I came to a coffee shop to write about something I have been avoiding writing about. Coming here reminds me of my final year being a student in Zagreb, Croatia. Years ago, when I studied for my undergraduate degree, near the end of the studies I needed to prepare for my final exam. I loved what I studied but by that stage I was ready to end the student era and do something else. I was no longer able to study at home, or at the university. Very diligent student that I was I would just fidget in the chair, unable to learn a single thing. But I had to study a bit more in order to complete this exam. I decided I needed to change the scenery in order to be able to make some progress, so I started going to the National Library in Zagreb and study in that very scholarly environment. It helped.
In the last few weeks something has been emerging from within, something that until recently I was not able to articulate. Then a few sentences that were merely ‘my own’ surfaced and clarified for me what my views actually are. But I was feeling rather uneasy saying anything about it to too many people, and even more so quite terrified writing about it. I knew my view would not be popular, and I think that caused the sense of fear and unease to escalate. And yet, my conscience or something within me has been knocking and demanding I actually write it down. I’ve been quite good in putting into practice the good old Northern Irish saying, “Whatever you say, say nothing”. But the time has come for me to say ‘something’. You can’t be silent forever. I tried writing this at home but I just ended up avoiding it. I think the fear was blocking me from writing and saying anything. That’s why I came to this coffee shop to try and write it here.
I want to write about the Irish Referendum that is coming up on 22nd May. For those of you outside of Ireland, let me explain that in a few weeks time the Irish citizens (which I am not) will vote on the issue of marriage, in other words whether they consider marriage to be between a man and a woman, or if it can be open to any two people regardless of their sex. So they will either vote No to the proposed change of the Irish Constitution (for marriage to remain between a man and a woman) or Yes to the change of the Constitution (for marriage to be between any two people regardless of their gender).
This is an area where I have not been vocal almost at all, not just recently but ever. Why? It’s a very sensitive area. While it addresses a concept of marriage, and people’s different understanding of it, it also mentions a group of people. Because the language used has often been rather unhelpful, to say the least, until Pope Francis managed to redeem some of it, I thought I may not have the right words to express where I was coming from. So I decided I better keep my mouth shut lest I offend someone. Also, it took a while to fully know where I stand and though instinctively I have always leaned towards the traditional side, I didn’t know how to articulate my own position. I wanted to find ‘my own words’, my own voice, before I ‘borrow’ someone else’s words to further clarify and inform my viewpoint. That took time, and frankly it was not a very pleasant process. I would hear people being quite vocal, heated and strong on this issue, and I wasn’t going to utter my few unintelligible words in front of them. No way. My excuse to myself was that we don’t always need to be experts on every issue, and there were plenty of people who have already been very vocal. Also everyone knows where my church stands (I’m a Catholic). It’s just, not everyone knows I’m a Catholic, and not every Catholic thinks the same; so that’s that excuse gone. Basically, I realised that not being able to speak I had no voice in this area. Seeing the posters saying “If you don’t register to vote your voice can’t be heard” didn’t help; I cannot vote anyway. So I listened and remained silent for the most part. Only in certain circumstances I would admit my inability to express my views. My conviction wasn’t strong, so I didn’t really feel like expressing it before those who had strong views (read ‘nearly everyone’). That being said, my view even though not strong, was deep. I just sat with it, and while it was unpleasant waiting for words to emerge, that’s exactly what I did. I waited to hear my own voice to tell me what I actually think. Perhaps this is what listening to your own conscience means. And only a few weeks ago, the first words began to come. To me, words matter. Their meaning, matters. Their usage, matters. I believe in a God who is the Word. Anyway, you get the point: words matter.
