The Birth Pangs of a Right: Who owns marriage?

This article was written as a part of LGBT Week 2015 in honor or Ireland's marriage referendum. Find out more here.

By Martin Leong (Editor)

In this, my contribution, to the exciting IANS coverage of the same-sex marriage referendum in Ireland, I will dive under the debate. Rather than wade through the bewildering currents that are the various arguments for or against constitutional amendment in Ireland, I will look at the ideological undercurrents at work here.

The decision facing many Irish voters' this coming 22nd of May, might well come down to a deliberation of whether they consider marriage and family to be a religious, cultural or civil matter. The question of whether same-sex couples have a 'right' to marry necessitates an exploration of how marriage can be thought of as a 'right' to begin with.

Changing Article 41 of the Irish Constitution is, arguably, not about extending the accessibility of marriage but rather entails a change in the definition of what constitutes a 'marriage'[1]. Whilst it is, at present, assumed that the constitution implicitly supports unions which are heterosexual whilst failing to address the matter of same sex marriages, the proposed amendment would explicitly state that marriage could encompass different gender configurations.  As the No-side is acutely aware, this calls into question not only the nature of marriage as an institution, but the distribution of definitional and symbolic power. The man-woman-and-child image of the family unit has never been quite so sacrosanct, brandished now as the emblem of a Catholic Irish integrity many feel is wavering, and has been for some time.

The proclivity of religious institutions to claim ownership over the meaning and the practice of marriage may seem somewhat justified. For, very often, the ceremonial joining of two people does take place in their churches and – historically – they have claimed something of a monopoly over the affair. Yet, there is considerable disagreement over whether marriage is culturally socialised, or religiously ordained – whether it is a social artefact, or pious adherence. This ambiguity is even more pronounced when it comes to 'family'. We ask, then, in what ideological framework are the Irish to speak of 'rights'?

The religious view espoused by many against the motion gives little room for the acceptance of same-sex marriage. Their objections stem from dogma, from reference to Leviticus 18:22 which expressed in no uncertain terms that lying with mankind as thou liest with womankind is an abomination (the poor old lesbians don’t get a look in). Furthermore, religious definitions do not necessarily construct the institution as a 'right' at all, but rather construct it as a necessity or an obligation which must be undertaken if one wishes to procreate. Considering this, the 'choice'-oriented idea of same-sex couples having the 'right' to marry in a church is essentially incompatible – even though churches in Ireland will not be expected to solemnise same-sex pairings.  

Over and above this, religious communities in Ireland may well view this as an opportunity to assert their ownership over definitions, meanings, practices – an ownership which has been under constant siege around the world. This possessiveness, this need to maintain power of symbolism and semantics is evident in the words of Dr. MacDaid, the chair of the Irish Bishops' Council for Marriage and the Family, as he advocates that the Catholic Church's role should be teacher of society: “...society would expect the church to promote and explain the richness of the traditional understanding of marriage as presented in the teaching of Jesus Christ” [3].

Such claims are, however, undermined when one explores the variegated religious landscape of the Republic of Ireland, and what this means for localised definitions of marriage. Whilst the Catholic Church is dominant, you can – in Ireland – be married by the Catholic Church, the Church of Ireland, the Presbyterian Church, Jewish Communities, the Society of Friends (Quakers), the oddly non-specific “Other Religious Bodies” [2] and non-religious bodies. And whilst the Abrahamic faiths have much in common, they also differ in many regards. Indeed, one can observe such difference by viewing its varieties across the world: impromptu and arranged, multiple and monogamous, for bride price or for free. In short, it is hard to deny a cultural or a human foundation to the institution of marriage given how definitional variant it can be, even in a small jurisdiction such as Ireland. In this cultural, or humanist view, the definition of marriage is not written in stone, and even less in Leviticus 18. Marriage here is a malleable thing, common in practice but multicultural and varied in exact nature, and it can thus easily include persons of the same sex having a wander down the aisle and establishing a family. Thus, here, the 'right' to marry becomes conceivable and possible to assert – it is dependent on our 'humanness', on our participation in the cultural dimensions of life, in our belonging to society.

Marriage then is a ubiquitous but multicultural, central but variegated practice in the majority of our world’s societies. The dominant religious rhetoric observed in Irish debate conceals this diversity and constructs marriage as originating within, and with, a very particular types of Christianity. With the coming of multicultural sensibilities and the reshaping of popular opinion away from Irish churches, the idea that 'marriage' somehow belongs to ministers, church elders and congregations seems increasingly out of place.

It is in the difference between Civil Partnership and Marriage we see this ideological struggle most clearly. Martha Nussbaum [4] writes about same-sex marriage in the U.S.: “To be told 'You cannot get married' is... to be excluded from one of the defining rituals of the American life cycle.” Marriage, if seen from the broader perspective, is unquestionably a part of the life cycle of a very significant majority of people in Ireland, and one which often exists outside the strictly Christian lifeworld. It is no surprise, then, that many do not accept the idea that Civil Partnership is marriage enough. Such an admission corroborates, perhaps unwittingly, the Christian religious power to define what marriage and family is – and with it, whether there is any basis for articulating 'rights'. Nussbaum goes on to argue that what drives the need for same-sex marriage, not only civil unions, is what she calls the expressive aspect. In other words, a civil union does not hold the social, psychological, let alone spiritual, dimensions with which a marriage is associated. Civil Partnerships and marriages are hardly comparable as 'cultural equals'. But more importantly, many feel it is a degrading compromise based in unequal treatment.

Insulting though it may be to Christian sensibilities, marriage is as a secular ritual that stretches far beyond the purview and patent of ecclesiastical circles. It bears an important cultural element. Just as Christmas is in many countries not chiefly about women in the Middle East giving immaculate births to Messiahs, but is about family, sharing, solidarity and food, so marriage has a strong element of non-religious significance. This significance is based in how ordinary citizens and communities understand marriage, in everyday experiences and developing humanist rhetoric. This overlap between the two apparently opposite perspectives I have outlined somewhat simply here – epitomised by how a presumed religious ceremony can be a secular ritual – is what is causing the issue of same-sex marriage to be so heated.  What we are observing now are, I hope, the birth pangs of a right.

Voting Yes in the coming referendum is not merely about same-sex couples 'I Do'-ing, it's also about a deeper ideological struggle in Ireland, which directly influences what portion of society are to define for the rest what marriage and family is – in a very real and legally binding sense.




[4]  Martha Nussbaum (2009): A Right to Marry? Same-sex Marriage and Constitutional Law, Dissent Magazine, url: