By Ann Marie Foley - 06 May, 2015
Last weekend, at the launch of the Labour party’s campaign on the marriage referendum, the Tánaiste Joan Burton stated that whatever the Catholic Church wishes to do in relation to religious marriage ceremonies is a matter for the Church, but the 22 May referendum is about civil marriage.
She was responding to the Primate of All Ireland, Archbishop Eamon Martin’s statement on Saturday – ‘Care for the Covenant of Marriage’ – in which he questioned, “Will those who continue to sincerely believe that marriage is between a man and a woman be forced to act against their faith and conscience?”
He elaborated on this on RTÉ’s Morning Ireland programme on Monday when he said the Church would have to reconsider if its priests would continue to perform the civil aspect of wedding ceremonies if marriage is redefined in the referendum.
“We would have to look at legislation to see is it possible for us to continue to stand over our ministers being involved in civil ceremonies,” he told RTE.
Civil and religious marriage ceremonies come under the responsibility of the General Register Office which in turn is the responsibility of the Department of Social Protection.
The General Register Office (GRO) on its website states that while a religious ceremony can be performed “according to the customs and rites of the religious body”, there are requirements that must be met “in order for the marriage to be legal.”
The person solemnising the marriage must be on the Register of Solemnisers which is maintained by the General Registrar.
It lists both civil registrars and the members of the various religious bodies who have been nominated by the bodies as solemnisers.
The Department of Social Protection told CatholicIreland.net that statistics from the Register of Solemnisers on 4 January 2015 representing details at the end of 2014 shows there were:
• 4,371 Catholic priests on the Register of Solemnisers for marriage
• 1,222 ministers of other faiths on that Register
• 125 lay people on the register
It would appear that if Catholic priests no longer perform civil ceremonies, the State will have to recruit sufficient people to the Register of Solemnisers to cater for the shortfall.
The religious ceremony currently fulfills several ‘civil’ or legal requirements.
Three months notice must be given so the Registrar can issue a Marriage Registration Form (MRF).
The General Register Office states that while the marriage ceremony can be performed according to the customs and rites of the religious body, as part of the ceremony the bride and groom must make two declarations: that they do not know of any impediment to the marriage; and that they accept each other as husband and wife.
The venue for the ceremony is a matter for the religious body but under law the place where the solemnisation takes place must be open to the public.
Immediately after the marriage ceremony, the Marriage Registration Form (MRF) must be signed by both bride and groom and the two witnesses and the person who has solemnised the marriage and returned within one month to a Registrar.
These are the civil parts of the ceremony that Catholic priests currently perform.
In mid-April, the Taoiseach Enda Kenny said it was a matter for the Church to decide if it would continue its practice of registering marriages on behalf of State registrars if the same-sex marriage referendum is passed.
At that time, Martin Long of the Catholic Communications Office said the issue was one of importance to the State too as two-thirds of solemnisers are Catholic priests, and over 70% of marriages in the Republic of Ireland currently follow the Christian sacrament, with the Church and civil elements taking place within the same ceremony.
He said that any final decision (on priests withdrawing from solemnising marriage on behalf of the state) will come after the referendum and at a full meeting of the Bishops’ Conference.
The first such meeting is in June several weeks after the referendum. Martin Long said there is genuine debate within the Catholic hierarchy on the matter of solemnising and it is not being used in any way as a threat against the ‘Yes’ campaign.
In November 2014, the Central Statistics Office (CSO) published its statistical yearbook for 2013.
It stated that over the last two decades the popularity of civil marriages in the Republic has jumped from under a thousand in 1994 to more than 6,000 in 2013.
During the same year 29.5 per cent of the 20,680 marriages registered were civil ceremonies compared with just 5 per cent 20 years earlier.
The broadening of venues for civil weddings, and divorce and second marriages have also contributed to an increase in secular marriages.
This is according to the Iona Institute which in a 2012 article stated that increasing secularism in Ireland is a huge driver of demand for civil marriages.
The article highlighted that in Britain a majority of weddings are now civil ceremonies and while Ireland will take some time before we reach a similar situation.