On May 22, the Irish people voted by a large majority to permit marriages between two men or two women.  Of the two million people who voted—a 60-percent turnout—62 percent supported same-sex “marriage.”  It had been a very one-sided contest, with all the major political parties urging their supporters to vote yes.

Only 22 years ago, homosexual activity, even in private, was a criminal offense in the Republic of Ireland.  Now homosexuals are protected, almost celebrated, with laws banning any form of discrimination and “hate speech” against them.  The changes began in 1983 when David Norris, a homosexual, noted literary scholar, and a member of the Church of Ireland, brought a case in the Irish courts saying that the criminal law infringed his right to privacy.  When the Irish Supreme Court turned him down, he took his case to the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR), since Ireland was a signatory to the European Human Rights Convention.  The lawyers representing the Irish government argued that the ban on homosexual behavior was a necessary expression of the overwhelmingly Catholic nature of Irish society, even though the laws had actually been enacted before Ireland became independent.  This argument did not convince the European judges, and they ruled that the criminal law of Ireland was contrary to an individual’s right to privacy and to make free choices.  (The judgments of the ECHR are not binding.)

Historically, the Catholic Church enjoyed a moral monopoly in Ireland and very considerable political power.  Today, these are gone.  Indeed, most Irish people are only nominally Catholic.  In 1984, 90 percent of the population regularly went to Mass, but today it is well under 40 percent and falling rapidly.  And these figures have been considerably boosted by the arrival of large numbers of pious Catholics from Poland.  At one time Ireland exported priests to the rest of the world, but last year only 15 Irishmen were ordained as priests, which is fewer than the numbers of priests ordained by the tiny Church of Ireland.  Two thirds of the Catholic priests in Ireland are over 55.  Vocations to male religious orders have collapsed.

Why did this happen, and why did it happen so quickly?  The main reason lies in the rapid transformation of Ireland from a poor agrarian country of small villages with a homogenous population to an urban, wealthy, highly educated, and cosmopolitan country.  Before 1959 there was very little economic growth in Ireland, and 50,000 people emigrated every year.  The prescient Taoiseach (Prime Minister) Eamonn de Valera did not want growth, for he knew it would undermine his vision for the future of Ireland as the home of a people “satisfied with frugal comforts,” who “devoted their leisure to the things of the spirit . . . living the life that God desires men should live.”  But from 1959 there was steady economic development, and in the 1990’s Ireland became one of the world’s fastest-growing economies.  Huge government investment in secular, technical education produced a highly skilled workforce, and low levels of corporate taxes attracted foreign investors.  As the people ceased to be satisfied with frugal comforts, they abandoned the things of the spirit.  A parallel process occurred in Quebec during the Révolution tranquille of the 1960’s and 70’s, when strong economic growth led to secularization.

After Ireland became independent in 1922, the government asserted the new Catholic supremacy by ending all possibility of divorce, and later introduced a complete ban on the sale and importation of contraceptives.  Catholic moral teaching was now enforced by the state.  In the 1970’s there were, however, unseemly protests on the border with Britain.  Irish women openly declared their imported contraceptives and taunted and embarrassed the upright customs officials of Ireland.  Thomas Ryan, bishop of Clonfert, declared that “Never before . . . was the Catholic heritage subjected to so many insidious onslaughts.”  The ban had to be relaxed, and later (in 1995, on the third attempt) a referendum led to the introduction of divorce.  The referendum permitting same-sex “marriage” is only the most recent in a series of changes marking the Church’s loss of power and influence in Ireland.  The Church has, as Dr. Diarmuid Martin, the archbishop of Dublin, put it, “lost hold of the Irish conscience.”  Likewise, the Irish state is no longer Catholic; it has a secular moral agenda of its own.