Ireland’s Same-Sex Referendum & The Necessity for Reconstructing Sexual Ethics in the Catholic Church by Cynthia Garrity-Bond


IMG_5296 - catAt this writing, Ireland successfully passed the same-sex marriage referendum which reads, “Marriage may be contracted in accordance with law by two persons without distinction as to their sex.”  It has been 22 years since homosexual acts were decriminalized in Ireland.  Even more astounding is the rapid two-year process from inception to constitutional law for same-sex marriage in Ireland.  This coming from a country where 84% identify as Roman Catholic but less than one-third attend weekly Mass.

While the US Catholic Bishops are vocal about their opposition to same-sex marriage, the Irish magisterium’s strategy, in this case, was less pronounced.  Which is not to say there was no movement by the Irish hierarchy to oppose same-sex marriage. In a pastoral letter to be read at Sunday Mass, Bishop Denis Brennan urged a no-vote on the same-sex referendum saying it would forever change how the institution of marriage is understood.  A number of those in attendance walked out during the reading in protest of the official church teaching.   Archbishop Diarmuid Martin took a more pragmatic stance on the outcome. With the success of the referendum, Martin stated the church is in need of a “reality check” in response to what he identifies as a “social revolution” at least in Catholic Ireland.  Argues Martin:

It’s very clear that if this referendum is an affirmation of the views of young people that the church has a huge challenge in front of it to find the language to be able to talk to and get its message across to young people, not just on the issue but in general.

On the one hand, Archbishop Diarmuid Martin is correct. An overwhelming voter turn out was due to a younger demographic, but just as true an aging population demonstrated theological dissent by voting for same-sex marriage.  For example, Brighid and Paddy Whyte are Catholic, married nearly 50 years.  They made a video to encourage Irish voters (and I suspect their own demographic) to support gay marriage—the video went viral. Writer Hanna Ingber of the Irish Times contextualized the Whyte’s endorsement of same-sex marriage reporting, “The couple continue to practice Catholicism, and they said they made the video not in spite of their religion but because of it.” Paddy and Brighid Whyte’s support of gay marriage comes from their desire to be on the right side of history, reflecting a theology that envisions God’s love for all, regardless of sexual orientation.

In 2014 the International Theological Commission consisting of thirty Catholic theologians from around the world, met to examine the church’s teaching on Sensus fidei or sense of the faithful. An exhaustive study, its purpose is to clarify “authentic sensus fidei in situations of controversy, when for example there are tensions between the teachings of the magisterium and views claiming to express the sensus fidei”(6). For some, sensus fidei empowers the non-ordained of the Catholic Church to take faith and doctrine into their own hands, “The sensus fidei is a sort of spiritual instinct that enables the believer to judge spontaneously whether a particular teaching or practice is or is not in conformity with the Gospel and with apostolic faith (49, emphasis mine).  This is one of the major critiques of sensus fidei, the power and decision making continues to reside with the ecclesial hierarchy of the church.  I argue that this negotiation between the magisterium of the church and the rest of us have contributed to the success of the same-sex referendum in Catholic Ireland. The authority and creditability of the church no longer holds sway among its Catholic populations regardless of the demographics.

Father Seamus Ahearne of Finglas, in affirmation of Archbishop Martin’s need for the church to experience a “reality check” argues, “Religion and the Catholic Church have almost become irrelevant in people’s lives. . . .This pompous, pious, arrogant language we’ve used for so long—it’s wrong. The church has to speak a different language now, reaching into people’s hearts.”  But what will this language be?  How far is the magisterium willing to go in order to enlighten themselves to the pulse of the people?

In response I have a suggestion or two.  Begin by listening and observing.  For those who have left the church, do not concern yourselves with gimmicky advertising campaigns aimed at millennials (those between the ages of 18-33).  In one such campaign, the Catholic Diocese of Brooklyn shows a 20-something female taking a selfie with a picture of Jesus in the background.  Really? This is not only insulting but also embarrassing.  In my own experience in teaching Christian ethics to freshman college students, I find an increasing number of students who either have no clue of Christianity’s meta narrative, or for those raised in the church, little to no relevance in their lives, especially with regard to human sexuality.  I take this as an opportunity to engage in what I understand to be a corrective theology by introducing such theologians as Mary Hunt, Margaret Farley, Marvin Ellison,  Christine Gudorf and Lisa Isherwood, to name but a few.  While each author’s perspective is contextualized to their social location or experiences, a recurring theme calling for a new language and necessity for a reconstructive sexual ethic unifies their individual writings. For the magisterium, I suggest they start by reading these and other theologians who have situated themselves in the experiences of people on the margins of society, especially as it regards their sexuality.

