Why the Catholic Church is losing ground in Ireland

Abuse scandals have clearly played a role, but downward trends predate the news.
Losing their religion
Peter Morrison/AP

An Irish deputy prime minister calling for the resignation of a Roman Catholic cardinal—the Primate of All Ireland, no less—would have been literally unthinkable not long ago. The Church was the Republic of Ireland, the most potent force in the nation, and the bulwark of Irish identity during centuries of British colonial control, just as the Catholic Church was the prime factor in the preservation of the French fact in Canada for 200 years following the Plains of Abraham. Yet the depth and endless resurgence of the scandals engulfing the national church—instance after instance of clerical sexual abuse of children and consistent cover-up by the highest ecclesiastical authorities—sparked Eamon Gilmore’s demand. The reason was that Cardinal Sean Brady knew, 37 years ago, of individual children at risk from serial predator Father Brendan Smyth, but passed their names on only to his bishop, not to police or parents.

The politician’s dramatic distancing from the hierarchy is not disinterested—the Irish state has its own share of responsibility for facilitating the Church’s cover-ups—but it is one sign of Irish Catholicism’s existential crisis. By past standards, mass attendance is falling off a cliff: a staggering 82 per cent of Irish Catholics attended mass weekly in 1981; by 2006 it was 46 per cent—still a number to dream about for, say, a French bishop. Now the nationwide figure hovers at 35 per cent, while it’s a miserable 14 per cent in Dublin. That’s a situation the city’s archbishop, Diarmuid Martin, calls the greatest issue his Church has faced since the struggle for Catholic emancipation in the early 19th century.

In a parallel development that will resonate far beyond Ireland, priestly vocations are also drying up. For the first time “in living memory,” according to Father Patrick Rushe, the national coordinator for vocations, 2009 saw more men training for the priesthood in England (150) than on the other side of the Irish Sea (99). In the ’80s, more than 150 new recruits would enter Irish seminaries annually, rather than the 16 who did so two years ago. Ireland was First World Catholicism’s renowned priest factory, producing desperately needed clergy for service around the world. Now that deaths in the Irish clergy far exceed replacement levels—160 priests died in 2008 while just nine were ordained—those few will be needed at home. (The numbers for nuns are even more stark: 228 died in 2009, while only two took final vows.)

While the abuse scandals have clearly played a role in the decline—“those thinking tentatively about the priesthood are not going to be launching themselves forward,” acknowledged Rushe—the downward trends date to before the worst of the news became public. Other factors, working beneath the surface, have played a role. Changes that occurred more gradually (and unaccompanied by massive media coverage of child sexual abuse) in other Catholic societies like Quebec, arrived seemingly all at once, at a speed that disconcerted Irish society and its profoundly traditionalist Church. Suddenly, during the tumultuous Celtic Tiger years of China-level economic growth, from 1995 to 2008, a tide of prosperity and immigrants brought new models of economic and social life, including revolutionary new attitudes toward sexual mores. Modernity, in a word, came late, hard and fast to Ireland.

Birth control became only fully legalized in 1985—the first ever defeat of the Catholic Church in a head-to-head battle with the government on social legislation—while divorce was not just illegal but constitutionally banned until 1996. Homosexuality was not decriminalized until 1993, but in less than two decades, gay rights had advanced to the extent that officially recognized civil partnerships were established last year. In the rest of the Western world abortion was legalized, to varying extents, long before societies became embroiled in contentious debate over gay marriage. Ireland is now in the peculiar position of being inches away from full same-sex union rights while abortion remains entirely illegal, even when a mother’s life is in danger. And recent polls indicate that three-quarters of the Irish consider Catholic teaching on sexual mores irrelevant.

Under such a triple whammy of clerical crimes, new standards of sexual morality and a hidebound hierarchy, perhaps the most startling fact about the decline in churchgoing and vocations is how high the figures are still. While Quebecers remain attached to their Catholic identity—rising en masse in 2008 in opposition to the idea of removing the large crucifix that adorns the National Assembly—the percentage who attend mass weekly has sunk to single digits. Far more Irish than Quebecers remain devout rather than cultural Catholics. They must be praying for an institutional Church worthy of their faith.