Guest post: Catholicism waning in Ireland

It wasn’t too long ago before the Catholic Church had an iron grip on Ireland, having to approve nearly every bit of “sensitive” legislation that was passed.  Abortion was illegal, condoms weren’t available, and non-Catholics were apostates in the Republic of Ireland. That’s changing rapidly now, and guest writer Sigmund posts his take on what’s going on:

Sharp Decline in Irish Support for the Roman Catholic Church

by Sigmund

It is important not to underestimate the value of Ireland to the Roman Catholic Church.  Ireland was, and still is, the only English speaking majority Catholic country. It houses several seminaries and religious academies that historically produced highly educated priests, nuns and Christian brothers who were exported around the world to teach and support Catholic doctrine.  The nation has frequently been held up as an example of an island of steadfast religiosity amongst a rising tide of European secularization. However, a recent series of Irish government reports dealing with child abuse have brought the church and its role into question.  While the Catholic Church has been heavily criticized in both the media and by the Irish leader, it has been unclear to what extent, if any, support amongst the general population of Ireland has been damaged.

To examine this question, the Dublin based Iona Institute, a conservative religious lobby group that promotes Vatican approved catholic values, recently commissioned a survey of public opinion on Catholicism in Ireland.

The survey asked over 1000 members of the public a number of questions dealing with religious practice, beliefs about the value of the Catholic Church and finally a question about the perception of the prevalence of abuse by priests. The survey was carried out in September 2011, two months after the release of a government commissioned report dealing with child abuse and the subsequent Vatican directed cover-up in the rural Cloynes diocese of county Cork.

The findings include

  • Catholicism continues its steady decline in Ireland – 69% of those surveyed said they were Catholic, down from 87% in 2006.
  • 30% went to mass in the previous week, down from 48% in 2006 – and from over 90% in the 1970s!
  •  Only 20% agreed that the Irish government was “excessively hostile” towards the Catholic Church. 40% disagreed that the government was hostile with a further 34% saying that the government was essentially neutral towards the church.

Probably the most interesting results involved the result of the question of whether individuals were favorable or unfavorable towards the church, with clear differences between groups based on both age and gender.

For example, older individuals (over 55s) were the only ones to have a favorable opinion of the Catholic Church (55% favorable, 44% unfavorable). None of the other age groups surveyed exceeded a 19% favorable rating for the church.

Interestingly, it was the two middle-aged groups, 35-44, and 45-54, that had the most unfavorable views of the church (54% and 58%, respectively.) This indicates a stark generational difference, with the likely prospect for the church that the one supportive generation will be the first to disappear.

Regarding gender, Irish women had a more supportive attitude than men towards the church. 50% of women, compared to 43% of men, agreed that Catholic teachings are still of benefit to Irish society.

When asked “To what extent do you agree or disagree with the statement: I would be happy if the Catholic Church disappeared from Ireland completely” there was again a significant difference between the genders, with 27% of men agreeing compared to just 18% of women.

In regards the abuse scandal two questions gauged public opinion. Those who answered “unfavorable” to the question on attitude towards the church were asked about the specific reason. The highest answer (56%) was “child abuse”.

And finally there was a rather bizarre question:

“In your opinion, approximately what percentage of Irish priests are guilty of child abuse?”

The question is curious since the suggested answers were based on the numbers of priests who have been accused rather than those who are guilty (there is no way, at present, to determine the percentage that are actually guilty of abuse.)

The answers to this question were also presented in a strange way in the survey report – the single figure of 42% of respondents guessing that over 20% of priests are guilty appears to be the combination of four separate answers.  Looking at the other figures, it becomes clear why the Iona Institute chose to present the results in this way. The option with the highest score (28%) – that 1-5% of priests are guilty of abuse – is in fact closest to the official accusation rate (4%).

The obvious conclusion is that this is a rather lame attempt to portray the Irish public as overestimating the extent of the level of abusive priests. The reality is that the Irish population has a relatively accurate view of the extent of church abuse and its response to the abuse – and the picture they see is sufficient to condemn the church.

This behavior surely shows the desperation of apologists to whitewash the results of a survey that reveals no good news for the Catholic Church in Ireland, which continues its precipitous decline. Far from being a perennial and unquestionable force, Church, according to the results of this survey, is heading the way of the Irish Elk.


