Ireland’s Catholic bishops spokesman has said the church may no longer perform the civil aspects of weddings if marriage is extended to same-sex couples.
The move would mean the tens of thousands of couples who get married in Catholic churches each year would have to go elsewhere to have their marriage legally recognised by the State.
At present, the signing of the Marriage Registration Form – a civil document required by the State in order to recognise a marriage – takes place after the wedding Mass.
If the church carries through on its threat to bring the practice to an end, it will mean that couples will not officially be married by the church ceremony.
This weekend a spokesman for the Irish Catholic Bishops said he believed that priests would be unlikely to have any issue with the bishops’ possible move to force all couples marrying in the church to carry out the civil aspect of their marriage elsewhere.
Currently in a church wedding, after the Mass has ended the couple, the solemniser – in this case a priest – and the witnesses must all sign a civil document called the Marriage Registration Form. This form is issued by a local registrar and the completed one must be returned to a registrar before a marriage certificate can be obtained.
The stance articulated by the spokesman for the Irish Catholic Bishops is a reaffirmation of a warning contained in the bishops’ submission to the Constitutional Convention in 2013. In this they said that any change to the definition of marriage would mean the Church could no longer co-operate with the civil aspect of marriage.
Martin Long, director of the Catholic Communications Office said then: “At the moment on behalf of the State, the priest acts as the solemniser of the marriage between a woman and a man. Obviously if the definition of marriage changes then this role will change.”
‘Nothing has changed’
Last night Mr Long confirmed that this is still the position of the bishops, stating: “This was the last public authoritative intervention. Nothing has changed since then.”
He added: “If the referendum is passed the Church’s view and the State’s view of marriage will be radically different. It’s reasonable that the bishops may decide to separate the two.”
According to the Central Statistics Office, 13,072 – or 59 per cent – of the 22,045 marriages registered in 2014 were Roman Catholic marriage ceremonies.
For a wedding to be legally recognised, it must be solemnised by a person on the register of civil solemnisers. About 4,121 of the 5,461 people on the register in Ireland are Catholic priests. There are only 107 civil registers so the move by the Church would result in a significant delay for couples getting their marriage legally recognised by the State.
Mr Long said that guidelines for dioceses would be considered at a meeting of the Bishops’ Committee on Marriage and Family later this month. The committee is chaired by Bishop of Clogher Liam MacDaid, who was unavailable for comment.
‘A matter for bishops’
It is not clear yet whether the decision around carrying out the civil element would be left to be made by each bishop in their own diocese or whether a central decision will be made which would apply across all dioceses.
The spokesman said the scenario where a local priest might disagree with the new role was illogical and unlikely, adding: “It’s not an issue. A priest’s role is to join two people in the eyes of God only. A priest is already undertaking a service which is not central to his ministry (in carrying out the civil role)”.
Fr Brendan Hoban from the Association of Catholic Priests said last night that he had heard suggestions that the Church would refuse to carry out the civil role "in a huff" but that he didn't think it would happen.
He said: “Why would it bother? It would be unnecessary. You’re only making it difficult and more expensive on these couples. I wouldn’t expect to see it.”
In a speech last month the Catholic Archbishop of Dublin Diarmuid Martin said that the Catholic bishops did not support the referendum and called on people to reflect on the implications for marriage of it being passed.