24 May 2015
Having grown up Catholic enough to be an altar boy (and having gotten some of my education in a Catholic school), I am as fascinated as I am gratified by what’shappened in Ireland.
As you probably know by now, the Irish Republic made history the other day when it legalized same-sex marriage—by popular vote. Yes, the Irish people themselves chose to legalize unions between two people of the same gender. In every other nation or other jurisdiction in which it’s been legalized, the feat was accomplished by the vote of a legislative body, an executive decree or—as in the case of most US states in which same-sex marriage is legal—a judge’s order.
What’s so fascinating to me is that, not so long ago, Ireland was regarded as one of the most resolutely Roman Catholic societies in the world. The Irish were considered to be as devout as the Poles, Spanish and Quebecois. Now, of course, gay marriage is legal in Spain and Quebec (as it is in the rest of Canada). Some of the nuns in my Catholic school came from Ireland; the same was true of many other Catholic schools in the US at that time (the 1960’s and early 1970’s). Also, as I recall, two of the priests in my parish were Irish.
Now, in Ireland as in much of the west, the young are not pursuing vocations as priests and nuns. Many explanations have been offered for this phenomenon, one of the most plausible being increased prosperity. Many priests in the US (and, as I’ve discovered, elsewhere) are coming from India, Nigeria, the Philippines and other impoverished countries where Catholic missionaries have been active. Piety seems to pair much better with poverty than with prosperity. As someone smarter than I am remarked, “Give them MTV and they’ll never go to seminary!”
That point is certainly valid. However, one way in which Ireland was different from those countries (and others when they were turning out lots of priests and nuns) was that it was—and is—one of the world’s best-educated countries. Probably the closest parallel we have today to pre-1990s Ireland is Cuba: Nearly everybody is literate but also poor.
One difference, though, between Ireland past and Cuba present is that in Eire, education was controlled, directly or indirectly, by the Church. Early in its history, about the only way an Irish person could get an education was to become a priest or nun. They, in turn, would open most of the schools—and control the curriculum—in their country.
In the 1990s, young Irish people finally found opportunities to use their educations. They seized upon advances in technology and the business world to turn their country into a center for research and financial services. That, of course, furthered young people’s opportunity for education, both in their own country and abroad.
Given what I’ve described, however sketchily, it seems less surprising that Irish attitudes about gender and sexuality have changed as quickly as they have. On the other hand, it’s more surprising that abortion is still illegal there. Perhaps that will be the next change in the Emerald Isle.