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Priest wonders: Will blessing gay weddings bring young people back to Mass?

We should start this article by congratulating Irish Olympian, Kellie Harrington, on her recent marriage to her long-term partner. And noting how good this message is. Something to tell your kids, every day:

Harrington’s marriage, of course, was a civil ceremony, in accordance with Irish law. Because she was marrying another woman, she is precluded from any kind of religious ceremony, at least in a Catholic Church. This is a state of affairs that annoys some people, which is to be expected. It also annoys at least one Catholic Priest. Here is Father Paddy Byrne, of Abbeyleix, expressing just the kind of sentiment that if you air as a Catholic Priest, these days, basically guarantees you a prominent piece in the Irish Independent:

Fr Paddy Byrne, parish priest of Abbeyleix, Ballinakill, Raheen in Co Laois, lamented the “sad” fact that he can bless tractors and cars but not a loving same-sex couple.

“I find it sad that as church we can bless cars, tractors…I’m not assuming this couple may want such ritual, but for many likewise who do we should,” he wrote.

He was congratulated by Labour TD, Aodhán Ó Ríordáin, for his comments.

Fr Byrne told the Irish Independent the Church’s ban on same-sex blessings is “one of the reasons why the level of practice among under 60s at the moment is in freefall”.

Is that true? Are there, in fact, legions of millennials in Ireland just waiting to flock back through the doors of churches at unreasonably early hours on a Sunday morning to have their communion and listen to sermons, just as soon as Pope Francis announces that he will permit the blessing of same sex marriages? We have no way of knowing for sure unless that happens, of course. But it seems highly unlikely.

The main tenets of Catholicism might be summed up as follows: That there is a God. That God has a specific message for us, and wants us to live in a particular way. That the fastest way to everlasting life is through the Catholic sacraments. That keeping holy the sabbath day, and attending mass, is an obligation, not an option. And that God’s word is eternal – and, pretty much, final.

All of these things are either true, or untrue. Whether the Church blesses, or does not bless, a same sex wedding has absolutely no impact on the truth of the Gospels, or Church teaching. One might suspect that the fall off in church attendance amongst the young is much more directly related to the fact that increasing numbers of young people simply don’t believe in God. Or, at least, don’t believe in the teachings of the Catholic Church about God.

So, what might blessing same-sex couples actually achieve? Would it, in fact, increase attendances? Maybe – just maybe – at the very margins, where a person drawn to christianity but not especially sold on any denomination was shopping around, teachings like that might come into play. But it seems fairly obvious that the fall in attendances has much more to do with a fall off in belief, rather than any objection to a specific teaching. If that was the case, we’d expect to see the pews full in the Church of England, with its female priests and liberal bishops. We… do not see that.

Perhaps there might be just a little bit of self interest, too, in Father Byrne’s approach. Churchmen, after all, are just like the rest of us. They want to be liked, and they want to be popular. And it is very hard to be liked when you’re condemned to stand in at least official disapproval of the wedding of one of Ireland’s most beloved sportswomen. Which must make the temptation to speak out and disassociate yourself from the more unpopular teachings of the church attractive.

Whether the Church should, or should not, bless same sex marriages is of course a matter for theologians. But one thing it should not do is start blessing them because blessing them would be popular. The Church does not exist to tell people how great they are, after all. The whole point of it is to sit in moral judgment and tell us when we have strayed from God. If it sincerely believes that same-sex marriages are outside the purpose of marriage, then it has not only a right, but, according to the reason for its existence, an obligation to say so. The point of the Church is not to be popular. I’m not a Priest, and I know that. Father Byrne seems to have gotten it mixed up.

In any case, none of this will impact on Ms Harrington’s happiness. She’s right about one thing: All we can really be, and all we should really try to be, is ourselves. She’s done nobody any harm, and she deserves to live a happy life.


Editor’s note (JMG) – A reader, not unreasonably, got in touch to say that he thought an earlier version of this piece was unnecessarily mean, in places, about Father Byrne. In retrospect, though it was not my intention, the reader was probably right. So this is a slightly amended, and hopefully fairer version to Father Byrne, who is, by all accounts, a well liked local cleric.

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