  1. Posted November 16, 2011 at 5:45 am | Permalink

    I’m not surprised. We need information on other nations. Wake up Catholics!

    • Posted January 8, 2014 at 12:56 pm | Permalink

      Catholicism has a future in Ireland. Its not all good but it has many benefits to the country.NO doubt about this.

  2. MikeW
    Posted November 16, 2011 at 5:49 am | Permalink

    Over the last decades, Catholics have outpaced the Anglicans to become Australia’s largest Christian denomination.

    It’s not surprising that with the many Irish immigrants to Australia over the last t200 years there are long historical links with the Irish Catholic church and particular orders. Many of the abuses seen in Ireland were exported to Australia.

    The Catholic Church continues to intervene in Australian political affairs and gain government funding for Catholic-only events such as World Youth Day and celebrations of newly canonised Australian saint (pushed through by Rome when local political stars were lined up).

  3. Matt G
    Posted November 16, 2011 at 6:20 am | Permalink

    Q: What’s the difference between the Catholic Church and the Mafia?

    A: The Mafia knows it’s a criminal organization.

    • jerzy
      Posted November 16, 2011 at 12:46 pm | Permalink

      Catholic church knows it either. But will never admitt that.

      • Posted November 16, 2011 at 4:33 pm | Permalink

        What’s the difference between the Catholic Church and the Mafia?

        People respect the Mafia.

  4. Posted November 16, 2011 at 6:21 am | Permalink

    An interesting companion piece from last year to this study can be found at:

    In summary,in the Republic of Ireland, of those that self-identify as Catholic:

    Only half believe in Hell.
    Only three-quarters believe in Heaven.
    10% don’t even believe in God (sure that makes them atheists?).
    A quarter believe in an impersonal God (and 17% either are atheists or don’t know what they think).
    Roughly half pray at least once a week, while about a third are doing well to pray once a year.

    • Sigmund
      Posted November 16, 2011 at 8:07 am | Permalink

      Thanks for that.
      The last two results in that survey were very interesting. The first asked the question of whether an atheist could be fit for political office (only one in six Catholics said that they would not vote for an atheist.) The second question asked whether religion should stay out of politics – 60% agreeing with this point.
      In other words the results from Ireland are completely in line with that of secularized Europe.

      • Posted November 16, 2011 at 8:27 am | Permalink

        Yes, why it is bemusing to follow US politics!

        One of the other interesting questions in it was:

        “I have my own way of connecting with the Divine without Churches or religious services (on a scale of 1 to 5)”

        13% were 1 (not at all) but 60% were a 4 or 5 on that scale, this for self-identifying Catholics! – definitely a la carte.

        • Sigmund
          Posted November 16, 2011 at 11:51 am | Permalink

          It is also very telling that so much of the report concentrates on how many times a week people go to mass – in other words how many times the church gets to pass around the collection plate. It’s a business survey!

          • Posted November 16, 2011 at 2:43 pm | Permalink

            My take on the mass-going is that we can use it as a proxy to distinguish between the plastic/cultural Catholics and the true believers. I’ve just plotted this up and it shows I think that if you ignore mass-going then you get a sense of general decline but if you overlay mass-going then you get a real sense that the heat is going out of the fire even if it is still burning…


  5. TJR
    Posted November 16, 2011 at 6:46 am | Permalink

    Enda Kenny’s speech condemning the Vatican was one of the best moments of this year.

    Ulster Protestants tend to get a bad rap, but when they said “Home Rule means Rome Rule” it turned out they were more or less right.

    • Hibernia86
      Posted November 27, 2011 at 8:04 pm | Permalink

      But the Ulster Protestants, Fundamentalists that they are, were just as bad. To paraphrase from the movie “The Patriot” if Ireland had put the Ulster Protestants in control it would be trading one tyrant hundreds of miles away for hundreds of tyrants one mile away.

  6. Harbo
    Posted November 16, 2011 at 7:06 am | Permalink

    No! The Mafia Admits it is a criminal organisation. The “church” also “knows”.
    And close to 100% are guilty of child abuse , as they refuse to expose/acknowledge the disease.
    The greatest evidence of the absence of a god of love is religion

  7. eric
    Posted November 16, 2011 at 7:26 am | Permalink

    Interestingly, it was the two middle-aged groups, 35-44, and 45-54, that had the most unfavorable views of the church…

    This does not surprise me at all. People are having kids later these days; the 35-55 group is probably the one with the most 6-10 year old kids. So they are likely going to respond more viscerally to the threat posed by child abuse.

