Same-sex marriage debate

Does it make sense to eliminate the real differences that exist between male and female, including in our understanding of marriage?
The Irish Catholic has asked an interdisciplinary team, which includes Prof. Eamonn Conway and Dr Rik Van Nieuwenhove, theologians at Mary Immaculate College University of Limerick, and Mr Patrick Treacy SC of Integritas, to consider and respond to the difficult questions we all face when deciding how to vote in the referendum.

As we consider how to vote in the referendum on redefining marriage, one of the key issues emerging is whether or not we see the differences that exist between men and women as of fundamental importance. To vote ‘yes’ to same-sex marriage is to say that it is exactly the same whether two men are married to each other, or two women, or a man and a woman. It is to say, effectively, that the differences between men and women, that is, gender differences, either don’t exist at all, or insofar as they do, that they don’t really matter.

To vote ‘yes’ is also to say that it is the exact same whether a child is reared by two men, or by two women, or by a man and a woman; that is, by two mothers, two fathers, or a father and a mother. Is this what we want?


Children who have been reared by single parents, step-parents, aunts or uncles, grandparents or adoptive parents, speak with great gratitude of the selfless love with which these relatives filled their childhood. Yet those fortunate enough to have been raised by their own father and mother will often talk about how both their parents played complementary though different roles in their upbringing.

There were times when you really missed one or other of your parents because you needed to share a special, or perhaps a difficult moment, and, depending on what it was, felt that only your father, or your mother, would be able to understand. This wasn’t necessarily because of any shortcoming or lack of love or understanding on the part of the other parent; it was just that at certain moments we needed our father to be there for us and at others, our mother. We saw that as natural.

It wasn’t just that they were two different people. Mothers and fathers bring distinctive gifts to parenting. They tend to show their love, and to provide strength and comfort, in different ways.

Our instinct is to say that there are very real and important differences between men and women and it really does matter whether one is born male or female. Yet in today’s society not everyone agrees. Gender theory, as it is called, is complex, but seems to claim that whether we are male or female is really a matter for personal decision. It holds that our gender should not be tied to, or be dependent upon the sex with which we are born.


Gender is something society makes up, it is sometimes now claimed, not something given to us in nature. If gender is something merely made up, a so-called ‘social construct’, then, of course, it can be changed.

If there are no real differences between men and women, or that people can simply choose their gender, then it follows that there is no basis for defining marriage as between a man and a woman only, or for seeing such relationships as distinctive.

Gender theory is, therefore, an important building block in the argument for same-sex marriage”.

In Ireland, as yet, we have not had many public debates about gender theory and its significance. But in other countries the effect of gender theory is being felt. It is felt, for instance, in schools, and in places of work.

People who seek to change their gender can sometimes be discrimated against and unjust discrimination of any kind, is, of course, wrong and to be condemned. But in an effort to tackle such discrimination we sometimes find the elimination of words such as ‘mother’ and ‘father’, ‘husband’ and ‘wife’ from official documents and from school text books. In some countries, for instance, there is a demand to have only ‘Parent A’ and ‘Parent B’, instead of ‘father’ and ‘mother’, on birth certificates. Similarly, in workplaces, it is increasingly unacceptable to refer to people as “Mr” or “Ms”.

In order to prevent unjust discrimination on the basis of gender, is it necessary, indeed, does it really make sense, to try to eliminate the real differences that exist between male and female, including in our understanding of marriage?

Every past generation in this country has understood marriage to be based upon the union of the distinct genders of male and female. This referendum seeks to redefine marriage in our Constitution as ‘gentral-neutral’.

If we vote that “marriage may be contracted in accordance with law by two persons without distinction as to their sex,” how will it be possible in schools, for instance, or in public contexts generally, to speak of ‘fathers’ and ‘mothers’ or ‘husbands and ‘wives’? Would any portrayal of a marriage and a family as normally or usually consisting of a husband/wife, father/mother, man/woman, not be a form of discrimination punishable by law?

Until now the differences between male and female have been considered intrinsic to marriage. Marriage has been understood as the unity that is only possible between a man and a woman, different from each other, and so uniquely able to complement each other.


If we accept gender theory, then it makes sense to vote to redefine marriage as a contract between any two people “without distinction to their sex”. But if we find gender theory unconvincing, and if our experience is that the distinction between the sexes is real and natural, valuable and essential, then we have to reject the proposed redefinition of marriage.

We do this in order not only to protect the distinction between men and women but also to protect the uniqueness that results when a man and woman, husband and wife, are united to each other, a unity which is only possible because of the “distinction to their sex”, the very distinction the referendum, if carried, will remove.

* Prof. Eamonn Conway, Patrick Treacy SC, Dr Rik Van Nieuwenhove