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Column: Is Ireland a nation of á la carte Catholics?

Ireland was traditionally a nation ruled by the Catholic Church. Now that people are drifting away, it’s important to examine why, writes Brian Conway.

THE IRISH CATHOLIC hierarchy commissioned a national survey of religious beliefs and practices in Ireland between 1973–74, the first survey of its kind in Ireland. This survey involved a research team of about 20 members who collected a lot of data from face-to-face interviews. It was a nationwide sample of 3,309 respondents. So what did they find out?

Its critical finding was that 90 per cent of devotees were weekly church attendees. It served as a barometer to the high levels of past religious observance among Irish people, but also a benchmark against which change in church attendance could be assessed.

Today, over 35 years on, shifts, turns and crises in the contemporary church warrant an up-to-date view of what has changed, and what has not, in relation to church attendance and Irish people’s religiosity more generally.

The meaning of religion

Religion means different things to different people. It can have to do with beliefs (such as belief in God) and practices (like church attendance and prayer) but also with religious orthodoxy, that is, whether people follow church teachings or not. Let’s begin with beliefs.

The three measures include –  a belief in God, hell, and life after death. These relate to generic Christian beliefs rather than distinctly Catholic precepts. The survey in the 1970s, showed that 95 per cent of respondents said they believed in God. Move on to more recent times, and looking internationally, how does this compare. In the International Social Survey Programme (ISSP) 2008, it was found that 90 per cent believed in God, representing just a 5 per cent drop.

With regard to a belief in hell, 51 per cent of respondents in the 1973–74 survey said they believed in it, compared to 50 per cent in 2008. Whereas in the 1970s, 65 per cent of respondents said they believed in life after death, in 2008, 75 per cent believed in this.

Church attendance

In the same surveys, the extent of change in religious behaviour were also measured by weekly and monthly church attendance. This makes clear that both weekly and monthly church attendance have declined sharply. Weekly attendance in 1970s Ireland stood at 91 per cent. In 2008, weekly attendance soon at just 36 per cent.

It may be that more private forms of religious practice, such as prayer, may have declined less sharply than public forms of religion such as church attendance.

Recent data from The Sunday Times Behavior and Attitudes poll is in line with the international findings, showing that 34 per cent attend Mass weekly. This poll also found important age and political affiliation differences in church attendance, with higher levels among older age categories and people who support Fine Gael. Among 18–34 year olds, weekly church attendance is about 14 per cent.

Loss of trust in church leaders

It may well be that the scandals in the church in Ireland over the last twenty years have contributed significantly to the loss of legitimacy of the Catholic Church. People are tending to drift away from attending Mass more now than before, partly because of the loss of trust in church leaders in light of clerical sex abuse scandals and how the church responded to them.

But another significant factor, perhaps, is the growth of a consumer and material culture that competes with Mass for people’s time on a Sunday morning. One sees this in the shopping malls of Irish towns and cities that lure people away from churches for their sense of belonging and meaning.

In terms of religious dogma, the 1973–74 survey respondents were asked about the extent to which they believed the Catholic Church is ‘the one true church’ and the 2008 respondents were also asked about whether there is truth in only one religion. There was quite dramatic decline in the acceptance of religious dogmatism among Irish people in the 1970s, with 82 per cent of respondents stating they felt that the church is the one true church compared to just 13 per cent who believed this in 2008.

People are questioning

This suggests that people are increasingly relying on subjective understandings of what distinguishes right from wrong rather than accepting, in an unquestioning way, morality from external sources of authority. It may well be that the scandals in the church in Ireland over the last 20 years have contributed significantly to the loss of legitimacy of the truth claims of the Catholic Church.

People are increasingly distancing themselves from the idea that there are certain definite precepts available through religious institutions to guide their everyday lives. This is also manifest in rejection of church teachings about a celibate priesthood. A recent Ipsos MRBI poll in the Irish Times found that 84 per cent approved of married clergy.

It’s also the case nowadays that more and more people dis-identify with religion altogether. Recent census data tells us that 6 per cent of the general population in 2011 self-identified as ‘non-religious’, representing a more than 400 per cent increase since 1991. A further complicating factor is that the Irish religious landscape is considerably more diverse now than even 20 years ago, mainly due to immigration.

The CSO also showed that the proportion of the population who were Catholics continued to decline in 2011, to reach its lowest point at 84.2 per cent. Of the 3.8 million Catholics in Ireland in 2011, 92 per cent were Irish while the remaining 8 per cent belonged to a range of nationalities.

Mixing pot of cultures and religion in Ireland

This demographic change has contributed significantly to the growth of Pentecostal, Muslim, and Orthodox devotees. Traditional Irish Catholicism has also been revitalised as Polish migrants attend Catholic parishes and the Church adapts to serve their spiritual needs.

Overall, there’s been, relatively speaking, stability in trends in basic belief items but, on the other hand, there’s been sharp declines in certain forms of religious practice, religious dogmatism, and Christian orthodoxy among Irish people.

Cultural, institutional, and demographic factors all help explain these patterns. More research – involving qualitative studies to get at the meanings behind various forms of religious expression (such as why people are drifting away from regular mass attendance or identifying as non-religious) – is needed though to better understand the reasons for these important trends.

Dr Brian Conway is a lecturer in the Department of Sociology in NUI Maynooth. His research interests are sociology of religion, collective memory and the history of Irish sociology.

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Brian Conway

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