This Article is From May 20, 2015

Irish Gay Marriage Vote Reflects Church in Decline

Irish Gay Marriage Vote Reflects Church in Decline
Dublin: Friday's vote on legalising same-sex marriage in Ireland is a further sign of the waning influence of the once-dominant Catholic Church, experts said.

Bishops have come out strongly against changing the constitution, but polls indicate their attempt to swing the vote for the "No" side will fall through.

"The Catholic Church in Ireland is a much weakened institution," Diarmaid Ferriter, historian and lecturer in modern Irish history at University College Dublin, told AFP.

"There are still a lot of people who take their religion seriously but I think the idea of the Church as arbiters of morality, sexuality and issues around marriage is not what it was," he added.

Sociologist Tom Inglis, author of "Moral Monopoly: The Rise and Fall of the Catholic Church in Modern Ireland", agreed.

"It's an indication of how the Church no longer acts as a moral conscience of Irish society," he said of the referendum.

"There's an element of secularisation taking place and at the same time for those people that are religious, religion is becoming more personal and private," he told AFP.

Scandals and decline

An avalanche of child sex abuse scandals has rocked the Catholic Church in Ireland in recent years, with religious leaders accused of having protected predator priests and disrupted inquiries.

Attendance at masses has dropped sharply in recent decades, though 84.2 percent of the population still identified as Catholic in the last census in 2011.

Father Brendan Hoban, a parish priest in the west of Ireland, and a founder of the Association of Catholic Priests, said the drop in attendance can be attributed to the abuse scandals, a growth in prosperity and the secularisation of society.

"The Church in Ireland has failed dismally to face the reality of the situation. Our numbers in terms of priests are declining and will decline significantly over the next number of years.

"Parishes are going to close. These are parishes that have been there for over a 1,000 years and they will not survive."

Ireland has followed a more secular narrative in recent years, highlighted by Prime Minister Enda Kenny's 2011 attack on the Vatican's handling of clerical child abuse.

Its inability to properly deal with the issue showed "the dysfunction, the disconnection, the elitism" of the culture at the Vatican, he said.

'Struggling to find relevancy'

Father Michael Mernagh, one of the fiercest critics of the leadership failings during the abuse scandals, said the Church was "struggling to find a relevancy in the middle of all the social changes".

"The Church needs to look at the core of its original message, which is one of love, and try to express it and drop things that are not important," he told AFP.

"If it doesn't, the Church will just become totally irrelevant," he added.

Despite their opposition to the referendum, bishops have tried to frame their language in a conciliatory manner, admitting gay and lesbian people were treated in a harsh way by the Church in the past.

It follows similar placatory comments from Pope Francis, who posed the question, "Who am I to judge?" when asked his views on homosexuality. He has since repeated his opposition to same-sex marriages, however.

There are still plenty of enduring signs of Ireland's strong Catholic tradition.

Over 70 percent of weddings still take place in churches, and the angelus bells chime twice a day on TV and radio stations of the national broadcaster, RTE.

Meanwhile, over 90 percent of primary schools are still under the patronage of the Catholic Church.

But even among believers, there are widely differing positions on hot-button social topics like gay marriage.

The Association of Catholic Priests decided not to take a public stand on the referendum after a survey of members revealed contrasting views.

Hoban said the Church was in denial about the decline.

"It's not coming to terms with making the decisions that need to be made to face the future," he said.

"It's being very much pushed to the periphery of Irish life and it's on a downward trend."