We think they should.
First, the referendum is not only about redefining marriage but also the family. We are being asked to decide if there is any distinction to be permitted between founding a family upon a father and a mother, and upon two fathers or two mothers.
The family has always been considered the building block of the Christian community, so much so that the Second Vatican Council referred to it as the “domestic Church”, where people first encounter God’s love and learn how to respond to it.
Given the fundamental importance of the family to the Church It would seem strange, to say the least, if we felt the proposal to introduce same-sex marriage did not merit some kind of formal discussion at parish level. Not only discussion, but prayerful discernment as well.
So, the first reason for discussing the referendum as a parish is because it impacts on family and family is at the heart of the Church.
There is a second reason. Christians have never understood their faith to be merely something private. Christian faith is at the service of society. When as citizens it comes to making important decisions affecting our society, prayerful discernment, on our own, but also as a parish community, should be something we see both as essential and valuable.
“The future of humanity passes by way of the family,” St John Paul II wrote (Familiaris Consortio, 85). The marriage that the Church recognises as a sacrament is first and foremost a human institution. As Archbishop Diarmuid Martin said recently: “There is only one marriage and that is marriage as a basic human reality.”
It follows that as a Christian community we have both a right and a responsibility to seek to influence how marriage is defined civilly.
It has been suggested, even by some voices within the Church, that if we allow our faith to guide us in how we vote we will be imposing our religious convictions on others that do not share them, and that this would be unjust. But to vote against same-sex marriage, even on religious grounds, is not, as Pope Francis has said, “to be ‘against’ anyone”, or “to judge those who think and feel differently”. It is merely to exercise our democratic right like everyone else to vote in accordance with what we believe is best for society.
As Christians we are obliged to take our democratic responsibilities seriously. It would therefore seem appropriate that as parish communities we would consider, in light of the referendum, what the Church believes about marriage and the family. What the bishops have asked is that we would “consider very carefully the profound implications which this constitutional amendment would have on the family environment and on our understanding of parenthood”. It makes sense for parish communities to facilitate this reflection.
It has been suggested, rightly, that priests need to avoid haranguing people into voting ‘No’ in the referendum. Apart from being likely to be counter-productive, this would also be profoundly disrespectful. It would be disrespectful of the primacy of individual conscience. It would also be disrespectful of the real dilemmas that the referendum is posing for many people of same-sex orientation, as well as for their families and their friends.
However, the choice is not between haranguing people, on the one hand, and doing nothing at all, on the other. Doing nothing would further the secularist belief that religion is a private matter to be kept out of public affairs. Furthermore, it could let down people who would welcome the support of their faith community and their pastors in discerning how they should vote.
Pope Francis can guide us here. He has reminded us, importantly, that we must always consider the individual person, and not just hide behind abstract theories. He says that when God looks at a gay person, he endorses the existence of that person with love. And he invites the Christian community to accompany them. Can the occasion of the forthcoming referendum be an opportunity for opening up and/or deepening the pastoral care of gay people in our parish communities? Can we allow their voice to be heard more, and listen to it respectfully?
At the same time, as a parish community can we reflect together on what Pope Francis has called the inalienable right of children to a father and a mother, and “to develop in the womb of their mothers, to be born and to grow in the natural environment of marriage”? Can we reflect on what it means to take this understanding of the family seriously?
The fruits of engaging in such a process of reflection could endure long after the referendum is over. As well as renewing our commitment at parish level to the pastoral care of gay people, and to supporting marriage and the family, it could also enrich the quality of our parish life by instilling a habit of shared prayerful discernment of important if difficult issues.
As we saw from the Synod of Bishops last October, there are no easy answers, but a Church that acknowledges real dilemmas and seeks to engage with them is healthier than one that pretends these do not exist. If this is true of the universal Church, it is also true of the parish.