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Will Ireland's Marriage Vote Shake Up The Catholic Church?

Ireland is about to hold a referendum on whether same-sex marriage should be legal — and the traditionally Catholic stronghold could buck the Church.

By Matt Picht | May 21, 2015

On Friday, the Republic of Ireland will become the first country in the world to hold a public referendum on whether same-sex couples should be allowed to marry.

It's also very likely to become the first country in the world to pass a referendum enshrining same-sex marriage rights in the country's constitution. The Yes campaign has enjoyed a healthy lead in the polls ahead of the vote, bolstered by the support of every major political party.

Ireland's Taoiseach Enda Kenny told TV3, "It's the stories of the ordinary people that have brought me on this journey to the point where I'm absolutely happy in my own mind and my conscience."

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That’s in spite of the urging of the Catholic Church, which finds its traditional prominence in Ireland shaken by the referendum. 

"We cannot support an amendment to the constitution which redefines marriage," Archbishop Eamon Martin said in a statement.

But even some priests are defying Catholic doctrine and advocating for a Yes vote.

It’s a pretty major change for a nation that's traditionally been devoutly Catholic and socially conservative. Same-sex sexual activity was criminalized in Ireland until 1993.

Now, Irish Catholicism is hardly in remission; 84 percent of the population still identified as Catholic in the 2011 census.

But many Irish Catholics have been increasingly disaffected with the Church. Weekly Mass attendance has nosedived nationally to around 30 percent, and parishes are having trouble recruiting priests locally.

That’s largely due to the Church’s recent sexual abuse scandals, which shook Ireland particularly hard. The horrific abuses revealed around the world over the past few decades were practically institutionalized in Ireland thanks to the country’s broad Catholic childcare network.

Globalization has also weakened the Church’s hold. The country’s foreign-investment-fueled economic boom of the '90s helped modernize Ireland and reduce the role religion played in day-to-day life.

These days, the Irish priesthood doesn’t command the same level of moral authority it was once widely known for. (Video via Channel 4 / "Father Ted")

So where does that leave the modern church? Most observers say the referendum results will herald a reassessment of Catholicism's role in Ireland.

A contributor for The New York Times writes"If it can no longer epitomize the broader culture in Ireland, Irish Catholicism can perhaps emerge as a more caring, less overtly dogmatic and oppressive feature of the Irish landscape."

If the referendum is successful, Ireland will become the 12th E.U. country to legalize same-sex marriage. The referendum results won't affect the U.K.-held region of Northern Ireland, where same-sex marriage is still banned despite being legal in the rest of the U.K.

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