Speaking notes of Bishop Donal McKeown at a public meeting on the marriage referendum

18 May 2015

· 8.00pm Malin Hotel, Malin, Inishowen Co Donegal

Although a citizen of Ireland I am not resident in the Republic and thus am not entitled to vote this Friday in the marriage referendum. I am delighted to have been invited here this evening to Malin, Inishowen in County Donegal, as Bishop of Derry, to contribute to your discussions among some of the approximately Catholic 42,000 parishioners of Inishowen, who are a vital part of the faith community of this historic diocese of Derry, not to mention people of others churches and faiths.

Firstly, our Constitution Bunreacht na hÉireann is essentially a secular document which seeks to clarify core principles that guide the State – and is used to assess the constitutionality of all laws. The proposed change is thus not just a new law or regulation which could be checked against a higher document. The constitutional family is considered to be core to what we are as a country: “the state pledges itself to guard with special care the institution of marriage, on which the family is founded and to protect it against attack” (Art. 41.3.1).

The Constitution supports marriage, not for theological reasons, rather because it believes – in common with most other countries – that stable marriage serves the common good of society. The wording that voters will be asked to decide upon on Friday is a major change to what the State says it understands about the family.

Secondly, the proposed change is being promoted in terms of it improving the situation of the country for some of its citizens. Thus any argument which rests primarily on theological beliefs actually plays into the hands of those who wish to portray this referendum as being between religious conservatives and an increasingly liberal citizenry.

For this reason the pastoral messages on marriage which have been published by the bishops over recent months have sought to deal with the arguments of those who propose the change by engaging with the reasons that they give – or the questions with which they fail to engage. Bishops around the country have sought to promote the guidance that we have received from Saint John Paul II, Pope Benedict and of course from Pope Francis.

This is where Catholic social teaching has its place. Its aim is to help assist reason and to contribute, here and now, to the acknowledgment and attainment of what is just (Deus Caritas Est 28a).

I propose to briefly address some of the viewpoints put forward over the last few weeks by some who are advocates of redefining marriage:

I would like to comment on the words of An Taoiseach at the Fine Gael Ard Fheis earlier this year, specifically when he said, “As we approach the centenary of the Rising, a Yes vote would, I believe, send out a powerful signal internationally that Ireland has evolved into a fair, compassionate and tolerant nation. I say to all same sex couples in our country. This is about you, it’s about your right to say two small words made up of three letters – I do.”

Modern society is very complex, nothing is solely “about you”. We are all interconnected. People’s rights are not free-standing. Civic society is about balancing rights, not merely asserting them. Catholic social teaching is clear that rights include responsibilities.

Making such a fundamental change to our Constitution – as is involved in the proposed redefinition of marriage – is never just “about you”. I understand that many people in the LGBT community have been discriminated against, and have suffered much. However the right to have a relationship recognised by the State has been acknowledged through civil partnerships. What seems to be at stake here is the wish to be able to call that relationship “marriage”, and to have this relationship seen as being as normative as any other relationship. Those who have proposed this referendum seem to have focused solely on the rights of some adults who want to have their relationship called “marriage”, with no deep consideration of the effect that this significant change might have for this and for future generations in Ireland.

There is much fragmentation in contemporary society. It is clear however that relationship stability is a key element to the common good. The proponents of this change to our Constitution want us to change our understanding of family from the biological definition (father and mother and children) to that of ‘any two adults with or without children’.

The proponents of the referendum have spoken much about ‘equality’ without defining that word or concept. We have to ask therefore: what the logic is of redefining marriage in the service of equality, if we have not even agreed on what we mean by equality? ‘Marriage equality’ thus remains a very ambiguous and undefined term.

In summary, the marriage referendum proposes a major constitutional change because it involves a fundamental change in the traditionally accepted understanding of marriage and the family, with father and mother, as the natural primary and fundamental unit group of society. This does not deny or devalue other sorts of family – but for good reason a special position is given to the role of the traditional family unit in building society. To change the nature of marriage would be to undermine it. Our understanding of marriage is rooted in the objective logic of the moral order and written in the book of nature itself.

Finally, I would like to remind you of the words of guidance expressed in the recent pastoral message of the bishops of Ireland: “Marriage is important – it has served us well – Reflect before you change.”


· Bishop Donal McKeown is Bishop of Derry

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