    I found your last three paragraphs the most interesting. I.e., that a conservative religious group is trying to present public opinion as thinking there are more abusive priests than there actually are, just so they can then turnaround and claim that the public’s negative opinion is based on inaccurate numbers.

    • Sigmund
      Posted November 16, 2011 at 7:56 am | Permalink

      It is definitely a case of ‘framing’ the results in the best possible light for the church. The Iona Institute are VERY conservative and have an agenda of trying to influence politicians in Ireland to support catholic teaching. To paraphrase an Irish saying formerly describing the Irish republican group Sinn Fein, they have a ballot box in one hand and a carmelite in the other.
      As for the middle aged group, I wondered along the lines you are thinking – they would be the ones with children and as such they would feel most disgusted by the cover-up.
      There is another factor that also might be relevant. I fit into that particular category myself (apart from the fact that I don’t live in Ireland any more) and can say that my generation were probably the last to experience old fashioned Catholicism in our schooling. The sort of violent discipline that was commonplace in Irish religious schools (which was almost all of them) is a thing of the past now but is burned into the memory of people my age. The older generation would have also experienced this but they grew up in a much more restricted environment with little exposure to other culture (the pre-television age in Ireland.) The influence of the exposure to TV is summed up by one famous (and serious!) quote from an Irish politician called Oliver J Flanagan – “There was no sex in Ireland before television” – meaning that the introduction of the media of television, and the resultant exposure to different cultures, caused a revolution in Irish behavior and thought.
      I think he was partly true (although for reasons of basic biology I suspect there may have been incidents of sex prior to television!)

      • truthspeaker
        Posted November 16, 2011 at 8:36 am | Permalink

        they have a ballot box in one hand and a carmelite in the other.

        Thanks, that made my day.

        • TJR
          Posted November 16, 2011 at 8:59 am | Permalink


        • Aidan Karley
          Posted November 17, 2011 at 2:37 pm | Permalink

          I do get Sigmund’s joke, but the actual quote was about having the ballot box in one hand and an ARMALITE in the other. Armalite is (was? I’m not a gun nut.) a brand or model of rifle that was favoured by the Provisional IRA.

  8. Matthew Cobb
    Posted November 16, 2011 at 8:09 am | Permalink

    No, THIS is why the Irish Elk went extinct:

    • Sigmund
      Posted November 16, 2011 at 8:23 am | Permalink

      I get a virus alert from that link!!!

      • Kieran
        Posted November 16, 2011 at 10:13 am | Permalink

        Got given out to for calling it an Irish elk, giant deer as it isn’t related to modern elk species.

  9. Posted November 16, 2011 at 8:29 am | Permalink

    Ireland also just pulled its embassy from the Vatican. I wonder if Ratzinger will go down in history as the final pope.

    • yam
      Posted November 16, 2011 at 11:38 am | Permalink

      A beautiful dream, but a dream nonetheless. Alas…

    • jonjermey
      Posted November 16, 2011 at 2:17 pm | Permalink

      I like to look on the current succession of Popes as analogous to the run of elderly figureheads in the last few years of the Soviet Empire. JPII was Brezhnev, Benny is Andropov, we have one last hardliner like Chernenko to go, and then the young reformer who will inadvertently bring the whole edifice crashing down…

      Well, we can hope so.

  10. Nicolas Perrault
    Posted November 16, 2011 at 9:26 am | Permalink

    For anyone with an interest in how the Catholic Church may decline precipitously look no further than the French Canadian province of Quebec around 1965. No sex scandals were even made public at the time. I suspect the same kind of freefall is occurring in the republic of Ireland.

  11. Dermot C
    Posted November 16, 2011 at 10:08 am | Permalink

    The Catholic Church in Ireland insouciantly ruined careers as well. This happened to my father in the late fifties.

    The Bishop’s ring.

    In Catholic Ireland’s FATLAD* see
    my da, a Derry teacher he
    to gold and green, then refugee,
    his nemesis, the Bishop’s ring.

    An orphan, da was sent to school
    to Collum’s ancient holy rule
    and topped the class – he was no fool,
    his second da, the Bishop’s ring.

