as one might say, part of the hand of cards
they were dealt. So, to suggest that a gay person is in any way less a human
being, less perfect or less moral, is totally wrong. They are as much entitled
to their dignity as human person as anyone else.”
He went on to add: “Because of the struggle they have experienced, first
in coming to terms with themselves, and then with the negative attitudes in
society, they have developed particularly sensitive antennae to rejection of
any sort. For me, the really Christian thing is to give them a strong and clear
message that they are loved and accepted just as they are, and that they
deserve to be treated with the same dignity as the rest of us.”
Mary McAleese, a former president of Ireland and hugely influential woman
who has spoken passionately about the importance of her Catholicism, also
backed a “yes” vote and insisted that it was the Christian thing to do. Far
from stating her defiance of the Church, McAleese said she was voting “yes”
because of her faith.
These appeals drew a sharp rebuke from Dr. John Murray, a theologian
teaching at Dublin’s Mater Dei Institute of Education.
“In every case that I have read or heard, none of these people has
referred to the actual teaching of Jesus on marriage,” Murray said. “Jesus’ teaching
is surely the foundation of any theological or faith-shaped response to this
“We need to ask Catholics who promote a vote to change our constitutional
and legal understanding of marriage: Do you consider the Church’s practice and
understanding of the sacrament to be discriminatory? They might say that they
in no way are criticizing the sacrament. But if they believe that is always
seriously unjust to treat same-sex relationships as in any significant way
different from opposite-sex unions with regard to marriage and family and
children, and want this very principle enshrined in the constitution, then how
can they not consider the sacrament to be discriminatory and wrong? And thus
reject their Catholic faith and the gospel of Christ?” Murray asked.
Another factor in the “yes” campaign victory was the ability to keep the
argument simple. While “no” campaigners made arguments about the rights of
children to have a mother and a father, the nature of marriage, complementarity,
and the common good, the “yes” campaign stuck to vague slogans like “equality”
and “fairness.” Advocates for a “yes” from the government were emphatic: “This
is about love and equalitynothing else,” read the simple message.
Supporters of change also understood the powerful use of narrative in a
country where everyone is a storyteller. Countless gay celebrities and personalities
were given soft interviews by a willing media to explain the difficulties they
had growing up gay in Ireland and how much the passing of the referendum would
mean to them. It was simply about being decent, ran the constant mantra.
And Irish people are decent, and a history of oppression has made them
sensitive to any minority claiming to be oppressed.
The “yes” campaign also had what virtually no other campaign in Irish
history has had: all of the political parties were supporting a “yes” vote and
were able to put their considerable resources, including grassroots organizers,
into the campaign.
David Quinn says, “It is amazing to think that so many people hadn’t a
single political party to represent them. Instead it fell to a handful of
individuals from civic society and a handful of mostly independent politicians
to do so.”
Quinn believes that “had even one of the major political parties backed
the ‘no’ side, the number of people who voted ‘no’ would have swelled. It would
have made a big difference to have the machinery of one of the main parties on
our side. Not a decisive difference necessarily, but a difference.”
He thinks it would be “a useful exercise” to survey those who voted “yes”
to find out their reasons for doing so. “We would probably find that every one
of them had voted ‘yes’ out of a sense of fairness. But how many really believe
that the biological ties between children and their parents don’t really
matter? How many really believe that mothers and fathers are interchangeable
and that the differences between the sexes don’t matter at all when it comes to
Breda O’Brien is bothered by the continued characterization of “no”
voters in the media. “No” voters, she insists, “are just as generous and
inclusive as their neighbors who voted ‘yes,’ and just as fond of their gay
relatives. In fact, some of them are gay themselves.”
“That does not fit the dominant narrative that only people who were
rigid, intolerant, and fearful voted ‘no.’ It is an inconvenient truth that
this was not a referendum on whether we like gay people or not,” O’Brien
For her, most “yes” voters did so for positive reasons. “The vast
majority of ‘yes’ voters also voted from generous and humane impulses. More
importantly, parents and relations of gay children, in particular, desperately
wanted to convey to their children that they were just as equal as their straight
siblings. We can all admire that and understand why they feel they have
achieved that objective.”
“We do not have to admire the fact that the campaign may have lasted
weeks, but the soft coverage of gay icons and celebrities and ‘human interest’
stories pushing the ‘yes’ side have been going on for years, with the
enthusiastic collusion of the media.”
“We do not have to admire a government who relentlessly framed this so it
was always going to be a battle between the heart and the head. We do not have
to admire government ministers who talked about damaging the gay people’s
mental health if we voted ‘no,’” she adds.
What are the lessons for the Church from the debate? Archbishop Martin
has pointed to the fact that most of the “yes” voters were actually products of
Shane Farrell, a prominent Irish blogger on Church affairs, believes that
the bishops should have been stronger in asserting the Church’s teaching. “[The
hierarchy] allowed liberal clergy to muddy the waters,” he said. “Many
Catholics in good faith thought a ‘yes’ vote was consistent with their faith.”
He is clear on the “reality check” that the Church needs to take: “The
lesson that the Church should draw from the marriage referendum is that there’s
an urgent pastoral necessity for a lot more catechesis on sexual morality.”
For Archbishop Martin, the vote in favor of same-sex marriage is part of
a process. “It’s a social revolution that’s been going onperhaps in the Church
people have not been as clear in understanding what that involved,” he said.
David Quinn also sees the bigger picture. “It is plain and obvious that
abortion and assisted suicide are next on the agenda,” he said.
“Those seeking abortion will be hugely emboldened by what happened on
Friday. At the same time, however, many politicians will know that the 38
percent of people who voted against same-sex marriage can be turned into a
majority opposed to deleting the Eighth Amendment [which bans abortion].”
“Perhaps this will slow things down a little, but not for long,” Quinn said.
“No” campaigners are clearly disappointed. But
they should take comfort in the fact that when the debate began, polls showed
that only 17 percent of voters would reject the redefinition of marriage. On
the day, however, that swelled to 38 percent. One cannot underestimate the
significance of the cultural shift that has taken place. However, reading
mainstream media reports, one would get the impression that only a hardened fringe
of people voted “no.” Overall, one in three Irish people resisted the huge
pressure of the media and political parties. “No” campaigners can take heart
from that, and steel themselves for the fights ahead.