Once deemed the “most Catholic country,” Ireland now has a population that is struggling in their relationship with Catholicism.
“People are rejecting something they don’t even remember,” says Malachi O’Doherty, whose 2008 book ‘Empty Pulpits: Ireland’s Retreat from Religion’ chronicled the impact of secularization on Ireland.
“We may have only a sterile, secular culture that looks at the Catholic Church as an army of priests raping children,” O’Doherty said to GlobalPost.
Attendance at weekly Mass is on a steady decline within Ireland. William Crawley, a BBC journalist who reports on religion in Belfast, believes that both secularization and the sex abuse scandals have delivered a somewhat debilitating punch to Catholicism.
“There’s no stigma in not going to church,” said Crawley, who is also an ordained Presbyterian minister. “In fact there’s a stigma to going. Parents need to explain why they are sending their children to church.”
While Ireland on the whole is struggling with Catholicism, there are two very different scenarios operating in Northern and the Republic of Ireland. Most recent figures show that the Republic registers at 84 percent Catholic, while Northern Ireland is at 48 percent.
However, the number of those practicing their faith is significantly lower than those who just say they do during a census.
In 2011, it was reported that only about 18 per cent of Irish people in the Republic were regularly attending Mass, indicating a wide margin between those who claim to be Catholic and who are actively practicing.
The 2011 figure of those attending mass also shows a major decline from less than twenty years earlier in 1984 when, according to Archbishop Diarmuid Martin of Dublin, nearly 90 percent of Irish Catholics attended weekly Mass.
In the North, however, figures are harder to determine. Rev. Edward McGee, a spokesman for the Diocese of Down and Connor, in Belfast, said his jurisdiction has no longitudinal surveys on membership or attendance.
Despite the lack of figures in Northern Ireland, the sentiment is that Catholics in Northern Ireland have a closer hold on their Catholic religion after having fought to keep it.
“Northern Catholics were a persecuted people, those in the south were more like landed gentry,” said Rev. Gary Toman, Catholic chaplain at Queens University in Belfast.
“There is a very different experience of being [part of the] church in the north,” added Rev. Toman. “We came through a difficult time during the Troubles and were grounded in the community.”
O’Doherty echoed that sentiment of Catholicism in the North, noting that years of fighting helped make Catholicism as much an ethnic and political identity as a religious one.
“Leaving your church had the same connotation as leaving your community,” he said.
Northerners may not be experiencing the same “crisis” level that the Republic is because there haven’t been thorough investigations into allegations of sexual abuse in the North by neither the Church nor local governments.
Such investigations in the Republic have, not surprisingly, shaken many followers’ faith in the Catholic Church as an institution. Further, the results and responses of the investigations, many of which were interpreted as ‘cover ups,’ left many disappointed in the Church.
Further discouraging to the people in the Republic, parishioners will be asked to dig into their own pockets to help foot the bill for the Church through donations. Since the Catholic Church is a state institution in the Republic, the government will also have a cut of the bill to pay. The estimated costs have surmounted to a staggering $1.75 billion.
With the frustrations regarding the handling of the abuse scandals growing, Rev. Sean McDonagh, head of the Association for Catholic Priests, says the clergy needs to catch up with the laity in their calls for a more democratic church.
“The laity is way ahead of the bishops in terms of the ordination of gays and women,” said McDonagh, referring to two issues that many reformers consider basic. “I’d like to see the church as a communion of equals. The question is: How do we get there?”
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