Today, the people of Ireland will vote in a Referendum to decide whether to include the following new wording in their Constitution:
‘Marriage may be contracted in accordance with law by two persons without distinction as to their sex.‘
This may happen despite the fact that Ireland has a Constitution grounded in Catholic values. Indeed, abortion in Ireland is still constitutionally prohibited. Homosexuality was only decriminalized in 1993, and the option to divorce has only been available since 1995. LGBT rights, however, have progressed very quickly in the last decade; discrimination based on people’s sexuality is prohibited by legislation, and same-sex couples already have the right to contract a civil partnership, as of 2011. Legislation allowing same-sex couples to adopt children will enter into force later on in 2015.
So what is the significance of this referendum? Well, to begin with, Ireland is the first country in the world to organize a Referendum to legalize same-sex marriage. The social conflict between Catholicism and LGBT campaigners runs very deep. Lobbyists on each side are fighting to discredit the other and muddy the waters with confused arguments. Instead of informed debates, each side engages in campaigns of fear and smear. The Church, for example, insists that this will be the end of marriage, that allowing same-sex couples to adopt will undermine the rights of children, and that it will trample religious freedom by forcing religious institutions to celebrate same-sex weddings against their will. In what follows, I will try to inform the debate with some ideas and cast some light on those arguments.
“… why does religion have such a prominent say on matters of sexual morality?”
Firstly, we have to clarify what is really at stake. One word is enough: equality. Why should heterosexual couples have a right that is denied to homosexual couples? More generally, why does religion have such a prominent say on matters of sexual morality, which is used to discipline and order secular afffairs? And why should women be forced to carry out a pregnancy against their will, a choice that would potentially bind them in a relationship with another man? Religious sexual morality imposes inequalities and discriminates between homosexual and heterosexual couples. On top of all this, the Catholic Church in Ireland has been exposed for its criminal behavior in the cases of priests molesting children. It is hard to resist the idea that the problem lies in the repressive nature of religious sexual morality.
Secondly, is it true that allowing couples to wed ‘without distinction as to their sex’ will be the end of marriage? Religions typically define marriage as the union of between a man and a woman. If we accept that definition for a second, what is the added value of such a union over that between a man and a man? It was once argued that reproduction was a natural advantage accompanying heterosexual unions. But even that is no longer true; gametes donation, in vitro fertilization, and surrogacy have completely changed the landscape of reproduction. Today, we can reproduce without having sex. Another alleged advantage is the stability of heterosexual couples over homosexual ones. But there is no evidence of that. More importantly, same-sex marriage stands for freedom of choice in matters of sexual morality, whereas religious marriage in the Catholic tradition stands for coercion in matters of abortion, sex, and divorce. Coercion may produce stability, but it is stability of the wrong kind. Free choice is not easy to exercise, but it certainly does enables people to pursue a happy, stable life. Same-sex marriage will not compromise marriage but enhance it.
“Coercion may produce stability, but it is stability of the wrong kind.”
Some still believe that civil partnership is enough of a compromise and fulfills all the needs of same-sex couples. But this contradicts the symbolic nature of the controversy. It is not just a matter of being allocated the same set of benefits. It is also about changing the cultural assumptions that are part of the society itself. As I pointed out before, religious sexual morality is part of the problem in Irish society and not part of the solution. It is high time for the Catholic Church in Ireland to adapt to the needs of the people rather than asking them to live up to repressive moral standards. Many Catholics all over the world approve of the Church but disapprove of its conservative sexual morality. It is time for religious institutions to be held accountable for the discrimination they have legitimized over the centuries.
Does it mean that the Church will be forced to celebrate same-sex marriages? This would be wrong. It would not be acceptable to coerce an individual or institution into doing something that it perceives as wrong. That is why the business of marriage should not be in the hands of religious institutions. Only secular institutions can guarantee equality between homosexual and heterosexual couples. Once the union is officially recognized by secular institutions, then religious people can still ask their religious institutions to provide their blessing. What if religious institutions deny this? As I said, there is no point in coercing them to bless unions that they do not want to bless. However, they will have to be aware that many Irish Catholics, and many other Catholics around the world, are ready for a change, whether or not the Catholic Church approves of it.
Image Credit: “Wedding Rings 2” by firemedic58. Public Domain via Flickr.