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Dublin Archbishop on Upcoming Marriage Referendum: Complementarity Is Fundamental Issue

Archbishop Diarmuid Martin asks why humans exist as male and female and what that means for the Irish Constitution

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Here are the speaking notes for an address given Wednesday by Archbishop Diarmuid Martin of Dublin at a consultation day for diocesan communications officers.

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I think that I should begin by saying that I intend to vote No in the upcoming Referendum on Marriage.  Why do I say that?   I do not usually announce how I intend to vote or how I voted in an election.  I will vote out of personal conviction.  But I say so publically because in a recent curious report in the Irish Catholic, the editor of the Catholic Voice is quoted as saying that I had “confused” the press by my attitude to the referendum and had given constant solace to the yes campaign.  The occasion for the “confusion” was a lengthy address I gave to the Iona Institute, the content of which neither the editor of the Irish Catholic or that of the Catholic Voice considered worthy of reporting.

I refer to that Iona Institute address because I set out there what my concerns about the referendum were based on.  These are the same fundamental concerns which Pope Francis espoused in his address at his General Audience on 15th April.

For me the fundamental question is about the complementarity of men and women, of male and female, in the nature of humanity.  This is a philosophical concept which some will easily put aside, but for me it is the fundamental one.  Why do humans exist as male and female?  Is that distinction simply marginal?  Is it simply a social construct?   I am not saying that men and women do not share equality, but that one can only understand and tease out what that equality means within the concept of complementarity. 

One of the big challenges in human rights theory is a tendency by some to absolutise an individual right, overlooking the fact that all rights can only be exercised within the context of the right of others and in an understanding of relationships that exist within society.   We are not isolated individuals.  That we exist as male and female is not a marginal dimension of being human.

What does that complementarity of male and female entail?  There are theological arguments which Pope Francis has clearly set out:

“Man and woman alone are made in the image and likeness of God: the biblical text repeats it three times in two passages: man and woman are the image and likeness of God.  This tells us that it is not man alone who is the image of God or woman alone who is the image of God, but man and woman as a couple who are the image of God.  The difference between man and woman is not meant to stand in opposition, or to subordinate, but is for the sake of communion and generation, always in the image and likeness of God”.

Some will object saying that the current debate on marriage in Ireland is not a religious debate, so theological language has no place in it.  I find it interesting that many of those supporting the yes campaign object to the use of religious language, but they are not shy in quoting Pope Francis in support of their arguments, although I feel that their knowledge of Pope Francis’ repertoire is somewhat restricted.  The fact that an argument is set out in theological terms does not mean that it may not have relevance for societal reflection, if presented in appropriate rational language.

I developed this reflection in an earlier talk I gave in Tralee some weeks ago.  Let me quote from it:

“Marriage is however not just a theological reality.  There are many in Ireland today who will say that my reflections [on marriage]… are really an internal matter for the Catholic Church.  Ireland, they will say, is a pluralist society and while there is freedom for believers to reflect on and discuss openly theological views, they are only marginally relevant in today’s society where marriage is looked on now differently. 

It is often said that Church leaders have every right to make statements but that they should limit themselves to the religious sphere.  I am told that no-one is challenging my view on religious marriage but that changes are taking place which deal with what others want and which will not affect my view on marriage”.

How do I respond?  Does this mean that views which emerge from a Christian tradition are always to be considered inappropriate for the discussion on issues of public concern?  What is the relevance of faith in the debate on social issues in a pluralist society?  Should we Christians return to a Nicodemus style existence and keep the insights of faith within our own hearts alone? 

We should not forget that so much of what is cherished as good in secular society is, in fact, the fruit of Christian culture.  Bishops regularly speak out on social issues and their comments are often – if not always – welcomed.  Indeed they are often criticised for not taking positions on social issues.  In the heated debate today this relevance of rational reflection inspired by religious belief is being reduced by some at times to a level of banality in which faith in Jesus Christ and his teaching is being placed on the level of belief in leprechauns.

In other cases, rather than become involved in rational argument about concerns proposed by Church leaders, politicians simply respond with broken gramophone-like quick sound-bites.

The problem in many ways is that the Church has often in the past presented its message poorly.  What is a message of love was presented in language that was harsh.    What was rational argument was presented as a dogma which all should accept.  The truth about Jesus Christ can only be proclaimed in love.  This is a challenge in today’s culture where often there is a clash of viewpoints and where we find it difficult at times to bring the message of our faith into a culture where faith is considered out of place in public discourse. The fact that in the past the Church was dogmatic in its attempted imposition of its views rather than engage in rational societal debate, does not justify people today replacing “sound-bite-ism” for dogmatism as a way of avoiding rational debate. 

Let me come back to my original question. What does it mean to be male and female?  Is it simply a social construct?  Yes there are some social constructs around the roles of man and women which have evolved in our societies which do not reflect the true understanding of men and women and which must be changed.  Stressing that the fundamental male–female relationship of complementarity is not just social construct does not mean wanting to put women back in the kitchen or pay them a lower wage.   