For those who affirmed the right of same-sex marriage in Ireland it was due in part to the belief that you just can’t demonize those you love. In the end I am most impressed with the likes of Paddy and Brighid Whyte or those who walked out on the reading from Bishop Denis Brennen.  These are faithful who hold the tension between weekly Mass attendance but find the center no longer holds.  Who recognized the power of love as the real sacrament, as a visible reality of an invisible grace, regardless of how the XX XY chromosomes of love are situated at the marriage altar.  This, then, is the new language the church is called upon to receive.  May they develop a spiritual instinct that moves them from apology to reconstruction.

 

Cynthia Garrity-Bond is a feminist theologian and social ethicist, is completing her doctorate at Claremont Graduate University in women studies in religion with a secondary focus in theology, ethics and culture. For the past six years Cynthia has been teaching in the department of theological studies at Loyola Marymount University where she completed both her BA and MA in Theology. Her research interests includes feminist sexual theology, historical theology with particular emphasis on religious movements of women, agency and resistance to ecclesial authority, embodiment, Mariology and transnational feminisms. Having recently returned from Southern Africa, Cynthia is researching the decriminalization of prostitution from a theological perspective.

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Categories: Activism, Catholic Church, Ethics, Feminist Theology, Sexuality

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10 replies

  1. Reblogged this on CATHOLIC, Non-Roman Western Style and commented:
    As you say, Father Seamus Ahearne of Finglas, in affirmation of Archbishop Martin’s need for the church to experience a “reality check” argues, “Religion and the Catholic Church have almost become irrelevant in people’s lives. . . .This pompous, pious, arrogant language we’ve used for so long—it’s wrong. The church has to speak a different language now, reaching into people’s hearts.” But what will this language be? How far is the magisterium willing to go in order to enlighten themselves to the pulse of the people?…take this as an opportunity to engage in what I understand to be a corrective theology by introducing such theologians as Mary Hunt, Margaret Farley, Marvin Ellison, Christine Gudorf and Lisa Isherwood, to name but a few.”

    The new language we need to speak is not simply one corrective of sexual morality, but that is a good place to start a theology based on God as Love both Tough and Gentle.

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  2. Thank you, Cynthia, for this fine article. You say, “one of the major critiques of sensus fidei, the power and decision making continues to reside with the ecclesial hierarchy of the church. I argue that this negotiation between the magisterium of the church and the rest of us have contributed to the success of the same-sex referendum in Catholic Ireland. The authority and creditability of the church no longer holds sway among its Catholic populations regardless of the demographics.”

    I would say that the the success of the same-sex referendum in Ireland is evidence that THE AUTHORITY AND CREDIBILITY OF THE CATHOLIC CHURCH IS RISING, for this tension between the authority of the magisterium and that of the people (sensus fidei) is EXACTLY what gives the Catholic Church any authenticity whatsoever!

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    • Sister Lea,
      First–Yes, yes Carter Heyward is also an important thinker. On your second comment let me explain myself further. The teaching of sensus fidei, I believe, works both ways. On the one hand it continues to affirm the power of the magisterium in that the ultimate direction of the “official” church is held in the hands of the ordained–or so they believe. On the other, the “church” or the people of God, circumvent this unauthorized authority and take matters into their own hands. The encyclical Humane Vitae is one example. While the official church deems artificial contraception a sin, the majority of Western Catholics use some form of artificial contraception fully aware they are going against church teaching. In this instance the people of God are exercising senses fidei absent the collective affirmation of the Magisterium.

      So if your point is the credibility of the Catholic Church’s has gained in social capital because the people used their conscience and freedom above and against the official church, then yes I am in agreement. Otherwise I feel the Magisterium has been exposed to the reality they do not hold the direct lifeline to fidelity to God, at least in Ireland.

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      • “So if your point is the credibility of the Catholic Church’s has gained in social capital because the people used their conscience and freedom above and against the official church” Yes, Yes, this is my point! Thank you, Cynthia!

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  3. Interesting, Cynthia. Thanks for the post.

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  4. Thank you for this, I learned a lot!

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  5. I am excited to see where the journey of inclusion goes in the Catholic Church of the future. The people of Ireland have embraced the GLBT population as one with the norm. What other doors of inclusion and equality will this open? Thank you for the great post.

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