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Same sex marriage a defeat for humanity?

  • 04 June 2015

In the aftermath of the Irish referendum on gay marriage, the Vatican Secretary of State, Cardinal Parolin, declared the result to be a ‘defeat for humanity’.

His resonant phrase reiterated the Catholic understanding that the privilege given by society to lasting heterosexual marriage reflects the social good of the institution, and should not be seen to discriminate against LGBTI people. His comment merits reflection for the questions it raises.

It is generally recognised that the Irish vote reflected the desire to show respect and tolerance to LGBTI people, by asserting their equality.

If this was so, the vote cannot be said in any simple sense to be a defeat for humanity. Indeed, if the proposal had been defeated, and the defeat were fuelled by disrespect and lack of tolerance, we would also have had to describe that result as a defeat for humanity.

Cardinal Parolin’s point in describing the referendum result as a defeat for humanity is that human beings and society will be diminished if lifelong union between a man and a woman is not recognised symbolically as the normative institution for raising children.

But even those of us who accept his argument will ask how crucially significant a defeat the Referendum brought. Its importance seems like that of the destruction of the Berlin wall in the fall of communism:  it was a powerful event and symbol, but the privileged place of the institution of marriage and family in the West had in practice been undermined long before it.  

Although many children are still raised in families by a father and mother in a life-long union, a great number of children are now raised by single parents, by parents of whom one or both have remarried after divorce, and by a couple who have never been married.

The number of children born to or adopted by same sex couples is growing but still relatively small, as are children born by surrogacy.  Against this background the Irish legalisation of same-sex marriage has highlighted the great diversity in the relationships in which children are born and reared, the extent to which these reflect individual choice, and the consequent weakening of the symbolic importance of lifelong heterosexual marriage as the norm by which other relationships are measured.

Cardinal Parolin’s description of the Irish referendum as a defeat for humanity also invites us to ask deeper questions about the extent to which society is blessed or hurt by the diversity