The Irish have always been known for their wit and creativity with words, whether in the English language or traditional Gaelic.
But some may now feel they have taken things a wee bit too far.
"We’re not redefining marriage; marriage isn’t changing," said a government official, Aodhán Ó Ríordáin. "We’re just expanding it."
Ó Ríordáin might be expected to say such a thing. He is Ireland’s "Minister of State for Equality."
But it’s not just him saying it. As he pointed out with an interview with National Public Radio, the English wording of the referendum that goes before Irish voters on Friday uses that language. The referendum is 17 words in English. Voters are being asked whether "marriage may be contracted in accordance with law by two persons without distinction as to their sex."
Ó Ríordáin compares the proposition to the expansion of voting rights in 1922.
"Just as expanding voting rights to women didn’t change voting, extending marriage rights to same-sex couples is not going to change marriage," says he.
The Catholic bishops in Ireland, as might be expected, are having none of it. In March, the Irish Catholic Bishops’ Conference issued a statement urging voters to think seriously before approving a referendum that would change the nature of marriage.
"Marriage is of fundamental importance for children, mothers and fathers, and society," the statement said. "We ask the people of Ireland to consider very carefully the profound implications which this constitutional amendment would have on the family environment and on our understanding of parenthood."
We come to this debate believing that the union of a man and a woman in marriage, open to the procreation of children, is a gift from God who created us "male and female."
Reason also points to the truth about human sexuality that makes the relationship between a man and a woman unique. Mothers and fathers bring different, yet complementary gifts and strengths into a child’s life.
We cannot support an amendment to the Constitution which redefines marriage and effectively places the union of two men, or two women, on a par with the marriage relationship between a husband and wife which is open to the procreation of children.
The bishops also expressed concern that, should the amendment pass, it will become increasingly difficult to speak any longer in public about marriage as being between a man and a woman.
"What will we be expected to teach children in school about marriage?" the bishops asked. "Will those who sincerely continue to believe that marriage is between a man and a woman be forced to act against their conscience?… Already, in The Children and Family Relationships Bill, it is proposed to remove mention of mothers and fathers from a whole raft of previous legislation."
And, as if to offer a warning about legal implications if same-sex marriage is legalized in the Irish Republic, a judge in Northern Ireland, which is part of the UK,
declared on Tuesday that a bakery acted unlawfully when it refused to bake a cake for a customer with a pro-homosexual marriage message written on it. "The judge ordered the family-run Ashers Bakery to pay [the customer] 500 pounds ($775) and legal costs, which have run into the tens of thousands," AP reported.
Ireland decriminalized homosexuality 22 years ago and allowed "civil unions" five years ago. If Ireland’s marriage "expanders" prevail this time, the vote would be historic not only because a nation with an ancient and deep Christian heritage has given its approval to something so contrary to Christianity, but because it would be the first time a country has voted to redefine marriage. NPR noted:
Same-sex marriage is legal in about 18 countries around the world. In all of those countries, the decision was made by the legislature or the courts. Ireland appears poised to become the first country to legalize same-sex marriage through a national popular vote…
Other efforts have sprung up to counter the move towards same-sex marriage. One, an organization called Mandate for Marriage, says in a: "Without exception, every child reared by a same-sex couple is denied either a father or a mother."
NPR noted that Ireland has nearly the highest church-going rate in Europe. Abortion is still illegal, and divorce was outlawed until the mid-1990s.
Nevertheless polls show a worrying trend. The Telegraph pointed out Tuesday:
Three polls published last weekend all show a majority in favour of marriage equality. After excluding the “don’t knows” the polls found between 73 and 63 per cent of voters were in favour of giving gay marriages equal treatment to straight ones.
That may reflect a temporary whim or a historic shift in an important Western European country. Time will tell, but one leading Irish prelate is taking the long view. In a speech in March, Archbishop Diarmuid Martin of Dublin said that history shows societies are strengthened by marriage and family.
"Where marriage and the family are not strong, society is weaker," he said. "Where societies weaken—in times of conflict or political repression or in times of economic strain—it is families which maintain stability and rebuild a society and its values. Marriage and the family remain independent of political ideologies and keep basic values alive, as was seen in the long years of persecution in communist countries. Political and ideological regimes come and go. Marriage and the family are permanent elements in maintaining social stability. Marriage and the family matter."
And he wasn’t mincing words.
John Burger is news editor for Aleteia’s English edition.