The marriage referendum is about changing marriage from a union of a man and a woman into the union of two adults regardless of gender who desire a lifelong commitment. Up to a few decades ago, the meaning of marriage as the union of two complementary sexes open to procreation has been unquestioned. In four weeks’ time, it will be voted on and a majority opinion will determine whether one of the most natural aspects of humanity is going to be changed to suit a certain interpretation of equality.
As a people, we generally tend to be gentle, humane and loving. It is to this national characteristic, nurtured by its underlying Christian ethos, that the current political and media establishment is appealing.
The ‘Yes’ campaign, led by the Government and urged on by the media, is appealing to our emotions. The presentation of equality for persons who are gay touches the heartstrings of all, but especially the older generation. In this writer’s opinion, this has had at least one positive result. It has helped to counter negative attitudes to same-sex people as persons of inherent dignity. Empathy is replacing what was at best nervous distance, at worse real homophobia. And that is good and welcome.
But there is an unpleasant undercurrent, that of intimidation. People who, in their heart of hearts, cannot equate same-sex unions with marriage fear being accused of homophobia. The few who dare to express their views in public have experienced an onslaught in social media. The most intimidated of all seem to be our elected representatives. It is incredible that the political parties have imposed the whip to get their members to support the “Yes” vote. All but one Senator submitted.
Is the Catholic hierarchy also intimidated? The bishops will be anxious not to turn the referendum into a Church-State issue or to cause more offence to those most affected. Some bishops and priests are addressing their faithful directly in church; that is their right and duty. But Church encompasses more than the hierarchy, namely the laity.
Irish people resent being bullied by either Church or State. Yet, ordinary citizens are being intimidated into voting “Yes”. For over a year, the campaign waged by the Government urged on by the media has been relentless. In the final weeks, reason may triumph over emotion. As they prepare to vote, people will ask, reasonably: what are we being asked to change? The simple answer is: human nature.
This referendum touches the very source of our humanity. Human rights are at the heart of the Constitution. Article 41 recognises the family, based on marriage, as the fundamental unit group in Society. As such it has rights which are intrinsic to it, which the State is obliged to recognise and protect. In other words, the family, which existed before either Church or State existed, not only has a real autonomy within society: it is the ultimate source of society. Past and future converge in the family. Through marriage, future generations come into being. A nation’s culture is passed on primarily through the family. Since the dawn of time, the union of man and woman was simply assumed to be the origin of the family. This is what we are being asked to change.
This is not only Church teaching. It is in the UN Declaration of Human Rights, art. 16.3: “The family is the natural and fundamental group unit of society and is entitled to protection by society and the State.” That Declaration was drawn up against the background of two totalitarian regimes: Hitler’s Germany and Stalin’s Soviet Union. In the Soviet Union in particular, Marxist socialism tried to eliminate the family. This trend in Marxism — condemned by Pope Leo XIII in 1891 — was radicalised in Communist China in their “one family, one child” policy. The family has to be destroyed in order to exercise complete control over the people. The autonomy of the family is one of the bulwarks against every State’s innate tendency to become totalitarian, our own State included.
Though it is not primarily the State that is seeking to redefine marriage and thus the family, our Government is proposing that we introduce a profound contradiction into the heart of the Constitution. Instead of the Constitution’s recognition of the family as having “inalienable and imprescriptible rights, antecedent and superior to all positive law”, the family based on marriage is being made subservient to the State. The notion of inalienable rights is often interpreted in legal circles as rights which one cannot oneself give up but they are in fact rights which are not given by the State; the State is under obligation to protect them. These non-negotiable rights are the measure of all positive law — legislative or constitutional – because they arise from our common human nature, created by God. This is recognised by Article 6 of the Irish Constitution, which states that “All powers of government, legislative, executive and judicial, derive, under God, from the people”. The moral demands of our common human nature are known through conscience, the voice of God in our heart of hearts, if we but listen to it.
D. Vincent Twomey SVD is author of The End of Irish Catholicism?, Moral Theology after Humanae Vitae