The Irish Marriage Equality Referendum, Liberation Theology and Women’s Experience
By Niamh Middleton
The resounding ‘yes’ to marriage equality that resulted from Ireland’s referendum on the subject has provoked a great deal of comment, much of it on the implications for Catholic Church authority in Ireland. Some commentators are suggesting that the rejection of Church teaching on homosexuality, despite the Bishops’ request for a ‘no’ vote, is the sound of the death knell for the institutional Irish Church; Mary Hunt certainly sees it as the death knell for “a top-down, clergy-heavy model of church….” Other commentators have pointed to a somewhat surprising fact of which I, for one, was ignorant until now: this is the link between the political acceptance of same-sex marriage and Catholicism. Frank Bruni, in his New York Times article on the referendum ( On Same–Sex Marriage, Catholics are Leading the Way) remarks that Belgium, Canada, Spain, Argentina, Portugal, Brazil, France, Uruguay, Luxembourg and now Ireland – all countries with a Catholic majority – are ‘in the vanguard’ of those 20 nations that have legalised marriage between two men and two women. For Bruni, this is a sign that Catholics are not so much defying Church authority as following their informed, Catholic Christian consciences. Cynthia Garrity-Bond, a feminist theologian and social ethicist makes a similar point in her “Ireland’s Same-Sex Referendum & The Necessity for Reconstructing Sexual Ethics in the Catholic Church” when she says that the ‘yes’ vote is a manifestation of the sensus fidei (sense of the faithful); the latter is “a spiritual instinct that enables the [non-ordained] believer to judge spontaneously whether a particular teaching or practice is or is not in conformity with the Gospel and with apostolic faith”. If Bruni and Garrity-Bond are right (and I find myself in agreement with them) this is not a case of religion versus politics, but of religion and politics in reciprocal, positive relationship.
In the Irish case there were, I believe, other factors that influenced the sensus fidei: these were Pope Francis’s more flexible and personal approach to Church moral teachings, which permitted a breaking of ranks in the priesthood on the issue; several well-known and influential priests came out in favour of a ‘yes’ vote (see, for example, the Independent article Ireland’s Same-Sex marriage vote). Behind the Argentinian Pope’s more sensitive attitude is the influence of liberation theology, by which he admits to having been profoundly affected. Liberation theology emerged from the Latin American experience of poverty and political oppression; its main influence is Marxist philosophy and, in particular, a key Marxist insight: this is that the prevailing world view or system of knowledge of a society in any particular time or place supports the interest of the ruling class by justifying and concealing the reality of domination. In Marxism, all existing claims to knowledge are therefore considered to be ‘ideological’: they are distorted representations of reality that create a ‘false consciousness’. A related claim of Marxist epistemology is the claim that people who are oppressed have a clearer view of reality than their oppressors. Pope Francis has certainly shown himself to be on the side of those who suffer from various forms of oppression, and while there has as yet been no doctrinal change, his inclusive statements and refusal to judge a person’s sexual morality have been as influential in Ireland as they have elsewhere.
Even more influential in the Irish context, however, was the input of former Irish President Mary McAleese, a lifelong devout Catholic who, when her term as President was over, went to Rome to study for a doctorate in canon law. The reason she gave for this is her desire to understand why Church canon law never helped the victims of abuse in any of the cases she had studied; when she was President, McAleese herself went to great lengths to be kind and supportive to those who had been abused by Church personnel. While initially sceptical of McAleese as someone who has always appeared to be a successful pillar of the establishment, I have grown to admire the ex-President tremendously over the years. Unlike many of those who achieve power and influence, McAleese has never grown smug or arrogant; she consistently shows empathy for those who are abused or oppressed, and her solidarity with women is especially noteworthy. She has criticised the hierarchy for refusing to allow women to become priests, and in 1998 was told by Cardinal Bernard Law, Archbishop of Boston, that he was “Sorry for Catholic Ireland to have you as President”. More recently she has declared that the upcoming Synod on the Family is ‘bonkers’ due to the fact that a celibate male caste will be discussing and pronouncing on matters of which they have absolutely no experience. In response to a questionnaire seeking feedback on marriage and the family circulated worldwide on behalf of the Pope, McAleese posed the following question:
One of McAleese’s sons is gay, and she gave several moving interviews during the referendum campaign that described his teenage struggles in coming to terms with his sexuality and the bullying he had to endure. All of this was made even more traumatic by the fact that Justin was an altar boy and committed Catholic, who discovered in adolescence that his Church considered him to have a tendency towards ‘intrinsic evil’. Her declaration that she would be voting for equality is considered to have influenced older voters and conservative Catholics to vote ‘yes’.
