The end of Catholic Ireland? @ESRCFestivalNI

The end of Catholic Ireland? 
by Allan LEONARD
6 November 2018

In what Alan Meban described the event as a symposium (“but don’t say it was in a bar” [The Dark Horse Inn]), Dr Gladys Ganiel, a sociologist of religion from Queen’s University Belfast, laid out quantitative and qualitative findings about the apparent secularisation process in Ireland. This was discussed by fellow panellists Pádraig Ó Tuama (poet, theologian and leader of Corrymeela) and Professor Margaret O’Callaghan (historian, Queen’s University Belfast). The event was part of the ESRC Festival of Social Science and hosted by Slugger O’Toole.

Ganiel began by mooting the title of her recently published book, Transforming Post-Catholic Ireland. Is Ireland beyond Catholicism? No, she answered, just a certain type of Catholicism has been displaced — that of the high status of clerics. Indeed, Ganiel continued, the position of the Catholic Church in Ireland “casts a long shadow”, survey respondents regularly citing its importance. “The Irish can’t quite let it go,” she said.

Ganiel delivered a spate of statistics, showing the decline but resilience of both the Catholic Church and being Catholic for an individual’s identity (data summarised here; figures are approximate, not exact):

Ireland Late 1970s 2016 Census
“Catholic” 90% 65-78%
Attend Mass 90% 36%
Northern Ireland 1968 2012
“Catholic” 41% 43%
Attend Mass 95% 39%
Ireland 2006 2011 2016 Census
“No religion”[1] 6% 8% 12%
Northern Ireland 1998 2008 2011 Census
“No religion” 9% 13% 17%

[1] The 2016 Census includes categories of lapsed Catholic, atheist, agnostic, and lapsed Church of Ireland; Ganiel added these to “No religion” and “Not stated”. If only “No religion” and “Not stated” responses are used, the 2016 Census figure is about 10%.

She said that it is more striking when you look at data about young people’s religious adherence, citing a study by St Mary’s University, Twickenham:

22 European countries “Catholic” “No religion” Attend Mass Pray weekly
Ireland aged 16-29 54% 39% 24% “Catholic” 43% “Catholic”

Ganiel remarked that the rate of 43% of Ireland Catholic respondents stating that they pray weekly is higher than in most of Europe. Indeed, in the survey only the Czech Republic (48%) and Poland (60%) surpass it. Likewise, weekly Mass attendance by Ireland Catholic respondents is higher only in the Czech Republic (24%), Portugal (27%), and Poland (47%).

So while young people in Ireland identify less as “Catholic” than their elders — which is a worldwide phenomenon — it remains relatively high within European countries. Ganiel suggested that part of the reason is the earlier secularisation in wider Europe.

But she gave other reasons within Ireland: (1) the influence of television as a communications medium; (2) the increasing willingness of the media to challenge the Catholic Church; and (3) the role of women, both in their greater participation in the workforce and their organisation of family devotions.

In addition, Ganiel argued, the decline of Catholic religious adherence is due to how the church is handling the revelations of clerical sexual abuse. As she explained, although the state and its agencies (police, health, social services) were “culprits”, people do not believe the church is sorry for what has happened, according to research at Queen’s University Belfast.

Ganiel cited an Ireland-wide survey that she commissioned, with a primary question about whether respondents thought that Pope Francis, during his visit to Ireland, had done enough to address clerical abuses: 30% yes; 48% no; 22% don’t know. But for Catholic respondents, the figures were: 50% yes; 28% no; 22% don’t know.

Similarly in the survey, when asked whether the Pope’s visit was “a healing time for LGBTQI people and their families”, the whole response was: 23% yes; 40% no; 37% don’t know. For Catholic respondents, the figures were: 37% yes; 21% no; 42% don’t know.

Ganiel said that research for Transforming Post-Catholic Ireland confirmed that many practicing Catholics are disillusioned with the institutional church of the bishops and the Vatican: “They want this church to change so that lay people, including women, are heard and heeded.” She describes such adherents as practising “extra-institutional religion”, as in religion outside or in addition to the institutional Catholic Church.

At the same time, she continued, there are those Catholics with high commitments to the faith who believe that Catholics in Ireland are a persecuted minority: “They are settling in for trench warfare against perceived forces of secularism.”

