The purpose of the proposed marriage referendum is to redefine marriage so that it would no longer mean the unique ‘mother-father-child’ relationship (marriage was actually the word used to describe this relationship with its particular and unique characteristics) and instead would mean only a committed sexual relationship between two adults.
If referendum passes, there will only be one way of looking at ‘marriage’ and that is a way that radically redefines the very essence of marriage as it has been understood from the earliest times: it will no longer be the word we use to refer to that ‘mother father with a unique connection to having and bringing up children’ relationship that has universally been recognised as immensely valuable, even essential to society. In fact that relationship would no longer exist anywhere in Irish law – it doesn’t exist in the law of any country that has redefined marriage in this way. This is what the referendum is about – this is the change we’re being asked to decide on.
The Catholic vision for marriage is built on the long-established principle that the particular relationship between men and women that is the usual context for the birth of children and for bringing them up is unique, immensely valuable and deserves support and protection. The Catholic Church didn’t invent this concept, this understanding, but as always, builds on what exists already in human nature. It sees marriage as “written in the very nature of man and woman as they came from the hand of the Creator.” Christ himself couldn’t have been clearer in his words on marriage: “But from the beginning of creation, ‘God made them male and female.’ ‘For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh.’ (Mk 10:6-7). He compared his own relationship with the Church to the relationship between a husband and wife in marriage. So marriage didn’t start with the Catholic Church – it is a natural reality existing in all societies with common and permanent characteristics. What we are talking about in the referendum debate then is marriage as it exists in society – civil marriage. We’re talking about the very idea of what marriage is and why it come into existence in any society. The Christian Sacrament of Marriage – Church marriage – is built on the existing natural reality of marriage.
At the moment we have different laws in Ireland which allow for different views of adult relationships: we have laws which are built around the universally perceived view that society needs to support marriage, that unique ‘mother father children’ relationship, but laws in Ireland now reflect other relationships and other realities too – including same-sex relationships, single parent families (my own situation) etc. If the referendum were to be passed this will change in a radical way: marriage as the ‘mother father with potential for children’ relationship will disappear – it would cease to exist in Irish law: what will replace it is a new version, re-written so that it can apply equally to any committed sexual relationship between two people.
So the question is, does it matter if the law no longer describes what has been understood as marriage? Does it matter if that unique relationship which is the usual context in which children are born and brought up doesn’t exist in law? People often say in defence of proposed changes to law or policy ‘the sky won’t fall in’ – and in fact, nothing dramatic will happen the day after such a referendum result, or the day after the subsequent changes to the law – marriage is such an ingrained concept in society that, for a while, we’d ‘run on the steam’ so to speak, of the now legally non-existent but long-established notion. But law has a formative effect on the way people and societies think and over time, this change would matter – not in some ideological or philosophical way but in real concrete ways that would directly affect the lives of real concrete men and women and the lives and happiness and well-being of real live children.
How so? The model of marriage as a relationship between a man and woman in which children are likely to be born is one that shapes a whole array of laws and policies, including those in which children are being brought up outside of the marriage context: it is what shapes the notion that a single man should contribute to the rearing of his children, at least financially; it shapes policies which aim to support married relationships through difficulties with a view to maintaining them into the future if at all possible. When the law no longer gives any specific recognition of this relationship, the foundation for these other policies is gone – they make less and less sense. Why should two committed adults stay together if they no longer want to, and can sort out an amicable split? Why should a man support his children if ‘parentage’ can be changed by choice or intention and if the law no longer mentions and models the mother-father-child relationship?
Of course the reality is that, while the existing concept of marriage would no longer exist in law, it would continue to exist in reality – and the law would have to find piecemeal ways of dealing with the inevitable challenges that arise now and will continue to arise.
As Vincent Browne said recently when it was pointed out to him that man-woman-child marriage would no longer exist in law, “we’re an inventive species – we’ll find ways to deal with that.” Exactly right! We’d have to find ways to deal with the absence of what we currently have, to deal with challenges that are currently dealt with by our marriage laws – laws that are tailored to suit the specific nature of marriage between a man and a woman. The courts and state agencies will be busier than ever, increasingly thrust into a role for which they are poorly suited – of filling the gap left by the removal of the existing notion of marriage – called on to be arbiter of disputes over custody, paternity, visitation, even parentage.
I suspect that we would eventually re-invent man-woman-child marriage in a roundabout way but not call it that: man-woman-child marriage is a distinct reality and society has up to now always recognised it needs support and the protection of laws that recognise and address its specific characteristics.
In the meantime, in the absence of the support marriage law currently provides and which we are proposing to remove, the strong likelihood is that a lot of people, especially children, will live more difficult, less happy lives because they will be less likely to have a close relationship with their birth Mum and Dad and more likely to face the challenges which often face children who have, for whatever reason, grown up apart from one or both of their birth parents.
What then about people who are gay and who feel discriminated against by the existence of laws that apply specifically to the mother-father-child relationship? It is clear that many gay people have pinned their hopes for the recognition of their equal dignity on the redefining of marriage so that it can apply equally to any committed sexual relationship and not just to relationships between a man and a woman.
But every society has to weigh and balance between the competing rights and hopes of different groups. What is being proposed in the referendum is a huge and radical change: is it possible that real recognition of the dignity of every person could be achieved in another way? Is the current situation which tries to address the different characteristics of different relationships and address those specifically in different laws not a better basis for working towards equality and dignity? If marriage is to be seen as definitive in establishing the equality of persons, what of single parents and their relationships with their children? Are we not now to be considered equal before the law?
I would suspect that there are many gay people who will recognise the huge and radical price that is being asked, who don’t see this as being the best way to find the recognition and acceptance they expect like any other human being. I suspect there will be many gay people who will see that there is something immensely valuable at stake here and who in spite of the apparent hegemony of campaigning groups, will be quietly voting ‘No’ in the referendum.