Mary McAleese’s testimony to her son’s experiences as well as her admonishment of the hierarchy for refusing to take women’s experience into account in their Synod on the Family put me in mind – and not for the first time – of two great feminist theologians and the theological category that they pioneered. Rosemary Radford Ruether and Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza are two Catholic-identified theologians who have preferred to work within rather than outside the Christian tradition. Their work shows influences of both post-modernist philosophy, and liberation theology’s Marxist analysis. They expanded the theological category of experience to emphasise women’s experience and the human experience of oppression, with particular emphasis on women’s experience of oppression. Their basic argument is that in patriarchal Christian cultures women’s voices and experiences were not heard or considered when canonical texts were being chosen and moral doctrines formulated; their theological category seeks to transform the way in which Scripture and Tradition are interpreted. Both theologians argue that women’s experience must be the ultimate norm in accepting, rejecting, or otherwise criticising texts, traditions and norms. Both recommend the establishment of ‘women-churches’, similar to the communidades de base of liberation theology, as locations from which to engage in praxis. Praxis is a Marxist concept that refers to human rational activity that is directed towards the transformation of the world; it encompasses physical work, political revolution, criticism and theoretical activity. Schüssler Fiorenza, for example, has attempted to develop a theological hermeneutics grounded in the ideological suspicion of Marxist critical theory. Her hermeneutics adopts an advocacy stance for women, critiquing the androcentric bias of, for example, previous biblical scholarship and seeking to uncover women’s contribution to the early Christian churches. In Bread Not Stone: The Challenge of Feminist Biblical Interpretation (p. x) she states that her aim is “to develop a feminist biblical hermeneutics…..a theory, method or perspective for understanding and interpretation……in doing so….. [to] contribute to the feminist articulation of a new scholarly paradigm of biblical interpretation and theology”.
Like Schüssler Fiorenza, Rosemary Radford Ruether takes women’s experience as the critical principle of feminist theology. For her, the uniqueness of feminist theology is due not so much to its use of the criterion of experience as its use of women’s experience, which has been largely absent from theological reflection in the past. As a result, the use of women’s experience in feminist theology “explodes as a critical force, exposing classical theology as based on male experience rather than on universal human experience”. The latter sentence has always struck me as a perfect description of McAleese’s impact within the Irish ecclesial context.
I have been reminded of my college studies on the work of Schüssler Fiorenza and Ruether many times in relation to McAleese’s various confrontations with the hierarchy. Though religious and a canon lawyer, she is not a theologian, and probably has no idea that there is a formal theological category to describe what she is attempting to do; yet the resonance of her actions with feminist theology is hardly mere coincidence. The fact is that gains for women brought about by mainstream feminism are allowing women’s voices to be heard in increasing numbers in the public sphere; McAleese’s voice was not the only influential female one to be heard during the referendum campaign. The powerful testimony of young Irish Times journalist Una Mullally and television journalist Ursula Halligan on their experiences of growing up gay in Catholic Ireland also caused a major stir.
Halligan, devoutly religious as a young girl, actually came out publicly during the campaign at the age of 54. The impact and example of such women highlights the prophetic aspect of the work of theologians such as Schüssler Fiorenza and Ruether. Their work offers theological support and validation for such interventions which, in turn, provide a real life illustration of their theoretical formulations. Interestingly, the critical and praxical theological category of women’s experience is perhaps one whose time has come, as a result both of feminist progress and the fact that the present Pope has an understanding of and appreciation for liberation theology, which has been a major source of inspiration for feminist theology.
The Archbishop of Dublin, Diarmuid Martin, remarked that the overwhelming ‘yes’ vote is a ‘reality check’ for the Church. There is now every hope that the Irish referendum will be a force for positive change where Church teaching on human sexuality is concerned. It is already being reported that the referendum’s implications will be on the agenda of next October’s Synod on the Family in the Vatican. Moreover, McAleese’s input in particular has been vindicated, and this vindication casts a favourable light on her past protests against patriarchal pomposity and arrogance within the Church as well as lending weight to any future pronouncements she may make. If change comes, it will surely be thanks in no small part to lay Irish Catholicism in general, and to the persistent activism and growing influence of lay woman Mary McAleese in particular.
Niamh Middleton worked as a primary school teacher from 1979 – 2002. She studied theology in Mater Dei, Dublin and the Pontifical University Maynooth, obtaining her doctorate in 2004. She now lectures in Theology and Religious Studies in St. Patrick’s College of Education, Dublin City University. She has been a committed feminist since reading Marilyn French’s The Women’s Room in her early twenties, and believes that the most innovative Western feminists are now working in the religious/theological domain.