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Pope Francis at the Vatican. AFP PHOTO / POOL/ ALESSANDRO BIANCHIALESSANDRO BIANCHI/AFP/Getty Images

ALESSANDRO BIANCHI/AFP / Getty Images

When Ireland voted to legalize same-sex marriage by a wide margin, the leaders of the Catholic Church were placed in an awkward position. Here was a country where 84 per cent of the citizens identify as Catholic rejecting the Church's teaching that marriage can exist only between a man and a woman. So how should a 2,000-year-old institution respond when the followers refuse to be led?

The Archbishop of Dublin, Diarmuid Martin, humbly chose to acknowledge that his Church had lost touch with the forces of change. "We have to stop and have a reality check," he said, "not move into a denial of realities."

With increased recognition of same-sex marriage, religious bodies risk becoming irrelevant if they can't find ways to adapt to the secular world they inhabit. An absolute position may have the appeal of theological purity, but Catholicism's history is filled with reality checks – the latest coming in the form of Pope Francis who famously said, "If someone is gay and is looking for the Lord, who am I to judge him?"

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That's not an endorsement of same-sex marriage, to be sure. But it sounds a lot more friendly and accommodating of modernity's possibilities than the cold response to the Irish referendum delivered by the Vatican's number-two man, Cardinal Pietro Parolin.

"Not only is it a defeat in terms of Christian principles," the Church's Secretary of State told journalists in Rome, "it is a defeat for humanity."

Sounds like someone needs a reality check. It's understandable that a tradition-based institution can remain in a state of denial long after many of its followers have figured out ways to reconcile old principles with new ideas – with precious little guidance from their religious leaders. But to call a democratic vote affirming the institution of marriage "a defeat for humanity" is to miss the point with a hyperbole that is as out of touch as it is over the top.

Clearly Rome's unrelenting message has proved unconvincing to its own people in Ireland: They're able to look at the world around them and spot the disconnect between the Church's inflexible negativity on this issue and the positive, joyful, even Christian effects that same-sex marriage can create. Humanity has spoken, and the Church should find a way to listen.

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