Many people are asking what exactly are we being asked to vote on in the constitutional referendum on divorce this Friday. People are looking for clarity and direction. A key aspect of the mission of the church is to spiritually and pastorally support marriage with the greatest of compassion. In his 2016 apostolic exhortation Amoris Laetitia (The Joy of Love), on marriage and family, Pope Francis reminds us that "the Christian ideal, especially in families, is a love that never gives up" .
Catholics, as a community of believers, are urged to celebrate marriage as “a precious sign . . . the icon of God’s love for us”. Further, “as a social institution, marriage protects and shapes a shared commitment to deeper growth in love and commitment to one another, for the good of society as a whole”.
Clearly then marriage in Ireland, and for every society, is valuable and deserves significant support and protection.
All of us need to reflect deeply on the implications of this referendum which seeks to expedite the dissolution of marriage
At the same time, society must be pastorally sensitive to those in difficult marital situations. Pope Francis reminds us that “the church’s way . . . has always been the way of Jesus, the way of mercy . . . not to condemn anyone forever; it is to pour out the balm of God’s mercy on all those who ask for it with a sincere heart”.
While “separation must be considered as a last resort, after all other reasonable attempts at reconciliation have been proved vain”, nonetheless no one should suffer in a marriage which has ceased to provide love and safety.
As Pope Francis says, “respect for one’s dignity and the good of the children requires not giving in to excessive demands or preventing a grave injustice, violence or chronic ill-treatment. In such cases, separation becomes inevitable. At times it even becomes morally necessary” .
In need of support
In Ireland, North and South, the Catholic marriage care agency Accord, through its counselling service, offers hope to those whose marriage and relationship are in need of support.
A culture of support for marriage is not created by simply reducing, or removing, the waiting period before the initiation of proceedings leading to divorce
The objective of Friday’s referendum is not to support marriage, but rather to liberalise divorce. This runs contrary to the intention of article 41.3.1 of the Constitution of Ireland which proclaims that “the State pledges itself to guard with special care the institution of marriage, on which the family is founded, and to protect it from attack”.
Under our Constitution the people are sovereign. If this referendum is passed the people will no longer retain responsibility for determining the time required to qualify for divorce.
Rather it will be in the gift of politicians and this, in turn, may lead to quick divorces becoming an option. This would not be in the interest of family life or of society in general.
The apparent absence of empirical evidence underpinning the Government’s proposal, that there should be a reduction of the current time limit before divorce becomes an option, is a matter of concern. A culture of support for marriage is not created by simply reducing, or removing, the waiting period before the initiation of proceedings leading to divorce.
So what should be done? Accord also offers courses to women and men who are preparing to receive the sacrament of marriage. Feedback from Accord indicates that the experience of the majority of couples who have attended a marriage preparation course has been very positive and that this has benefits for their marriage and family life.
The Government should recommit resources to marriage preparation, while investing resources into marriage enrichment, to sustain marriages into the future.
Finally, all of us, as citizens, should be concerned at the structure of the referendum question. Voters will be asked two questions but may only give one reply. These address removing the time limit required to obtain a divorce, and the recognition of foreign divorces.
Demanding one answer to two very different questions is unfair and undemocratic.
All of us need to reflect deeply on the implications of this referendum which seeks to expedite the dissolution of marriage. My fear is that this proposal, if successful, will militate against the common good by weakening the bond of marriage.
Denis Nulty is Bishop of Kildare and Leighlin and chairman of Accord