Archbishop Eamon Martin has indicated there is to be no change in the role of priests in the civil element of marriages despite the passage of the same-sex marriage referendum, as reported by Patsy McGarry in the Irish Times.
The Catholic Primate also disputed whether the bishops ever used the word “threat” in discussion of withdrawal of priests from civil aspects of marriage ceremonies. “The word threat came from yourselves in the media,” he said.
Well, the word “threat” may have come from the media, but that was because the relevant statement from the Bishops can accurately be described as a threat.
In March 2013, the Council for Marriage and the Family of the Irish Catholic Bishops Conference, in a submission to the Constitutional Convention, explicitly said that:
“Any change to the definition of marriage would create great difficulties and in the light of this if there were two totally different definitions of marriage the Church could no longer carry out the civil element.”
Of course, it was aways unlikely that the Bishops would carry out that threat. They didn’t even make such a threat when divorce was made legal, which was at least as significant a change to their definition of marriage as marriage equality will be.
But it is unethical for them to imply that they did not make the threat, by saying that they didn’t use the word “threat” while making it.
The Catholic tactic of ‘mental reservation’
This tactic must be seen alongside the previous revelation that Archbishop Desmond Connell of Dublin was happy to knowingly mislead people by a process that he described as ‘mental reservation’.
“There may be circumstances in which you can use an ambiguous expression realising that the person who you are talking to will accept an untrue version of whatever it may be.”
Indeed, the Cloyne Report [21.20] refers to two accounts of the same meeting having different end times, and suggests that:
“It may be that that time difference was also of some assistance in performing the mental gymnastics of mental reservation in the manner of recording the details of the meeting.”
The Irish Catholic Hierarchy of course tells the truth about many things (which is a pretty low hurdle for ethical behaviour), but it is unsafe to assume that telling the truth is their default position, without further corroboration, in cases where it is in their interests to mislead us.
Context of the currently withdrawn threat
The currently withdrawn threat is made even clearer when you read the quoted sentence in its context within the submission:
“4. Marriage is a unique union, a relationship different from all others. In marriage, a woman and man promise love and fidelity to each other, for better, for worse, for richer, for poorer, in sickness and in health as long as they both shall live.
28.The Catholic Church’s position is clear; it does not give recognition to any other partnerships or legal unions as having an ethical or legal equivalence with marriage. The Church opposes therefore a change in the definition of marriage to include same-sex couples or other forms of relationship other than that of the relationship between one woman and one man. We believe that it would be damaging to the common good should civil law render same sex unions equivalent to marriage.
29. It is important to note that in Ireland the Church and State co-operate closely in the solemnisation of marriages and that in excess of 70% of marriages in the Republic of Ireland are celebrated by couples choosing the Christian celebration of marriage with both elements taking place within the same ceremony. Any change to the definition of marriage would create great difficulties and in the light of this if there were two totally different definitions of marriage the Church could no longer carry out the civil element.
30.Marriage as the foundation of the family exists prior to the State and has its own legitimate and established nature and identity. The State therefore exists to serve marriage as ,the foundation of the family. Indeed, current Constitutional provisions acknowledge that the State has a duty to preserve and promote marriage as an institution that precedes the State.”