The election in heavily Catholic Ireland last week, with 62 percent of the populace in the Republic voting in favor of same-sex marriage has been widely reported and analyzed. The first piece I read was by Frank Bruni in the NYTimes, who raises a question he does not answer about why voters in traditionally Roman Catholic countries--from Argentina and Brazil to Belgium, France and Spain--have suddenly, it seems, become "gay friendly."
Why do sixty percent of American Catholic voters polled say they approve of same-sex marriage? Bruni suggests that young Catholics are "less rooted in Rome." In Europe and Latin America, he goes on, many people pay "primary obeisance to their own consciences, their own senses of social justice."
That last phrase is troublesome. I doubt if the sense of social justice on the part of many Republican politicos in this country is congruent with the church's teachings, going back to Leo XIII in the late 19th century and including Dorothy Day and the Franciscan tradition embodied today most visibly by Pope Francis. Bruni is overlooking the importance of "thinking with the church," which is not the same as agreeing with everything taught by the church.
That point aside, each country that has so far legalized same-sex marriage is different, so generalizations are not easily made. What is there about the Irish, for example, other than disgust with the hierarchy's handling of the sexual abuse scandal, that would lead them to such a surprising vote?
I would like to think it has a lot to do with charity toward an oppressed minority, a respect for equality in the eyes of God, even if this basic human respect is at odds with the moral teachings of the church. Of course, there are other reasons, too: a higher percentage of Catholics today are better educated than in the past, at least in the USA. There is also the Catholic experience with celibate clergy whose numbers include many homosexually inclined priests.
There may also be a paradoxical love of tradition, as E. J. Dionne mentions in his current Commonweal article. What is more traditional than marriage, which indicates a belief in the past as well as the future, a belief that a structure exists, even though outside the sacramental rubric of the church, enabling fidelity and fostering stability.
So it was sad to see the harsh response to the Irish vote from the Vatican's Secretary of State, Cardinal Parolin: "a defeat for humanity." The Archbishop of Dublin was wiser, less hysterical: he said that church needed a reality check, that bishops should listen to young people.
Cardinal Kasper of Germany, in another context, has called for a "listening magisterium": a hierarchy that pays real attention to the capacity of individuals to think about moral and social issues in the context of what the church stands for.
One thing is now clear from the vote in Ireland and other seemingly Catholic cultures: the days of top-down authority coming from Rome are coming to an end, with more power being given (in keeping with the Second Vatican Council) to the laity and the local churches. I hope that gay people will feel more at home in such a church and actually be treated in a Christian way.