Marriage Referendum was a Game Changer both Secularly and Spiritually

By Danny Pio Murphy (Follow on Twitter or Facebook)
Spirituality Ireland

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Last Saturday saw Ireland being broadcasted around the world to jubilant scenes and celebrations as we said yes by a popular landslide to marriage equality. Saturday’s result placed Ireland at the vanguard of social change and a beacon of hope around the world. The constitutional map of Ireland turned a near universal green (we still love you Roscommon-South Leitrim anyway) with a record breaking turnout to a final result of 62% in favour of extending civil marriage to all couples regardless of gender. It was truly a historic day for Irish and world history starting a surge in momentum for marriage equality and LGBT* rights around the world. With even high profile noise being made in Australia, Italy, Germany and other nations to extend similar rights to same-sex couples.

Even though this referendum was about the secular institution of civil marriage, it was inevitable that Religion and Spirituality would be in the public debate and individual discussions around the country as marriage is both emotive and spiritual in meaning to many.

The results of this referendum validated seismic changes that are happening in Ireland spiritually and it is an event that marks a crossroad for what may happen next in Ireland’s spiritual landscape.


What happened Spiritually

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Marriage either religious or civil is a deeply meaningful to many. The No side was mainly composed of the Roman Catholic Church and other organisations wanting marriage as ‘between a man and a woman’ for various reasons. However although the majority of voters identified as either active or cultural Catholics a large proportion voted that the freedom of love transcends their deepest religious beliefs. The composition of the referendum was highly personal as many thousands shared their stories about themselves, their love and their place in society to their families and friends both privately and publicly. The vote was carried by sympathy and even empathy. It was won by the masses who voted privately in the voting booths around Ireland with these emotions instilled in them and putting a face(s) of who this affects as they ticked that paper.

While most of the debate around the referendum was conducted respectfully. Hurtful, soul crushing and outrageous commentary, campaigning and speeches were made. To such extent that members of congregations walked out of masses and some leaving permanently. Calls to LGBT helplines did increase from some of the rhetoric from the No side and moreover it publicly highlighted a severe disconnect from the hierarchy in the Catholic Church and most of the membership to a degree that Bishops implied a non-signing of civil weddings forms in all Roman Catholic weddings if the referendum carried.

But positive hallmarks did happen in the last few months particularly in the raise in awareness and inclusion of LGBT* spiritual organisations, advocates and the fight for spiritual equality within religious groups. Faith in Marriage Equality which was the joining up of Changing Attitude Ireland, We are Church Ireland and Gay Catholic Voice Ireland gave a combined progressive voice for Catholics and Anglicans within the Marriage Equality debate and organised several events during the campaign. Another event of note was the Association of Catholic Priests taking no position in the debate and it’s head suggesting that a large proportion of priests were in favour of the referendum. Further large numbers of spiritual advocates both clergy and members came out in favour and advocated for marriage equality like;

To name but a few and as well as from secularly spiritual and irreligious groups who campaigned for a Yes vote; Atheist Ireland and the Humanist Association of Ireland.

Though senior figures in the Catholic Church were campaigning for no vote and highly hurtful things were said, one element did show for the first time which demonstrated they themselves were not immune from the influence of an increasingly progressive Ireland. That they specifically recognised the love shared between same-sex couples and a softening of language which in its own way a sign of wider change of sorts and where rhetoric crossed the side of prejudice, apologies were made.


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The Catholic Archbishop of Dublin Dr Diarmuid Martin reflecting on the results said that the Catholic church needed “a reality check, a reality check right across the board” and to “look, have we drifted away completely from young people?”. Saying he thought “it’s a social revolution… It’s a social revolution that didn’t begin today. A social revolution that’s been going on, and perhaps in the church people have not been as clear in understanding what that involved.” Dr Martin said it was important that the church must not move into denial of the realities: “We won’t begin again with a sense of renewal by simply denying.”

The referendum does represent a heavy blow to the Irish Catholic Church’s authority and influence and as many world correspondence have noted it is a defeat for the Vatican. With the Vatican’s Cardinal Pietro Parolin, second only to the Pope in the Church’s hierarchy saying in response to Ireland’s overwhelmingly backing of marriage equality:

“I was deeply saddened by the result, The church must take account of this reality, but in the sense that it must strengthen its commitment to evangelisation. I think that you cannot just talk of a defeat for Christian principles, but of a defeat for humanity.”

Looking to the future, this result does set a tone and narrative for the unfolding journey of the makeup of Irish spirituality and culture of thought.


Future for Irish Spirituality

The past twenty years there has been a silent but seismic change in Ireland in thought and in spiritual nature. Ireland is not the conservative Catholic country the world viewed it as. Ireland has become a Plurality both in culture and spirituality. This has enriched the lives of many and has led to positive changes.

A number of events enabled this to happen. Firstly within Catholicism the revelations of so many scandals by the Irish Church angered and enraged multitudes of the faithful and sparked many questions of the Church’s teachings, its importance and even their own spirituality. Many seeing the church including many youth as an institution spiritually hollow and lacking, unable to change or adapt and dogmatic. Secondly Ireland has embraced multiculturalism and exposed new thoughts, movements and spiritualities to the Irish people and lastly secularisation has been happening in Ireland where many Irish people identify with irreligious groupings and spiritualities and both Irish culture and society is becoming secular.