    Announced his boss, “I’m proud to say
    His Grace will honour us today.
    The staff, with our respects to pay
    should bow and kiss the Bishop’s ring.”

    As deference assumed its face
    and humble meekness soaked the place
    my da responded, “No, Your Grace,
    I will not kiss the Bishop’s ring.”

    “My son, I grant a second chance.
    A ‘No’ again? A third? This stance
    offends to God. Behold! I lance
    the sheep that lost the Bishop’s ring.

    Get hence you wand’ring Paddy-Jew,
    your wife and child, descendants too,
    my petty fiefdom’s not for you,
    how dare you spurn the Bishop’s ring?

    Go roam the earth, you errant band,
    be gone, unworthy of this land,
    your Father cuts your traitor’s hand,
    get thee without the Bishop’s ring.”

    No Cromwell slew him in the field,
    no Curzon forced his kind to yield,
    no Saxon treachery concealed
    its hand beyond the Bishop’s ring.

    No sect or Protestant redoubt
    condemned my da or led the rout,
    it was his own who cast him out
    and cleansed the precious Bishop’s ring.

    As I return to Derry’s wing,
    an excommunicated thing,
    I, in my English accent sing,
    “I will not kiss the Bishop’s ring.”

    * Fermanagh, Antrim, Tyrone, Londonderry, Armagh, Down – the six counties of Northern Ireland.

    • Sigmund
      Posted November 16, 2011 at 11:25 am | Permalink

      Nice poem (or song?)
      There are still some in Ireland that would bow but not many and those that would are mostly elderly.
      In the recent Irish Presidential elections there was one conservative Catholic candidate, Rosemary Scallon. She is known for being an outspoken supporter of the church and has in the past campaigned against divorce, contraception and abortion.
      She came second last in this years election, getting less than 3% of the vote – to which her election agent said she was seen by the electorate as a “metaphor for the Catholic church in Ireland”

      • Dermot C
        Posted November 16, 2011 at 12:11 pm | Permalink

        Poem/ballad. Slainte.

  12. raven
    Posted November 16, 2011 at 10:10 am | Permalink

    The untold story is the rapid decline of the US Catholic church.

    By surveys, the US RCC has lost a huge 1/3 of its members recently, 20 million people.

    10% of the US population are ex-Catholics.

  13. MadScientist
    Posted November 16, 2011 at 1:46 pm | Permalink

    “… the only English speaking majority Catholic country …”

    I disagree; the Philippines is predominantly catlick and folks there learn English as a second language (they even speak with a funny accent though distinct from the Irish brogue).

  14. Julie Johnson
    Posted November 17, 2011 at 7:49 am | Permalink

    Read “Benita: Prey for Him” the true story of a 13 year-old Dubuque, Iowa woman who was raped by a 27 year-old priest, in the confessional.He seduced her into a long affair. Up to 14 other priests were aware but urged her mother to pray for her. It isn’t just in Ireland…

  15. Aidan Karley
    Posted November 17, 2011 at 3:38 pm | Permalink

    There was a brief comment on the early evening news (Radio 4) tonight that the NI Assembly was considering desegregating the school system, which is likely to undermine both poisonous sides in the religiously-themed war which has only recently started to wind down (one of the few good things to come out of the September 11 2001 carnage).
    At the moment the large majority of the children of the province are educated in either wholly-Protestant (of several particularly perverse sects) or wholly-Catholic schools and almost literally never see a person of the other faith (as if children actually have a “faith”) until they’re in higher education or (to a lesser degree) in employment.
    Needless to say, this could destroy the chances of re-starting the war. Certain groups (on both sides) will be fighting hard to prevent it happening.
    Annoyingly, despite having heard the item on the BBC news, I can’t find mention of it on the BBC’s website. Which is unusual. Or in Google’s news search. Strange.

    Ah … found the item. It’s on “iPlayer” (which may not be available outside the UK) at and you’d need to scroll through to 25minutes 30 seconds into the programme.

2 Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. […] new poll of Irish attitudes toward the Catholic Church indicates that its future there is likely to be […]

  2. […] Guest post: Catholicism waning in Ireland ( -31.952222 115.858889 Share this:TwitterFacebookDiggEmailPrintRedditLinkedInStumbleUponLike this:LikeBe the first to like this post. Categories: Articles Comments (0) Trackbacks (0) Leave a comment Trackback […]

%d bloggers like this: