DUBLIN (RNS) — At a Mass said in Latin on Sunday (March 10), Ireland’s traditional Catholics declared political victory, days after a pair of referendums aimed at secularizing the Irish Constitution were unexpectedly and resoundingly defeated.

On Friday, the Irish government put two measures to a vote that would have extended the rights of unmarried couples in the country’s constitution and removed language defining women’s roles “within the home.” Both had been widely expected to pass despite enjoying little debate in the Dail, or Irish parliament, and after a rubber stamp by all three of the Irish Republic’s main political parties.

Both proposals failed, even in progressive Dublin. When all votes were counted, 67.7% of voters had rejected the family amendment, while 73.9% rejected the measure dealing with women’s roles, referred to as the care amendment. Turnout was 44.4%.

On Sunday, as pundits and reporters struggled to explain the most strongly rejected referendum in the republic’s history, roughly 200 traditional Catholics, many in their 30s and 40s, gathered at St. Kevin’s Church, Harrington Street, one of the few places in the city where the traditional, pre-Vatican II Latin Mass is still celebrated, for a triumphant celebration and a redoubt of conservative Catholics. 

Even as a much smaller crowd arrived for the noon English-language Mass, those who had attended the 10:30 a.m. Latin Mass — men in tweed jackets and women in long skirts and white, floral head coverings — packed into the tight parish hall for tea, still buzzing with delight at the vote.

Sign for a voting location in Dublin, Ireland. (Photo by Daniel O’Connor)

The Latin Mass was largely done away with by the Second Vatican Council, when bishops meeting in Rome from 1962-1965 instituted Masses in local languages. However, some traditional Catholics remain drawn to the old Latin rite that dates to the 1500s.

That rite, which was allowed to be said more widely under Pope Benedict XVI, has become a flashpoint under Pope Francis, who in 2021 barred priests from saying it without permission from their bishops. Traditionalists have seen it as a symbol of the larger battle in the church over matters such as LGBT inclusion and the roles of women.

This divide was on display at the entrance to St. Kevin’s, in copies of Catholic Voice, a traditionalist newspaper whose latest issue looks forward to St. Patrick’s Day on March 17 while urging Irish Catholics to have the “courage” to declare that “liberalism is a sin” and deriding the “myths created by the homosexualist movement.” In a time when the pope is allowing priests to bless people in LGBTQ unions, the paper maintained that those who do not oppose “disordered sexuality” are “straddling Satan’s fence.”

The message that Catholic values are under threat from within the church has hit home in Ireland, where society was overwhelmingly Catholic a generation ago. As of 2022, Catholics made up just 69% of the population, down sharply from 79% in 2016. Weekly Mass attendance among Catholics hovers around one-third nationally, down from over 90% in the 1970s.

Accompanying this transformation have been referendums in which the Irish have legalized divorce (1995), gay marriage (2015) and abortion (2018).

But references to both marriage as a fundamental societal unit and to the roles of women in the home will now stay in the constitution. “It’s a great result for women, for mothers, for the homes and for marriage,” said Maria Steen, a prominent conservative activist. “And I think it’s a real rejection of the government’s attempt to, you know, delete all of that from the constitution.”

Steen ran a brief campaign that framed the removal of motherhood from the constitution as both sexist and anti-Catholic. She said Friday’s election result was a sign that the Irish had “gratitude” for motherhood.

St. Kevin’s Church, Harrington Street, in Dublin, Ireland, Sunday, March 10, 2024. (Photo by Daniel O’Connor)

At St. Kevin’s, Michelle McGrath, a conservatively dressed woman in her 40s, said she was unsurprised by the vote result. She attributed it in part to the vagueness of the proposals, which would have equated marriage with other “durable” relationships. “Most people were confused about what it was, really,” said McGrath. “I don’t know what I’m being asked here.”

Confusion about what would be deemed durable relationships seemed to doom the referendum on marriage. In a televised debate on March 5 between Steen and Ireland’s deputy prime minister, or Tanaiste, Micheál Martin, he suggested that the court would decide what constituted durability, which would determine parental rights and inheritances. 

McGrath said deeper frustrations were also at play. Steen and the “No” campaign suggested repeatedly that the broadened relationship laws would have facilitated greater immigration into Ireland, which has become increasingly controversial in the once demographically homogenous republic.

“People are starting to find their courage again in Ireland, and the people who’ve been silenced for a very long time are starting to call out the obvious injustices going on,” McGrath said. “The Irish have been put paddy-last, to use the pun, in their own nation. They have been sent to the back of the queue while minorities get the majority.”

Meanwhile, Shane Duffley, an early-middle-aged man with an intense stare, said the proposal on women’s roles was “messing with Irish mammies.”

“You don’t mess with Irish women,” he said firmly, eliciting strong nods from two friends — one a European immigrant with a small child in tow and the other a tall Irishman who, like many younger traditional Latin Mass Catholics, homeschools his kids.

Maggie, a middle-aged woman who declined to give her last name, said the liberalization of Ireland had “radicalized” the country. “Ireland has changed a lot in my lifetime,” she said. “But that doesn’t mean that everything that the government proposes is something that people accept.”

First published in Religion News Service.