My position is that there is something irreplaceable in the fundamental complementarity between a man and a woman and that complementarity is not irrelevant to our understanding of the transmission and the nurturing of human life, within an intergenerational framework which contributes to the stability of society.  I take up on what I said at that Iona Institute talk:  

“No person exists who is not the fruit of a male and a female.   Even if it were possible to clone a child, that child would still bear the genetic imprint of a male and a female.  An individual man or an individual woman cannot generate another human being just on their own. 

Genetic parentage is not irrelevant.  We are all children of a male and a female and this must have relevance to our understanding of the way children should be nurtured and educated.   Genetic make-up is a fundamental dimension of the intergenerational reality of family.

The fundamental male/female relationship inevitably has significance when we come to reflection of generating and nurturing children.  The generation of children is not just about biology.  This is not the same as saying that people in differing marital and other re
lationships cannot be good parents, much less to deny that they even deserve the title parents. Nor does it mean that all heterosexual parents are by that fact alone automatically good parents. 

It is important always to stress that all children, whatever the circumstances of their birth, should be loved unconditionally and treated with the same rights and dignity.  This applies also to their rights within the Church.  Pope Francis has spoken very strongly against any priest who might refuse baptism of a child simply because of the particular conjugal relationship of their parents or guardians.

What is the current understanding of the male/female relationship in the Irish Constitution and would this be changed in the Referendum?   There is no formal definition of marriage in the Constitution, but the consistent legal interpretation of the Constitution is that it refers to a marriage between a man and a woman and that this recognition is fundamental and goes beyond any particular understanding of marriage that may have existed at the time of the writing of the Constitution.  There are legal scholars who maintain that there is no need for a referendum and that the legislature could change a definition of marriage.  The government has clearly thought otherwise in stressing that what is proposed requires a referendum.  For the Constitution, a referendum is not a public opinion survey, but is required only when the Constitution is being changed and what we are being asked to change is an article of the Constitution on marriage.  It is a question of changing.

Is the proposal simply to extend accessibility to marriage or is it a real change in the definition of marriage which has significance for all citizens?   You cannot take one article of the Constitution in isolation.  Marriage is not simply about a wedding ceremony or about two people being in love with each other.  Marriage, in the Constitution, is linked with the family and with a concept of family and to the mutuality of man and women which is the fundamental foundation for the family as it exists in the constitution today.  Such fundamental questions about the good of society are clearly the concern of all.

Bruce Arnold has drawn attention to another indication of how the consistent legal interpretation of marriage is that of being between a man and a woman.  He refers to the legally binding guarantees which the Irish government obtained about the protection of the integrity of Article 41 and Article 42 of our Constitution from being overridden by European law. 

Discussion on marriage and in the referendum are difficult in that the Church argues from a somewhat abstract view point about the understanding of the nature of sexuality and of the uniqueness of the mutual relationship between male and female.  Others argue from concrete examples of people that they know and their personal hopes, frustrations and desires.  Where can these different strands meet? 

Where the Church argues from general principles, there is inevitably the feeling on the part of others that it is somehow against the concrete individual men and women who have a different viewpoint.  This is made more complex when language is used which is insensitive and overly judgemental.  The Church has to learn to voice its criticism clearly and without fear, but it must always do so in language which respects her Master.

We are all struck by the manner in which Pope Francis seems to be able to speak clearly about doctrine, and yet respect and embrace those who cannot find their way to follow that doctrine.   In the debates around same-sex marriage in Argentina, Pope Francis was unequivocal in his judgment about its non-admissibility, yet he consistently told people not to judge any individual.   Many find that a position of that kind is untenable: certain things, they will say, are simply wrong and to be condemned and there is no way in which we can countenance any response except repentance and change of life style.  Others will say that the only way in which the Church can show mercy is by changing its teaching.    Pope Francis espouses neither of these positions in isolation.

An ethics of equality does not require uniformity.  There can be an ethic of equality which is an ethic of recognising and respecting difference.  A pluralist society can be creative in finding ways in which people of same-sex orientation have their rights and their loving and caring relationships recognised and cherished in a culture of difference, while respecting the uniqueness of the male-female relationship.  I know that the harshness with which the Irish Church treated gay and lesbian people in the past – and in some cases still today – may make it hard for LGBT people to accept that I am sincere in what I am proposing.

General principles of social ethics may feel abstract to some, but they are vital in setting out the values for social cohesion.  Despite the sound-bite culture of some, minimizing the significance of what is changing, both sides in the referendum debate really recognise, yet to varying degree, that what is involved in the referendum is about the values which a changing society wishes to embrace. 

The referendum will come and go.  A yes vote will approve fundamental changes to the understanding of marriage with the consequences that this would involve.  But the Church’s teaching on marriage and the family and its relevance to social ethics will remain the same, no matter the referendum result.

The real problem is that the Church has been negligent in presenting more effectively its own teaching.  The Church in Ireland for far too long started out from the position that the majority of Irish men and women understood and accepted the Church’s teaching on the nature of marriage.  For too long Catholics felt that the fact that Catholicism was the majority faith in Ireland and thus numbers were on their side and were their strength.  As time went on and the culture of Ireland changed, the numbers decreased and the cultural factors which affect all western countries are just as active in Ireland as elsewhere.

The Synod of Bishops will be a crucial moment in the renewal of the Church’s teaching especially to young people who aspire to a happy and fulfilled marriage and family life as one of the most vital dimensions of their lives.

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