I have been reading the book, The Best Catholics in the World (2021) by Irish Times correspondent Derek Scally. It has been a compelling and thought-provoking read (I still have a few chapters remaining). An added layer of interest for me is that the author grew up just down the road from where we live and attended the parish where one of Ireland’s most notorious priests did what he did.

How faith plays itself out in Ireland is something I’ve spent a good deal of time thinking about for over 10 years now, and The Best Catholics in the World has helped pull some additional pieces together. 

A Brief Clarification

Although I use the phrase here, ‘going to church’ is not something I am advocating. “Going to church” is a remnant of Christendom, where we, the masses, attend religious services presided over by professionals and sit passively for an hour or so before returning to “real life”. 

I very much desire to see people become followers of Jesus and part of a church community/family…but simply getting more people to “go to church” is not something that moves the needle for me. However, since that is how the topic is generally framed, I will use it for convenience’s sake.

Ireland. A Christian Country?

When we were preparing to move to Dublin a decade ago, we were occasionally asked, “Isn’t Ireland already Christian?” which is a rather loaded question. Most of us tend to have a superficial understanding of large swaths of the world, and in most people’s understanding of Ireland, everyone is Catholic. In recent history, this was not far from the truth. According to the Central Statistics Office (CSO), in 1961, 94.9% of those in Ireland reported being Catholic. Thirty years later, in 1991, that number was still over 90%. [link]

The most recent CSO results (2016) report those claiming to be Catholic are now under 80%, while “no religion”, or the Nones, are the country’s second largest religion with 10%.

Almost 80 % is still a huge number, but clicking a box on a census does not mean you are actively involved with that religion. So a few more statistics.  

In 2004, 56% of people in Ireland regularly attended church services (that would include all religions, not just Catholic). However, in just 12 years, that number dropped to 36%. Despite the decrease, those numbers still land Ireland second in Europe for church attendance. [link]

Those in rural Ireland attend religious services at a much higher rate than their urban counterparts. Church attendance in Ireland has always been higher in rural areas than in urban areas (which will factor in below). Likewise, older generations are much more likely to participate than younger ones. Around the time we arrived here in 2012, former Bishop Diarmuid Martin stated that within Dublin, church attendance was below 20% [link]. Some of that would have been made up of those not born in Ireland.

So, Why Have People In Ireland Stopped Going to Church?

The convenient response is that those in Ireland stopped going to church because of the incredible abuses of the Catholic Church*. That was my assumption. And it is a convenient argument. The church had unquestioned authority here and used it to protect predators while abusing and throwing away the most vulnerable. As these events have come to light, they seem to parallel the decline of the church’s influence in Ireland. However, most writing about this topic, including Scally, see those events as perhaps a final straw for some, while acknowledging the decline of the church’s impact on Irish society was already well underway.

(* note: While this article focuses on the Catholic Church, much of the abuse occurred in a system where the Catholic Church and the Irish Government operated in collusion.)

So What Was Happening?

Education Played a Crucial Role

My wife’s parents and their siblings grew up in an Ireland where education was not accessible for most. Free secondary education was not provided in Ireland until 1967. As you might imagine, providing an education to your citizens will begin to transform your nation. Although perhaps not always in ways that you had imagined.

A reasonable expectation within Ireland was that the working-class urban Irish would be the demographic benefiting most from free secondary education; however, it was children of rural farmers who were the most significant beneficiaries. (see: McWilliams, David (2018). Renaissance Nation  pp. 11-12)

The introduction of free secondary education also played a significant role in the decline of the Catholic Church’s hold on Irish society. Those who believe that the church is something the more enlightened among us have moved on from may immediately think, “of course more education steers people away from religion and other superstitions”. However, recent research indicates that increased education does not, in fact, lead to people abandoning faith. (See research by Ryan Burge Does education ‘cure’ people of faith? The data says no).

So, how did free secondary education transform the relationship between Ireland and the Catholic Church? One means by which this happened is, as Scally notes,

By the time I went to school in the 1980s, the introduction of free secondary schooling in 1967 was already making a huge contribution to creating a new Ireland, a modernizing, increasingly educated society of liberal pluralism. This collided with an institutional Church in Ireland that, historically, had little interest in encouraging people to think about the place of world religions in human civilization – and their continued relevance, or irrelevance, in contemporary times.

page 83

Clearly, having a broader grasp and understanding of the wider world would raise questions that would begin to poke holes in the wall the church had constructed. However, the way free secondary school led to the decline of the Catholic Church’s hold on Irish society was that it led to the urbanisation of Ireland. 

