Last week, famously Catholic Ireland voted overwhelmingly to legalize same-sex marriage in a national referendum, making it the first nation in the world to enact marriage equality through a popular vote. Within hours of the results, several journalists and pundits painted it as a victory for secularism and a telltale sign of Ireland’s willingness to abandon the Catholic Church, which staunchly condemns same-sex marriage and whose leaders urged their congregants to vote against LGBT equality. The Church’s longstanding influence on Irish life, they concluded, was ending.
But while the narrative of a dying church is tidy, it fails to account for a religious and distinctly Catholic movement for LGBT equality quietly triumphing in Ireland and elsewhere. To be sure, recent census results show a marked growth in Irish who don’t affiliate with any religious tradition, and a notable drop in the number who attend mass each week. This is largely due to the dark specter of the child sex abuse scandal, which was particularly horrific in Ireland, as well a younger generation fed up with conservative views of homosexuality. But for all this talk of a vanishing Catholic Church, Ireland remains a deeply Catholic nation: although more than 62 percent of Irish who voted in the referendum supported same-sex marriage, a full 83.2 percent of the population still claims to be Catholic.
So how did so many self-identified Catholics vote for something their Church blatantly forbids? There were no national exit polls for the referendum, but Ursula Halligan, a prominent Irish TV news presenter in Ireland, offered a clue earlier this month in an op-ed for the Irish Times. In it, she detailed her own struggle with sexual identity — explaining how she fell in love with a girl at 17 — before boldly claiming that her support for same-sex marriage was not a rejection of her faith, but a passionate embrace of the person God compels her to be.
“As a person of faith and a Catholic, I believe a Yes vote is the most Christian thing to do,” Halligan wrote. “I believe the glory of God is the human being fully alive and that this includes people who are gay.”
Commentators have rightly placed much of the credit for the vote on high turnout among younger, non-religious Irish people, yet support for equality transcended age and church attendance. As an 83-year-old woman told the Irish Times on her way to mass earlier this month, marriage equality is a challenge for the Church, not her faith.
“I think it’s a stupid carry-on the way the church is going on at the moment, ridiculous,” she said.
But it wasn’t just lay Catholics who lobbied for same-sex marriage in Ireland. Marching alongside them at pro-equality parades were several practicing Catholic clergy, many of whom openly endorsed the right to marry over the past year. Like their parishioners, they framed their position as a natural outgrowth of their faith.
“A lot of people who vote ‘yes’ on Friday will be at church on Sunday,” Rev. Pádraig Standún, a Catholic priest in Western Ireland, told the Washington Post. “They won’t be any less Catholic. In fact they might be even more so, because they’re following the words of Jesus and showing more love.”
Standún and other priests are sometimes dismissed as radical or fringe, but they represent a growing contingent of the Church’s own leadership. At least one priest — Rev. Tony Flannery, who was suspended in 2012 for supporting reforms such as women’s ordination — told BuzzFeed he predicted at least 25 percent of the country’s clergy would got to the polls and quietly vote “yes” for same-sex marriage. Among their number was Rev. Martin Dolan, a priest who came out to his Dublin, Ireland congregation in January during a sermon, encouraging his flock to support the referendum before declaring “I’m gay myself.”
The congregation’s response? A standing ovation.
Embodied in their applause was the simple belief that one’s Catholic identity is not erased by standing up to the church on same-sex marriage, a position shared by a growing global chorus of their fellow faithful. Catholics in the U.S., home to the world’s fourth-largest Catholic population, are actually more supportive of same-sex marriage than any Christian group in the country, and have launched sustained protests across America against Catholic institutions that fire employees for being LGBT. In Brazil, the world’s largest Catholic nation, 65 percent of Catholics endorse the right to marry, which is now legal there after a 2013 federal court ruling. And over in Pope Francis’ home nation of Argentina, where over 70 percent of the population is Catholic, same-sex marriage has been legal since 2010. That move was supported by more than 60 percent of the population at the time — including, of course, millions of Catholics.
These pro-equality Catholics achieved all of this not by renouncing their faith, but by fervently claiming it — just as the Irish did. Church leaders already appear to be at least hearing the message, even as they refuse to abandon old understandings of sexuality. Although no immediate change is on the horizon, Pope Francis’ oft-discussed conciliatory tone toward LGBT people and his high-level conversations about homosexuality offer a peek into a church striving to come to terms with the progressive theology of its laity. And while Rome hasn’t offered an official statement on the Irish vote, a Vatican newspaper called it a “defeat”, a sentiment echoed by Catholic Archbishop of Dublin Diarmuid Martin on Sunday.
“The church needs to take a reality check,” Martin told the New York Times. “It’s very clear there’s a growing gap between Irish young people and the church, and there’s a growing gap between the culture of Ireland that’s developing and the church.”
Martin, of course, didn’t support the referendum. But his other comments ahead of the vote show a deeper — albeit conflicted — sensitivity to the issue: “Anybody who doesn’t show love towards gay and lesbian people is insulting God. They are not just homophobic if they do that—they are actually Godophobic because God loves every one of those people,” he said.
There are cynical progressive Catholics who will dismiss these efforts to change the Church from below or within. Wounded by decades of culture wars, they understandably see the hierarchy as too stiff, too immobile, too much of a literal old boys’ club. But history proves that the church does listen to the spiritual concerns of those it serves — it just usually takes a lot of effort and a really, really long time. The Protestant Reformation, divisive and bloody as it was, still sparked a flurry of changes within the Church that eventually manifested in the Counter-Reformation, a fraught period (it included the Roman Inquisition) that nonetheless saw the introduction of many internal reforms such as curtailing the much-critiqued selling of indulgences. Centuries later in the 1980s, several Church officials, including then-Cardinal Ratzinger (later Pope Benedict XVI), condemned the emergence of Liberation Theology in Central and South America, railing against several aspects of a Catholic movement that decried corrupt clergy and sought to lift up the poor. Yet just last week, Pope Francis — the first Latin American pontiff — invited the father of liberation theology, Gustavo Gutiérrez, to speak at the Vatican as a guest. Several of Gutiérrez’s contemporaries were officially rejected by the Church, but their shared core assumption — that God is on the side of the poor and oppressed — is clearly alive in Francis’ own popular papacy.
Meanwhile, conservative Catholic pundits have begun blaming Pope Francis for potentially splitting the Church, casting him as a divisive pope whose rhetoric strays from true Catholicism, especially his approach to LGBT people. But the Church was divided on LGBT issues long before Francis ascended to the papacy, and it is a genuine religious movement — not just a secular one — that is pushing for it to change. If the Church does schism (and it almost assuredly won’t), it will be for many more reasons than sexuality, but it likely won’t be a radical left wing abandoning the pious. Instead, it will probably be a minority right-wing that has refused to heed the wisdom of a theology already guiding the daily lives of millions of everyday Catholics.
Which brings us back to Ireland. If the Irish are known for anything, it’s for their rollicking history of fighting to bring oppressive powers low before God. Their various revolutions and struggles with the English crown are a testament to that, when many Catholic Church officials were close allies of revolutionaries, risking their lives to stand up for the oppressed. Last Wednesday a new band Irish Catholics — clergy and laity alike — simply reengaged that old spirit in the form of a vote, but this time with a message for the Church itself: “We are Catholic, and we support marriage equality,” they implicitly proclaimed as they cast their votes, filled Dublin streets with rainbow flags, and flooded gay pubs to raise triumphant pints of Guinness. “What of it?”