William Murphy / flickr
For supporters of natural marriage, the results of Ireland’s referendum last Friday are obviously a great disappointment. A resounding majority throughout the country supported the addition of 17 momentous words to the Irish constitution: “Marriage may be contracted in accordance with law by two persons without distinction as to their sex.”
The result was not as overwhelming as the victors claim. On a 60 percent voter turnout, 62 percent voted Yes. That’s only 36 percent of eligible voters. And contrary to what some pundits have said, it was a respectable turnout but hardly a record. In 1972 there was a 72 percent turnout for a referendum on joining the European Communities (the predecessor of the European Union); in 1992, there was a 68 percent turnout on abortion; and in 2009 there was a 59 percent turnout for the second referendum on the Lisbon Treaty.
In fact, also contrary to the pundits, politics energises the Irish more than love. Voter turnout in the 2011 parliamentary election was 70 percent.
But the difference between a win and a loss is just one vote and the Yes side won. The fact that 64 percent of the electorate voted No or voted not at all matters not a jot.
Who is to blame for the loss? In an overwhelmingly Catholic country, the Catholic Church is blaming itself. The Archbishop of Dublin, Diarmuid Martin, told the media that it needed to take a “reality check” after the Yes victory.
“It’s a social revolution that’s been going on, and perhaps in the church people have not been as clear in understanding what that involved. It’s very clear that if this referendum is an affirmation of the views of young people, then the church has a huge task in front of it to find the language to be able to talk to and to get its message across to young people, not just on this issue, but in general…
“Most of these young people who voted Yes are products of our Catholic schools for 12 years,” he said. “There’s a big challenge there to see how we get across the message of the church… That doesn’t mean that we renounce our teaching on fundamental values on marriage and the family. Nor does it mean that we dig into the trenches. We need to find…a new language which is fundamentally ours, that speaks to, is understood and becomes appreciated by others.”
The Archbishop is right. Supporters of natural marriage failed to make an appealing case. As an instituion, marriage has been on the skids in Ireland for decades and Friday’s result was a natural result. It wasn’t the gays who trashed marriage; it was the straights.
Consider the four essential features of traditional marriage: permanence, monogamy, procreation and sexual complementarity.
Permanence: Ireland amended its constitution in 1995 to legalise divorce (with a 62 percent voter turnout), copying what other jurisdictions had done decades before. So “till death do us part” was removed from the marriage 20 years ago.
Monogamy: Between 1996 and 2011, there was an increase of nearly 550 per cent in remarriages after a divorce or an annulment, from 6,641 to 42,960. As in the United States, the United Kingdom or Australia, Ireland embarked on a modest program of serial polygamy.
Procreation: Ireland’s birth rate is high, compared to the rest of Europe, but it has been declining steadily. In the 1960s, the birth rate was about 4 children per woman. Now it is hovering a bit below replacement level. Children are less and less a part of marriage.
Given these radical changes in the way men and women commit themselves to each other in marriage, the common understanding in Ireland, as in most other Western countries, is so altered that the grandparents of young voters would hardly recognise it. It is no longer marriage, but marriage-lite.
Of course, this is not a problem in the eyes of gays and lesbians. In fact, it is precisely the possibility of divorce, the tolerance of extra-marital relationships, and the optional character of children which makes marriage-lite attractive. The traditional version would hardly suit them. It is only logical that the fourth feature of marriage, sexual complementarity, now seems unnecessary to so many people.
Ironically same-sex couples are entering the institution of marriage at a time when Irish marriage has gone off the gold standard. According to the Iona Institute, there was a 360 percent rise in cohabiting couples in Ireland between 1996 and 2011 and a 500 percent increase in broken marriages between 1986 and 2011. Yet the number of marriages only rose by 26 percent between 1986 and 2011. Young Irish couples, like their counterparts in other countries, are saying “why bother?” with all the folderol of a wedding. It’s like giving your old TV set to St Vincent de Paul: it doesn’t work anyway, so you can have it.
A rocky road lies ahead for supporters of natural marriage in Ireland. But it could be an opportunity as well. The fidelity, permanence and fruitfulness of traditional marriage are like watching life unfold on an ultra high definition plasma TV, while the marriage-lite crowd gape at it on a fuzzy black-and-white. If you really believe in this amazing product, can selling it be that hard a job?
Michael Cook is editor of MercatorNet.