Plurality as I said enriches the lives of many. With exposure to a diversity of spiritualities, thoughts and beliefs allows individuals to find the spirituality that resonates most with them leading to a positive mindset, personal development and happier life. Seeing and valuing the range of different perspectives, thoughts, understandings and meanings leads to a truly tolerant and accepting society. When happiness begins with oneself it translates to society in many ways.

Irish spirituality in the future will continue in the path of Plurality.Traditional spiritualities i.e. Religions which facilitated and guide the spiritualities of members will be a minority grouping. Ireland which is becoming a multicultural society will incorporate a diverse combination of small minorities of faith groups from around the world. However the overall size of the traditional grouping will depend on whether Christian Churches and particularly the Catholic Church adapt and affirms the foundational spiritual needs of all its members (not focusing on morality or politics). Irreligious groups i.e. Atheism, Humanism, those who identify as spiritual but not religious (people who facilitate their own spirituality without religion) and completely unaffiliated will make the largest grouping of spirituality or identity in Ireland.

This referendum does play a key role in the makeup I just mentioned. The Catholic Church in Ireland and other religious organisations need to genuinely reflect and have a “reality check” as Dr Diarmuid Martin said or continue on the same path it’s going, without change to terminal decline.

Do they emerge as a smaller, more conservative, more embedded in teaching not reflective of members and disenfranchise many of them? Or become an institution that learned and reconciled with its past; finding its spiritual meaning and translate it to the betterment and happiness of its members which will inspire hope, meaning and spiritual goodness? The latter does means pushing and advocating change within the church but many people and spiritual advocacy organisations I referred to earlier have been emboldened by this referendum and the momentum is behind them. However many in the hierarchy would want an organisation of “Quality rather than Quantity” which mean maintaining the status quo. Within the next few years it will be decided which path the different Churches in Ireland takes.


For Me the Referendum was a Deeply Personal Moment

As some of the readers may know from a few of my past articles and posts this referendum wasn’t just a historical moment for myself, it had a more deeply meaningful and direct impact for me. I been an LGBT* advocate in Ireland for many years working in the areas of LGBT* welfare and wellbeing and spiritual equality but more importantly I am a Bisexual man who struggled with his sexuality for countless years which manifested into a dark cloud of unhappiness, low self-worth and I had severe deterioration in mental health for hiding and repressing my natural self. I witnessed and experienced stigma, loneliness, loss, pain, tears, discrimination, and even violence. I honestly thought this was the norm for the rest of my life until I discovered spirituality which gave the fortitude to come out and start a journey of being free, loved and helping others with compassion, empathy and kindness.

I was there in Dublin Castle for the whole of that historical day as everything unfolded. I watched as all the counts came in to the tumulous roar of the people amassed in the upper courtyard. An atmosphere of sheer elation. Couples were trembling with excitement. Tear-filled faces were common in the crowd not out of sadness but joy. Seeing the now Irish heroes of the Yes Campaign enter the courtyard to the howl of cheers and applause. At the end was the declaration that the referendum was carried shortly before 7pm by 62%. It only took a split second for the hearts of all to lift and a rapturous and exalted cheer was heard all over. After a few seconds after the declaration, I broke down into tears and embraced the person that helped me come out all those years ago and whispered “We did it”.

This was a deeply personal referendum. It was a referendum on our personal stories of who we are or who we know that this will affect. A referendum on words, empathy, people we hold dear and love at the heart of it. The stories of our son and daughters; brothers and sisters; aunts, uncles and cousins; mothers and fathers; friends, neighbours and colleagues; husbands and wives.

It was absolutely a surreal feeling to hear your country voted YES for your rights and the rights of thousands. That you can marry the person you love. That you have full protection of the constitution. That every corner of this country, every village, every town, every city, every county had such profound support. It sends a powerful message of acceptance, that we are valued and loved. Future generations of the LGBT* community will know equality, wholehearted acceptance and the natural freedom to love.

It finished on a long journey of transition in Ireland from fear and disparity to acceptance and equality for all citizens. That the love between every couple is recognised and cherished. That each and everyone of us do not have to live in fear of who we are, who we love or think that we are less than anyone but we are equal. A message of hope that resonated in the mind, body and souls of every man, woman and child that fear should not govern your life and our society is a society of acceptance. It threw off the shackles of fear and inequality that encased many and replaced it with accomplished hope, pride, reconciling with the past and being valued for your natural self.

To Ireland and all its people thank you from a the bottom of my heart.

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  2 comments for “Marriage Referendum was a Game Changer both Secularly and Spiritually

  1. Stephen Hills
    May 30, 2015 at 9:16 pm

    Excellent and informative piece. Thanks for posting it Danny Pio.

  2. Tim Quinlan
    May 31, 2015 at 12:32 pm

    Interesting and very comprehensive article above, Danny, well done. Fr. Peter McVerry was also for a YES vote and stated to the national press that he had received hate mail as a result, not that that put him off in the slightest as one would expect from such a courageous voice for justice. On a personal note, I know Fr Gabriel Daly OSA quite well and he is now 87 years young and still as forward looking a liberal theologian as he was in his younger years. That only goes to show that liberalism and conservatism cannot be associated respectively with youth and age at all!! I’m often surprised at how young the “nay sayers” can be, but I suppose that’s life.

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