Presentation to the Constitutional Convention by the Council for Marriage and the Family

13 Apr 2013

Presentation to the Constitutional Convention by the Council for Marriage and the Family of the Irish Bishops’ Conference

 You have been asked to consider if, for the first generation in human history, the roles of mother and father are to be consigned to history and considered completely irrelevant in the bringing-up of children

  • In summary: marriage between a woman and a man is best for children and for society

[Bishop Leo O’Reilly]

Mr Chairman, members of the Convention, thank you for your invitation to be here this morning. My name is Bishop Leo O’Reilly. I am joined Breda McDonald. We are representing the Council for Marriage and the Family of the Irish Bishops’ Conference. On behalf of the Council we wish you well with your important work. Breda and I appreciate the opportunity to address the Convention on this issue, which is undoubtedly the most important of all those you have been asked to consider by Government. Your response could have huge and long-term implications for our country, especially for children.

In reflecting on the importance of the decisions you will make over the next twenty-four hours, I was reminded of a line from the final scene of Les Miserables, where the dying Valjean turns to his daughter and says: “To love another person, is to see the face of God”.

I think there is something in this statement that resonates within every human heart. To love another person and to be loved by them is among the most precious and life-giving experiences we can have. This is why the Catholic Church celebrates married love with such joy and seeks to protect it with great care. Something immensely precious, something immensely important is at stake when we speak of married love.

Married love is a unique, I repeat unique, form of love which has a special benefit for the whole of society.  The family based on marriage is the single most important institution in any society and to change the nature of marriage would be to undermine it as the fundamental building block of our society.

We can experience human love in many different ways. As Christians our primary commandment is to love. Love always demands that we respect the dignity of every human person. That is why the Catholic Church insists that people who are homosexual must always be treated with sensitivity, compassion and respect.

So, whatever else we agree on today, perhaps we can agree that all of us are committed to a society in which every person is treated with dignity and respect, where no person is subjected to violence or unjust discrimination, and where sincere difference of opinion is accommodated with mutual respect and a concern for the protection of basic rights and freedoms.

And with that, I will now hand over to Breda who will say a little more about the nature of married love itself.

[Breda McDonald]

Thank you, Bishop Leo.

As Bishop Leo has pointed out, we all need love and can be blessed by a wide range of relationships in our lives in which we give and receive affection, tenderness and love. But at the heart of our discussion today is the fact that the relationship constituted by marriage is clearly and undeniably different from all other human relationships. It is set apart specifically by our biological complementarity as male and female, something which is written into nature itself. In a way that is unique from any other human relationship this biological complementarity, our capacity to complete each other as women and men in marriage, opens up the possibility of having children.

It is this openness to bringing new life into the world that sets marriage between a woman and a man apart from any other relationship, including same-sex relationships. For those who may wish to argue that same-sex relationships are somehow similar to those between a woman and a man in marriage, they simply cannot argue that they are equal or the same on the basis of biological fact. A same-sex couple simply cannot together be the biological parents of their own child. They cannot bring a biological child of their own in to the world.

This point is critical in the decision you are about to take in tomorrow’s vote. Women are different from men. Men are different from women. Only the union of a woman and a man can give rise to a child. This is why it is simply impossible to talk of ‘equality’ between heterosexual marriage and same-sex marriage.

I also hope we can agree that in this issue, the implications for children, and not what some adults want, should be the most important consideration. A very great deal of research points towards the fact that, on average, the best environment for a child to be raised is by a man and a woman and specifically by their own biological mother and father in a loving marriage.

As an important piece of research from the US points out, among others:

Research clearly demonstrates that family structure matters for children, and the family that helps the most is a family headed by two biological parents in a low-conflict marriage… There is thus value in promoting strong, stable marriage between biological parents.

This is not to say that children cannot thrive elsewhere. But it is to say that there is something special and important about having the love of your own mother and father. It would be very strange if this was not the case. Do we really want to say that mothers and fathers are no longer relevant in bringing up children?

You will have heard that there is research claiming to show that having a loving mother and father has no special value at all. But it is important to take account of the fact that this research is in its very early days. The American Psychological Association research that some have cited, for example, is not based on large, random samples.

What we know is that when research is based on large random samples that allow us to compare one family type with another, we find that having a loving mother and father does in fact give a child the best start in life on average.

It is also reasonable to suggest that the burden of proof in this issue is not on those who claim that having a loving mother and father has special value, but on those who claim it does not. That burden of proof is not yet close to being met and we would therefore argue that to make a change to the Constitutional and legal definition of marriage and the family on this basis could not be justified.

If we accept that having a loving mother and father does have special value, then it makes perfect sense to encourage this and to promote it as an institution that provides a unique and essential good to society. This is what every society in history has done. This is why marriage between a man and a woman continues to deserve special recognition and protection in our Constitution.

The difference between women and men belongs to the very nature of marriage. A child has a right to know who she or he is. They have a right to be raised by their mother and father, where possible. To have the love of his or her own mother and father, this is in the very DNA of every child.

In summary: marriage between a woman and a man is best for children and for society.  I will now hand you back to Bishop Leo for some closing comments.

[Bishop Leo O’Reilly]

Clearly there are many more things we could say but time is limited. What strikes me however, is that in a short weekend you have been asked to decide on some very profound and fundamental questions.

For example, you have been asked to decide such questions as: what is marriage; what is the best environment for bringing up children; are the natural ties between children and their biological parents important? You have been asked to decide if the differences between women and men really matter anymore, especially in their role as mothers and fathers? You have been asked to consider if, for the first generation in human history, the roles of mother and father are to be consigned to history and considered completely irrelevant in the bringing-up of children?

There are complex legal and moral issues that arise from these questions that you also need to consider. For example, what are the implications of any decisions you take for the basic right to freedom of expression, conscience and religion? What will the implications be for couples who want to get married in churches, mosques and synagogues? What will be the implications be for the right of ministers of different religions, teachers, registrars and others to speak and act in accordance with their conscience and with the rational, objective logic of the moral order written in the very book of nature itself?

Given the importance of these issues, is it unreasonable to suggest they deserve a lot more time for full and proper consideration and debate?

I leave you with the words of the Chief Rabbi of France, who gives us a sense of just how much is at stake. “Father and mother represent a genealogy for the child”, he says. “The child needs a clear and coherent genealogy to find his place as an individual… It is also, most important, to situate him in a generational chain… Today we face the immense risk of scrambling the chain of generations.’ This is what we will do if we redefine marriage.

Thank you for listening.


  • This presentation was delivered on Saturday 13 April 2013 to the Constitutional Convention in the Grand Hotel, Malahide, Dublin
  • Bishop Leo O’Reilly is the Bishop of Kilmore

For media contact: Catholic Communications Office Maynooth Martin Long 00353 (0) 86 172 7678