In London, where I live, people are usually surprised and impressed when I tell them that as a gay Catholic, I am totally accepted by my family and everyone else I know back home in Northern Ireland. They are surprised to hear that Ireland’s opinion polls on same-sex marriage are currently more favourable than those in Britain were before the same-sex-marriage law was passed in parliament last year. In November 2013, a poll done by Red C for Irish bookmaker Paddy Power showed a 76 percent level of support for same-sex marriage in Ireland — a country traditionally viewed as singing to the tune of the church’s teachings on sexuality. Not anymore.
I have a very accepting, extended Catholic family back in Northern Ireland. Furthermore, I never experienced anti-gay rhetoric in Catholic schools or from parish priests as I was growing up. I often wonder if this was all luck, or if it’s the case that the stern message preached from the top of the hierarchy is diluted by the time it gets to the real people living enlightened, modern lives at the bottom.
The attitudes of Catholics on gay equality is clearest to me in Northern Ireland, where the Catholic base of Sinn Féin and the Social Democratic and Labour Party support same-sex marriage, while the opposition of the Democratic Unionist Party — with its links to Protestant churches — is preventing the British law from being extended there.
I feel a huge shift in opinion has happened over the past few decades in Ireland, and the country now has many evolved Catholics who are happily rejecting the more damaging rules on how we live and love. After the cultural traumas of the abuse scandal, the ghosts of the Magdalene laundries and other scars inflicted by Church teachings that are increasingly at odds with the lifestyles of the general congregation, Catholic Ireland is accepting gay people. It’s hardly surprising that people who have felt so much hurt are happy to accept a little love.
Former president Mary McAleese was right: being gay is no longer seen as “evil” or “intrinsically disordered.” I was relieved when my parents didn’t have a problem with me being gay and surprised further when my grandparents didn’t either. But, come to think of it, they belong to generations that quietly disregarded the church’s teachings on divorce, contraception and sex before marriage — all of which were condemned from the pulpit but ignored by many outside the church gates. Homosexuality is just another thing that the church must realize is being accepted and incorporated into the lives of Irish Catholics.
Let’s remember that homosexuality isn’t a modern trend with which we’re asking the church to “get with the times.” History shows us it’s always been there, but it’s been treated shamefully by the Catholic Church and focused on more fervently than other issues of sexuality — for ironic reasons. McAleese claimed the church has been in denial over “a herd of elephants” in the room, considering “a very large number of priests are gay.” Whether they were attempting to suppress their feelings through a life of penance, hiding in the clergy from a life of otherness, or merely sent off by ashamed families, many of our priests are gay and the church knows it only too well. This makes its attitude hypocritical and embarrassing.
The case of Cardinal Keith O’Brien in Scotland is particularly apt. O’Brien, who called homosexuality a “moral degradation” had to disappear red-faced last year after he admitted making advances on younger male clergy in the 1980s. O’Brien seemed like an extreme version of the homophobic bully at school, who “doth protest too much” and later turns out to be gay himself, after an adolescence of reflecting his own self-hatred on others. McAleese has suggested that rather than hiding out as a disgraced villain for the rest of his days, O’Brien could do a great deal for the cause by telling his story. I wouldn’t hold my breath for a Cardinal O’Brien exclusive on Oprah, but the church could really benefit from a watershed moment of this kind — where, as with the abuse scandal, it recognizes the historic wrongs it has committed against gay people and offers out a hand.
Pope Francis has thawed the mood, but when magazines including Time and the Advocate named him Person of the Year in 2013, many complained it was premature, excessive praise. For liberals, Pope Francis has not gone, and could never go, far enough in embracing gay people. But these critics fail to grasp how radical he is being as the leader of a church that isn’t in the business of changing its views on anything. A religion isn’t a political party that we can lobby to modernize, and as a man who leads 1.2 billion people from across the entire world, Francis has a line to toe.
Still, we can count this pope as more of an ally than any of his predecessors, and as a young gay Catholic, I welcome his positivity. There are many young gay people like myself who want to retain a Catholic identity and be welcomed by the church. A sustained emphasis on condemning homosexuality will continue to alienate not just gay people, but their parents, siblings and friends, too — and with church attendance dwindling continually, the church needs to start listening to what is turning people off.
I’m hopeful that Francis will pay attention to the results of the Vatican survey on marriage and family life sent out to Catholics last year. I don’t expect the church to come out with open arms and throw the rice after the first gay wedding, but if Ireland legalizes same-sex marriage — and it looks like it overwhelmingly will — then the church must accept that denouncing homosexuality as a sin will be redundant at pulpits across this country.