Same-sex marriage debate

Are we falling into the ‘equality trap’?
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.

In an editorial piece in The Irish Times on Friday, March 13, it was stated that this referendum is “about equality and whether gay relationships should be offered the same security and respect as those of heterosexual relationships. It is as simple and uncomplicated as that.”

Earlier, in the debate in Dáil Eireann on the Thirty-fourth Amendment of the Constitution (Marriage Equality Bill) 2015, Independent TD Clare Daly remarked that the “idea that the State would restrict the personal behaviour of citizens is abhorrent. I am glad, therefore, that all political parties and groups in the House support the legislation, as it shows there is not too much to discuss.”

Equality sense
The message the ‘yes’ side wants to convey is that the referendum is about equality – no more and no less. If a heterosexual citizen is allowed to marry the person he loves, why should a homosexual person not be allowed to marry the person he loves? This argument appeals to our sense of fairness and justice. But is it really as simple as that?

Equality is something we should all be passionate about. It is a basic right that we must all cherish and promote. Yet its application does not necessarily give us the freedom to do whatever we would like. Indeed, the Irish Human Rights and Equality Commission itself acknowledges that “equality does not always mean treating everyone the same”.  

As a value, equality becomes problematic if it is treated separately from other concerns and values, as would seem to be the case in the same-sex marriage debate. In fact, it is quite mistaken to apply it apart from other fundamental principles such as truth and justice.

It also does something else, however, at the level of conscience.

The Church teaches that each one of us, as human beings, has the law of God written on our hearts. At moments of important decision in our lives, such as this referendum, the voice of conscience is there, speaking to us, calling us to do good and to avoid evil. Conscience, we are told, “is (our) most secret core and sanctuary” where we are “alone with God, Whose voice echoes in (our) depths”.

An exclusive focus on equality, in separation from other principles, distracts us from asking, in conscience, the critical question: “Can a relationship between two people of the one sex, however loving, however committed, be truthfully termed a marriage?”

This distraction of one’s conscience by appealing to ‘equality’ without taking into account other rights and values, including the central issue in this debate of the rights of children to a mother and a father, is the first part of the ‘equality trap’.

The second part is that we are told that this referendum is not about changing marriage but about sharing it, extending it to others.

This is also profoundly untrue. For many people, who are married, it is abundantly clear in each day of their married lives that the manifold distinctions between male and female define what marriage is. Allowing people of the same sex to marry requires that the traditional and natural institution of marriage is stripped of its very essence: the bonding of man and woman and the begetting and raising of children by their natural parents in a relationship of permanence and sexual exclusivity.

The legal recognition of marriage as a union between male and female does not discriminate but appropriately differentiates. It is appropriate because only the union between man and woman is open to new life. To try to make marriage something else, by simply repeating that it is about, ‘marriage equality’, numbs the engagement of our consciences, which, in silence and peace, tell us the truth that we are made male and female, and made by a male and a female. This is the unchanging truth upon which marriage, as the bond between a male and a female, is based.

Only a relationship between one man and one woman represents and embodies the fullness and integrity of human nature in its entirety. A relationship between a man and a woman and a relationship between two people of the same gender are fundamentally different. They are not the same. To name them differently and to treat their differences appropriately is a requirement of truth and justice, which are principles as relevant as the value of equality.

To suggest otherwise is to place equality before truth and justice.  

Ireland prides itself in placing ‘family’ at the heart of society, so much so that the institution of marriage and the families it creates enjoy a privileged position within our Constitution and must be “guarded with special care”.  

Like the vast majority of countries in the world, marriage in Ireland is considered to be a legally binding union entered into voluntarily by a man and a woman.  We are now being asked to consider changing this definition so that two people of the same sex might also enter into a marriage.  

As the Referendum on Same Sex Marriage approaches, it is important that we all consider very carefully what a change in the law would mean for society today, and for future generations.  

The issue we are being asked to vote on is about more than simply changing a piece of law which may, or may not, apply to us as individuals.  It is about changing the way that we, as a society, think about family and enshrining that change within our Constitution.  

The Irish Catholic has asked an interdisciplinary team, which includes Professor 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.

* Patrick Treacy SC and Dr Van Nieuwenhove have recently published ‘The Integrity of Marriage’, available for download from by clicking onto ‘Marriage Referendum’ on the homepage. This booklet proposes giving constitutional recognition and protection to same-sex unions while preserving the truth of marriage as the integrity of one man and one woman.