When we vote in referendums we legislate for all citizens not just members of a church
We should not seek to have the State impose our convictions on others
‘When we become legislators, as we do when we vote in referendums, we legislate for ALL our fellow citizens. We do not vote as members of this or that church or faith.’ Photograph: Getty Images
There is a passage in the Gospels where Jesus tells us to give to Caesar what is Caesar’s and to God what is God’s. In Ireland, we have inherited a tradition which has associated religion and politics in a way that has excluded some of our fellow citizens.
Phrases like “Irish Catholic” and “Ulster Protestant” became descriptions of an identity which was partly religious, partly political, partly cultural and wholly divisive. Today in Ireland we can no longer speak of a Catholic State or a Protestant State.
The State is a secular reality whose principal duty towards religion is to ensure its freedom. Jesus believed that God’s reign was immensely more important than that of any earthly ruler, but he never appealed to earthly rulers to enforce his religious or moral teaching on their subjects.
We are all conscious of the upcoming referendum on marriage equality. When we vote at any time, we are giving to Caesar what is Caesar’s. In a democracy, Caesar is the people. For most of the time, we elect representatives to the Oireachtas whom we charge with the task of making our laws.
When we vote in a referendum, however, we become legislators ourselves. We actually make the law of our land and only we, the people, can change it. It is a heavy responsibility, which we have to shoulder ourselves rather than leave it to our deputies and senators.
Some people will find the issue to be a straightforward choice between right and wrong and will vote accordingly, either Yes or No. Others, who are aware that they are dealing with a complex and anguished question to which there is no simple or obvious answer, will be more hesitant and will find themselves honestly wondering which conclusion to reach.
The arguments crowd in on us from both sides. Much of life today is like that and we cannot off-load our troubled consciences on others, whether in church or State. We have to make our own decisions for ourselves.
Many, perhaps most of us, will I suspect find that we are being asked to vote not for the right cause over the wrong cause. Matters are far more complicated than that.
Churches have views, ideals and laws about these issues and they, quite properly, teach their members about those views. (Although in churches, there are differences of emphasis and variations in pastoral practice).
When we become legislators, though, as we do when we vote in referendums, we legislate for ALL our fellow citizens. We do not vote as members of this or that church or faith.
Of course we cannot leave our religiously based moral convictions outside the polling station, but we do need to remember the difference between civil and religious law.
We also need to remember that it is possible to have deep and passionately held convictions without seeking to have those convictions imposed by the State on fellow citizens who do not share them and may have opposite convictions which are equally deep and passionately held.
Religious freedomCatholic Church
The Constitution on the Church in the Modern World has this to say: “In the regulation of temporal matters, Christians ought to recognise the legitimacy of different and even conflicting views. They should respect their fellow- citizens who defend such views honestly, even by group action.” (Art.n 75)
Respect for freedom of others to hold religious or moral views which we ourselves find we cannot share is a sign of strength, not weakness. It is not a concession to the “permissive society” as it is sometimes represented to be.
Respect for the freedom of others who differ from us is part and parcel of the faith we profess. For these and for other reasons, I will be voting Yes in the forthcoming referendum on marriage equality. Fr Iggy O’Donovan is a member of the Augustinian Order and is based in Limerick.