Chastened Church leaders take back seat in Irish gay marriage vote

Mon May 18, 2015 11:57am EDT
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By Padraic Halpin

DUBLIN (Reuters) - Its word was once law in Ireland on everything from contraception to divorce. Now, shorn of much of its influence, the Catholic Church has limited campaigning on Friday's gay marriage referendum to sermons to its remaining flock.

    Little over two decades after it legalized homosexuality, Ireland will become the first country to approve same-sex marriage via a popular vote, if polls that predict a victory by as much as two-to-one prove accurate.

    The issue has dominated the media for weeks but the Church has been largely absent, its influence ravaged by revelations of child abuse by priests and members of religious orders, after decades of gradual decline.

Although the main political parties are campaigning for a 'Yes' vote, the head of the Irish Catholic Church said it "would be wrong (to think) that somehow this is a Church-state battle."

    "We would see ourselves as important contributors and we will primarily exercise that voice to our own people, in our own churches," Archbishop Eamon Martin told state broadcaster RTE.

That is a stark change from the 1970s and 1980s when the clergy spoke out publicly and strongly against contraception and divorce that were still illegal in Ireland.

It also contrasts with the role the Church played in France in 2013, when it helped lay groups organize some of the largest protests in decades in a sophisticated campaign against the legalization of same-sex marriage there.

That did not succeed, but sparked a lively debate and raised doubts about issues such as surrogacy rights for gay couples.   Continued...

A restaurant displays a poster supporting the Yes vote, in the Caple Street area of Dublin in Ireland May 18, 2015. REUTERS/Cathal McNaughton