So the Irish are embroiled in a heated campaign for soi-disant ‘Equal Marriage’, with strong pressure from the government to vote YES.
No one should be surprised. The radical secularization of the Republic in the second half of the last century was one of the cultural phenomena of Europe. Poland to Sweden is a long road to travel in so short a time.
In contrast to the shameful way in which legislation was introduced in the United Kingdom, the Irish are at least holding a referendum. For much is at stake besides being nice to gays. The dignity of the family, necessarily involving the procreation and nurture of children, derives from the natural law. In the language of inalienable rights which has come down to us from the Enlightenment, it features in many political formularies and constitutions. In 1949, against the background of the enmity toward the family of totalitarian regimes, the UN Declaration of Human Rights put the matter succinctly: ‘The family is the natural and fundamental group unit of society and is entitled to protection by society and the State.’ (art. 16.3) That is to say that the family precedes the State, which is obliged to uphold and respect it. The Irish Constitution says much the same: the family has ‘inalienable and imprescriptible rights, antecedent and superior to all positive law’.
Legislation for ‘Equal Marriage’ brings all this into question. How can a relationship which does not involve (indeed by its nature precludes) the procreation of children by both partners, and which owes its very existence to an act of the state rather than a creation ordinance, be ‘equal’ in any sense? The ‘fundamental’, ‘inalienable’ and ‘imprescriptible’ rights of the family do not result from legislation; they are prior to it. Their preservation and continuance is what the state is for.
So, as the drafters of the Human Rights Declaration of 1949 clearly grasped, something quite literally fundamental is at stake. What is the power and role of government in such matters? Can the state, for example, forbid reproduction (as with the Chinese quota system) or systematically alienate children from their natural parents (as was the case for a time in the Soviet Union)? In what other ways might marriage be redefined, and then declared equal or equivalent? Can the state outlaw marriage altogether?
If the proposed legislation goes through, I have no doubt that the Irish Ayes will be smiling; but I doubt the angels will sing.