Rural Ireland now had access to free secondary school, which meant many of them would now have the opportunity to avail of third-level (university) education. And in Ireland, third-level schools and the places that employ graduates of those institutions are primarily in cities (specifically the Greater Dublin area, where currently over 40% of the entire population resides).

In Empty Pulpits, Malachi O’Doherty points to Ireland’s increasing urbanisation as the crucial reason leading to the decline of the Catholic Church. In a small community where everyone knows each other, there will be peer pressure to do what everyone else does. (I write this as someone who grew up in, and subsequently fled, a town of 1500 people in New York State, where I once had the mayor call me on election day because he noticed I had not voted). And while peer pressure is obviously one side of the equation leading to church attendance, in small rural communities, the desire for community is a positive draw. I will go because people will notice if I’m missing…and I will go because this is where my mates are.

As people move to urban areas, several critical things occur. Most don’t notice (or care) if you go to church on Sunday…and they will definitely not tell your mum. Additionally, in a city, you have multiple opportunities throughout the week to see friends and be part of a community. 

This is a significant reason why church attendance has always been lower in Ireland’s urban areas than in rural areas.

It Also Has to Do With Prosperity

I wrote about this recently, so I won’t go in-depth here. In the Ireland of 40 or 50 years ago, you will find the Catholic Church with a firm hold on Irish society. You will likewise discover an Ireland, which is one of the poorest nations in Europe. 

At the same time the control of the Church has waned, Ireland has become one of the wealthiest nations in the world. It would be a challenge not to see a correlation. So you can understand people thinking, “why would we ever want to go back to that?” when the topic of church or religion comes up.

The above has been my understanding of the relationship between Ireland and the Catholic Church for a few years. A couple of items in Scally’s book have brought some added depth. 

The More Things Change

Scally has a fascinating interview with Paddy Doyle, author of The God Squad and one of the first to shine a light on the institutional abuse here. They discuss that while there has been an acknowledgement of the Church’s and Irish government’s culpability in the abuse, there has been little reflection as to the role and responsibility of Irish society. 

As an American, it reminds me very much of our unwillingness to reflect and respond to systematic racism.

Doyle states that while you hope for reflection and remorse, “What you might get is, ‘I don’t go to church any more.’ That is someone’s contribution. That’s it.” (page 150)

In other words, rather than making the most meagre effort to address what occurred, the most many have done is simply stopped attending church.

Scally adds that although much has changed in Ireland, much is still the same. Ireland still tends to outsource its problems, such as homelessness (page 192).

This issue seems closely connected to one more reason Ireland stopped going to church:

How many people really think that their absence from church now has somehow resolved the past? Voting with their feet may be an eloquent vote of no confidence, of disapproval, but it still leaves a lot of unfinished business and exasperates survivors like Paddy Doyle. And, if we’re honest, as a small, conservative country, we’ve always been good at the ‘done thing’ – going to Sunday Mass then, staying away from it now. Mass passive absence today does not address the effects of mindless Mass presence yesterday.

There’s a remarkable similarity between how older generations talk about going to Mass then, and how younger people talk about staying away today: it’s just what you do.

p. 187

Why did people in Ireland go to church in the past? Because that is what everyone does.

Why don’t people in Ireland go to church now? Because that is what everyone does.

Final Thoughts

A few years ago, I was talking with an Irish guy, and the conversation reached the point where he asked what I do. I told him, “I help create communities where people can talk about Jesus and faith in an environment where it is safe to doubt and ask questions”.

His response was incredibly honest and so much preferred than the standard, polite, “oh, that’s nice”. 

“Do you know Irish people look at you like you are out of your (bleep) mind? I can’t think of any Irish person who would be interested in something like that.”

While he may believe that, he probably does, as his kid was attending a Church of Ireland school. But with all of the above in play, the consensus in Ireland is nobody goes to church. No one is interested in the Christian faith. And so I am not interested in any of that.

There have been multiple studies done about “default settings”. In countries where you have to opt in to donate your organs, donor rates are substantially lower than in countries where you are in by default and have to take steps to opt out.

In Ireland, over the past 30 years, the default has been switched and doing what everyone else does takes very little effort.

Photo: Kilfane Church in Co. Kilkenny