Ganiel concluded with a question for her readers and us in the audience:

“I don’t think the main concern should be saving the Irish Catholic Church, per se, in its present state. The main concern should be asking: ‘What is it about the Irish Catholic Church that is worth saving?’ I think there is much that is worth saving, and Christians who are concerned about such things can build from there.”

Ganiel’s presentation was then remarked upon by fellow panellists Margaret O’Callaghan and Padraig O Tuama.

Professor O’Callaghan replied that the figures quoted makes Ireland look more normal, by European standards, than the “ludicrous” ones of before.

She then gave a hypothesis that Ireland’s contemporary secularism is part of a process of reclaiming the excesses of doctrinaire Catholicism. O’Callaghan cited the appointment of “reactionary bishops” by Pope John XXII (Vatican II), and the counter “liberal agenda” starting in the 1960s. Indeed, she argued, the recent referendum on abortion was the result of the church’s original successful lobbying to amend the Irish Constitution in 1983; the 8th Amendment — granting equality to both the mother and unborn child — had caused legal problems and the result of the referendum will address this.

O’Callaghan added that the Catholic Church got too much power not on its own. In the new independent state of Ireland, the church provided education and health services that the state was otherwise ill funded to provide. The church was able to indoctrinate Irish society, which itself could be seen as complicit with some of the excesses of this power.

Padraig O Tuama addressed Ganiel’s question about what’s worth saving in the Catholic Church. He underlined the importance of social ritual, whether religious or not. For him, here it’s important for the church to see its offering as one among many and not “one among one”.

To those who feel that the church is being persecuted, O Tuama replied, “Accountability is not tantamount of persecution. It is hypocritical and preposterous, the idea that Christians are being persecuted in Ireland today.”

Rather, O Tuama sees the church as part of society; the issue is when the church separates itself from society — a form of “cognitive and theological dissonance”. He referenced Pope Francis, who “has cast the mighty from their thrones and lifted up the lowly”, in a call for for the church to be more Christian, “not in a dictatorial way but an offering that people may or may not take up”.

On the nature of healing and the wording of a letter from Pope Benedict to the Irish Catholic Church in response to clerical abuse crisis, O Tuama deemed the line, “Healing, which they will find in the Church,” [underline and italics original] as undermining the church’s own attempts at repentance. “If you’re going to apologise, you just apologise,” O Tuama said.

The discussion was opened up to the audience.

I picked up the point of the power of the Catholic Church, originally codified in the 1937 Irish Constitution, as an interesting struggle from implementing the republican ideal of the separation of church and state versus the predominance of one religion. O’Callaghan replied that the original inclusion of “the special position of the Catholic Church” was actually a compromise with those in de Valera’s Government who desired a state religion.

The topic of churches’ position in regards to homosexuality brought in Protestant Northern Ireland. O Tuama spoke of the significance of Pope Francis’ reference to “gay people” as an acknowledgement that gay people exist (and not the church’s traditional description of “intrinsic moral disorder” of a presumed hetereosexuality). O’Callaghan earlier said that in regards to homosexuality, the Catholic Church maintained its conservative moral views, but LGBT people “were not demonised as much as Protestant fundamentalist churches did”. Here, Ganiel said that for some Protestants, typified by DUP supporters, it is vital to enforce “God’s laws” so that the state can prosper, else it will be cursed. This is consistent with the Protestant Calvinist tradition.

The final question returned to asking what was worth saving in the Catholic Church. O’Callaghan replied that you can’t examine the role of the church outside the context of British colonialism, Protestant dominance, societal deference, and the power that church was able to obtain; she was kinder to the church’s role from 1870-1920 than afterwards. Ganiel argued that the role of women in the church is important and that many Catholic women feel alienated and/or less respected by the church. O Tuama repeated that the church has much to offer society, but as an offering not an imposition. He feared for the end of civic discourse if the church continues with doctrinaire arguments.


Alan MEBAN. (c) Allan LEONARD @MrUlster
Gladys GANIEL, Alan MEBAN, Padraig O TUAMA, and Margaret O’CALLAGHAN. Symposium: The End of Catholic Ireland? Slugger O’Toole and ESRC Festival Northern Ireland. The Dark Horse, Belfast, Northern Ireland. (c) Allan LEONARD @MrUlster
Gladys GANIEL. (c) Allan LEONARD @MrUlster
Margaret O’CALLAGHAN. (c) Allan LEONARD @MrUlster
Padraig O TUAMA. (c) Allan LEONARD @MrUlster
Alan MEBAN. (c) Allan LEONARD @MrUlster

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