So these are my tuppence on the issue, I believe marriage is between a man and a woman. Because words matter, ‘marriage’ as a word holds a very specific meaning. Not every relationship can be called a marriage. There are some characteristics that are intrinsic to the nature of marriage: it is a commitment for life between one man and one woman, it is fruitful meaning the couple is open to having children (though I think this should include the way they live their lives together too), and it is free meaning that none of them was forced to enter into marriage but they chose it freely. If your view is that it is not essential for marriage to be conducted between one man and one woman, I probably lost you at this stage. You see, I think it is a matter of a worldview and for some of us as we understand what marriage is, the gender of those who are entering into marriage is going to matter, and it won’t be negotiable. Other relationships, such as same-sex relationships, deserve protection of the State, but they cannot be described with the word ‘marriage’. Perhaps they deserve another word, unique to the nature of the relationship they represent.
I believe gay people need to be protected by the state, not just those in a relationship but all. I don’t think it is necessary to change the Irish Constitution in order for that to happen; the state should do that anyway. Civil Partnership already protects the rights of gay couples. Also, every gay person should be treated with dignity, and surely those who are not gay too. Being human I know we fail to affirm each other’s dignity from time to time. I know I do, when I fall out with someone. Yet those instances should not be the norm, and when they do happen there is always a way of correcting it (apology, confession, acting better the next time). I’m not necessarily saying this because I think this contributes hugely to the conversation, but rather because I think we all fail to affirm someone’s dignity from time to time. Not that that’s good, it’s just our reality.
The Yes campaign presents their view as an issue of equality, and the No campaign points out that another important issue in this debate is children’s rights to a mother and a father. We are all equal in dignity as human beings, regardless of our gender, but if you base equality on the relationship status you are bound to exclude some people, gay or straight. What about those of us who are not married, are we not equal?
What is more, from Christian, Catholic point of view marriage is a ‘vocation’. And while some people will see this differently, I do not think that a vocation is a human rights issue. Often in (any given) vocation there is something we need to give up, there is a sacrificial element to it. I don’t know why the text that says that Jesus did not hold equality with God was on my mind in the last few days. I looked it up now, it’s Philippians 2:5-7 and this is what it says:
“Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form.”
I am not sure what to do with this text and I will not try to stretch it to support my view. It is perhaps there for me to stay with it and see what it has to say, to me first, before applying it to any issue. However, the initial reflection that it inspires in me is that equality is not the most Christ-like characteristic to pursue, humility is.
I think it is not easy to reconcile the differences that the Yes and the No side hold, and the fact there is a difference is unpleasant in itself. But at the end of the day no matter what the result of the referendum will be, we will still have to live with each other, with our different views on this and other matters, and I guess my desire is that we could do it together, and not in separate isolated pockets that will polarise our society. In the middle of writing this I had a conversation about this issue with a friend who is gay and who is coming to this from a different point of view. He is a great guy and one of the first with whom I was able to speak openly and in length about where we both were coming from. Why was this so important to me? Because my experience is that respect is often lacking when two very different views are presented, and my friend helped me experience that at least sometimes that is not the case.
To be honest, I was literally scared putting my view on paper and also vocalising it to those who think differently. Even imagining saying “I would be voting No, if I could vote” terrified me. It’s a very limiting kind of fear, and it made me understand a little what those who are gay might feel before they start to come out about it. But I don’t think that kind of fear is good. In the same way that it’s not good to bully someone because they are gay, people should not be afraid to say how they will vote. My experience is not isolated. Here you can listen to the experience of Heather Barwick who says “I was raised by two mothers – here’s why I would vote No”. She was raised with a lot of love, but she was missing her father. She was also bullied for her views.
I guess I decided to put some of my thoughts in writing because it is not good to allow fear to win, whether it’s source is justified or not. What is the worst that can happen? Some (many?) will not agree with me – but I don’t expect them to. Some will. I’m already standing (OK, sitting at the moment) so if I ‘fall’ there’s not much distance to the floor. But I may as well remain standing, and keep walking (living, breathing, whatever you want to call it); this time not in hiding, afraid to say what I think, but in dignity, finding my voice for the first time.
© Iva Beranek (Dublin, 4th May 2015)
Photo from Internet (this is not the poster I saw, but it’s the only one I could find online)