Ireland, for so long the most overtly Catholic state in Western Europe, has voted for gay marriage by a stupendous margin – 62 per cent. Never before has a country legalised the practice by popular vote.
It would be naive to ask: how could this happen? Hatred of the Church is one of the central features of modern Ireland, thanks not only to the paedophile scandals but also to the joyless quasi-Jansenist character of the Irish Church, which was handed complete control of education in the Free State after partition in 1922. (Many of its priests were outstandingly holy and charitable, but you'll get your head bitten off if you suggest that in today's anti-clerical republic.)
Anyway, I don't want to focus on Ireland. Homosexuality as an issue is a greater threat to the Catholic Church worldwide than the sex abuse scandals. Here's why:
• Jesus said nothing about homosexuality. But, if we consider him as a historical figure rather than God the Son, it's barking mad to suggest that an austere first-century rabbi, scrupulous in his observance of the Law, would have condoned men having sex with each other. And as for homosexual marriage...
• The Catholic Church upholds the teaching of Jesus on the sinfulness of sex outside wedlock. Indeed, it is unique among mainstream Churches in outlawing remarriage after divorce, something that even the Orthodox allow in certain circumstances. Jesus was very anti-divorce.
• The Magisterium of the Church has always condemned homosexual acts, though recently Rome has emphasised that the orientation itself is not sinful. Critics say that's a bit like saying you can be left-handed so long as you don't write with your left hand, but there you go.
• Many liberal bishops, however, have changed their minds on gay issues. First they said homosexuality was 'a matter for the confessional', which I've always thought was a slippery evasion, but civil unions were unthinkable. Now they say that civil unions are 'acceptable' – I'm quoting HE Cormac Card. Murphy O'Connor, former leader of the Church in England and Wales and said to be an intimate of the Pope, though he would no doubt deny it with his trademark aw-shucks modesty. Gay marriage, on the other hand, is part of the 'greatest evil' in our country, the breakdown of the family. That's Cormac again. It is, I think, possible to oppose same-sex marriage on moral grounds without being convinced that it leads to family breakdown. But, as the great sociologist James Davison Hunter pointed out in his 1991 book Culture Wars, mainstream churches have rather given up on denouncing sin on the grounds that it imperils your immortal soul. That doesn't play well on telly. Instead they'll reach for a humanitarian argument – abortion, for example, causes depression in women who've had one. Or, in this case, gay marriage destroys families.
• In the West, practising Catholics – let alone lapsed ones – are strikingly more gay-friendly than they were even 10 years ago. To quote Pew Research, 'among churchgoing Catholics of all ages – that is, those who attend Mass at least weekly – roughly twice as many say homosexuality should be accepted (60 per cent) as say it should be discouraged (31 per cent)'. Admittedly, practising Catholics have been merrily disregarding Catholic teaching on contraception for years, safe in the knowledge that no one has a clue whether they follow the rules. But – no offence – gay couples in church often stick out a mile. If they're in a civil union, many priests will refuse to give the Communion – or, alternatively, make a big show of allowing it. So much depends on the parish. Indeed, attitudes towards gays have become an easy way of distinguishing conservative from liberal parishes, and of creating division in the first place.
• Liberal bishops and priests, even some cardinals, are beginning to change their tune on same-sex marriage. Here's one reaction to Ireland's gay vote: 'I appreciate how gay and lesbian men and women feel on this day. That they feel this is something that is enriching the way they live. I think it is a social revolution.' That was the Catholic Archbishop of Dublin, Diarmuid Martin, an arch-liberal who wins applause in the Irish media by attacking old-style Catholic prelates (many of whom, conveniently, are deeply compromised by covering up child abuse). He'd ordain Graham Norton if it were not for the fact that, unusually, Norton is a Southern Irish Protestant. Martin followed his comment with some waffle about fresh ways of getting the Church's message across but – as ever – he'd given the hacks their headline. Actually, though, Martin has a point. Why should the Catholic stance gay marriage be radically different from its attitude towards civil unions? Gay marriage doesn't exist according to the Church. There are various answers to this but they're not terribly convincing.
• Pope Francis's views on homosexuality aren't clear. He's against gay marriage, that's for sure. But he's moved away from denouncing it as a diabolical plot by the 'Father of Lies', as he did when he was a cardinal in Argentina, towards more elliptical statements about 'growing efforts on the part of some to redefine the very institution of marriage'. In other words, he's employing the rhetorical strategy identified by Hunter. Also, and this is very interesting, he allowed the official half-way report of last year's chaotic Synod on the Family to talk about the ‘gifts and values’ of homosexuals to be recognised and ‘valuing’ their sexual orientation. This grossly misrepresented the views of the Synod fathers, who removed any such talk from the final document (I wrote about the fiasco here). The Synod resumes this October with the same ham-fisted and/or Machiavellian liberals running the show.
• One reason the Synod was forced to back-track was the furious response of African and other developing world bishops to the attempted coup d'état by the liberals – hand-picked by the Pope – who produced the half-way report. African Catholic bishops tend to be no keener than their flocks on gays and their sexual practices. The gulf between them and, say, Diarmuid Martin is almost as great as that between American and African Anglicans. You'd have thought that someone in Rome would have noticed that the issue of homosexuality has extinguished the Anglican Communion (for the benefit of younger readers, that was something whose leaders used to meet at the Lambeth Conference until the C of E decided that allowing bishops to throttle each other in public was dodgy PR). Instead, under this pontificate the Catholic Church has decided to become more Anglican.
• But (see above) Catholics have a Magisterium whose teachings on homosexuality can't be changed without the Church deciding that it has the authority to scrap them. At which point some traditional Catholics will up sticks to the modern equivalent of Avignon and we'll have two popes. Or three, if dear Benedict XVI is still alive.