This article was written as a part of LGBT Week 2015 in honor or Ireland's marriage referendum. Find out more here.
By Lilian Kennedy (Editor)
The particular circumstances surrounding the upcoming referendum regarding the legalization of same-sex marriage in Ireland has led me to think more deeply about the abstract issue of morality. Marriage is a unique issue in Ireland, and highlights the contentious tensions particular to both its government and people. The upcoming referendum indicates that in Ireland, long held ideas regarding the moralities of people's personal lives, are being redefined. And I argue this is being done in ways that go beyond just changing the gender configurations of the engaging in marriage.
Less than 20 years ago, in 1995, Ireland became the last country in Europe to legalize divorce. This constitutional change was voted in by a close margin, and contextualized by the strong disapproval of the Roman Catholic Church, an institution that continues to play an enduring and notable role in Ireland. Marriage is considered a sacrament, and one of the most guarded moral arenas of the Church. As such, the marginality of the win, and the outspoken commentary of Irish catholic clergy against 1995's divorce vote, shows that historically (and not just for Ireland!) cultural institutions like marriage are also religious ones, and have been largely religiously defined.
In 2011, the Irish Government enacted the Civil Partnership Act in 2010, which granted same sex couples the ability to enter into civil partnerships. This was an important legal, governmental and social recognition of same-sex relationships that also limited their scope in these spheres. But a civil partnership is not a marriage. While there is a difference between civil marriage and religious marriage, having mostly to do with how one gets married (a ceremony in your friends' back garden, or in a church), both result in a woman and man redefining their legal standing with one another. To be legally married is not only to have decided to partake in a celebrated cultural practice, but once married, couples benefit from a host of legal protections which spring up around the new legal entity marriage creates: Family (with or without children). Civil unions are not equal to marriages because same-sex partners in Irish civil unions do not have access to these same rights and protections. For example, same sex partners were – until the very recent introduction of the Children and Families Relationship Act 2015 - not entitled to the same social services as heterosexual couples. And while children of married parents have a legal relationship beyond a biological one, same sex couples could not adopt together or have both partners listed as parents. In short until very recently, marriage, legally sanctioned, was the only thing which allowed a couple to be recognized and treated as a family in all circles; civil unions create a partnership held by bounds that disallow the same creation of a family.
But did the introduction of the CFRA 2015 mitigate the need for marriage reform? I think not. Family, like marriage, is much greater than the sum of its legal parts – it is a social institution that is recognized and protected across all spheres of society. It is perhaps one of the most cross-cultural, complexly mapped and enduring social facts we humans hold dear. Contemplating this referendum has made me see that marriage is a sacred institution, because with it, the perhaps even more sacred entity of Family is created.
The sacredness of a thing calls forth a moral obligation to recognize and protect it. If we take marriage to be sacred (thinking of sacredness beyond its religious connotations), and also the social institution of family as sacred, then this referendum is major. It is more than constitutional reform, it is a demand on Irish Society to re-think what makes a marriage and a family, and based on what authority. As I’ve pondered the referendum in the Irish context, I think that what's interesting here is that who/what defines morality is shifting on two fronts. Firstly, there is a shift from the religious to secular. Secondly, a shift from a top-down pronouncement of what, and who, counts, to a more bottom up definition process. I see this in the fact that Irish governmental legislation will decide who can be married, and while the Church has its say; it is a separate power and institution. Also, LGBT activists engaged in grassroots politicking on the part in Ireland, have been able to vocally rally for the cultural, social, legal institution of marriage to apply to themselves as well.
To me though, that real thing that these shifts show is that effectively, it is the actual details of people’s lives that are exhibit where sacredness resides. Same sex couples are living relationships that are sacred, like marriage, and thus families are being (and have been for ages!) created. Perhaps in ways not recognized by the Church or sanctioned by historically religious terms, but nonetheless profoundly meaningful in our most human terms. Therefore, their existence calls forth a moral obligation to recognize and protect these relationships and families, because the proof is in the pudding.