Now this question probably seems a bit pointless for a blog. Can’t you just Google the answer and be done? According to the 2011 Census, 3,861,335 people or 84% of the population of the Republic described themselves as Catholics. This figure is often used to describe Ireland as a Catholic country and to defend the role of religion in Irish society, ranging from Church control of the vast majority of schools, whether abortion should be kept illegal or the religious references in the Constitution (if you don’t know, the opening line is: “In the Name of the Most Holy Trinity, from Whom is all authority and to Whom, as our final end, all actions both of men and States must be referred”). But if Irish people are overwhelming Catholic, then it seems obvious that Ireland would have a strong Catholic ethos.
The problem is that few Catholics are actually Catholic. Sure most people will call themselves Catholic, but when actually asked about religion, surprisingly few actually hold Catholic beliefs or practice their religion. Even a survey by the Iona Institute (a group of Catholic fanatics who you would expect to over rather than under estimate the level of Catholicism in Ireland) found how hollow the belief of many Irish people is. Firstly, they found that only 70% of people surveyed described themselves as Catholic, a large drop from the beginning. Of these, only 30% attended Mass on a weekly basis. When only 30% of people carry out the basic requirement of their religion, you can assume they must not place a very high value on it.
It gets worse. Only 27% of described Catholics have a favourable view of the Catholic Church, while 47% have a negative view. Only 8% have a very favourable view. When almost a majority of members of an organisation have a negative view of it, then you know it is in dire trouble. Only 46% believe Catholic teaching is of benefit, with 31% disagreeing. 23% of Catholics would be happy if the Church disappeared from Ireland, only 51% disagreeing. It is incredible that a large minority of a group actually want the organisation they are a part of to disappear. I can think of no other group or organisation where so many want its self-destruction or where they would not just leave. Could there possibly be a better fact to sum up the sorry state of Catholicism in Ireland that the fact that even its own members are doubtful of the benefits of their religion?
A survey by the Association of Catholic Priests (another group that could hardly be accused of anti-Catholic) found that only 35% attend Mass on a weekly basis and 27% attend less than once a year. It gets even worse when examining Catholic teachings. On pretty much every belief that separates Catholicism from Protestantism, Irish Catholics disagree with the Church’s teachings.
- 72% believe that married men should be allowed to become priests,
- 77% believe women should be allowed to become priests and 87% believe priests should be allowed to get married.
- 75% of people believe the Church’s teachings on sexuality are irrelevant.
- 61% disagree with the Church’s position on homosexuality while only 18% believe that homosexuality is immoral.
- 87% believe divorced people in a new relationship should be allowed Communion.
On the core principle diving Catholics from Protestants, 62% of Catholics said they believe the Communion is symbolic (the Protestant view) and only a quarter believed it was the literal blood and flesh of Jesus (the Catholic view). In the wake of this, one blogger aptly pointed out that most Catholics are Protestants.
Religion doesn’t seem to be very important to most Irish Catholics, as while they may be willing to pay lip service to it, they don’t let it get in the way of important matters. When it comes to making decisions, 78% follow their own conscience while 17% follow Church teaching. If the Catholic Church were an organisation like any other there would be a few basic beliefs necessary for membership. After all, why would you be a member of something you lacked the core beliefs. Yet even in spiritual terms, if there was a test to become a Catholic, most people who call themselves Catholics would fail. In fact, a large number wouldn’t even count as Christian.
A survey found that:
- 23% of Irish Catholics don’t believe in Heaven,
- 24% don’t believe in Sin,
- 28% don’t believe in life after death,
- 50% don’t believe in Hell.
My favourite is the 10% of Catholics who don’t believe in God. That’s right, there are people who call themselves Catholics and don’t follow the very first rule of any religion. The rest don’t fare too much better. Only 57% believe in a personal God, with 25% opting for a spiritual or life force. So barely half of Catholics believe in a God that even vaguely resembles Catholic teaching (and I bet that if we got these people to give more details about what kind of God they believe in, it wouldn’t resemble the Catholic one).
The obvious question is why? Why do so many people call themselves Catholic despite not actually being Catholics? The answer is simply tradition. For most of Irish history, being Irish and being Catholic meant the same thing. Catholics were persecuted and there were many religious wars which got mixed into independence wars. Catholicism in Ireland is a lot less about personal relationships with Jesus and much more about community. The Church was a meeting place where everyone went, so to be outside the Church was to be an outcast in the community. To a large extent, being Catholic is not an opinion, but part of people’s identity. It is like being Irish, not something you choose or can change, but rather something you were born with and is part of who you are.
There is also the crucial fact that almost no one actually chooses their religion. Instead it is something given to you at birth, like a nationality or hair colour. Humans are creatures of habit and we develop attachments to familiar objects, so when these two are put together many people will still consider themselves Catholic just because they were raised as Catholic, even if they don’t pass even a basic test of belief. If you take a child and tell them they are a Catholic (especially when they are young and will believe anything) enough times, then it will be engrained into them so that even when they are adults, they will still be Catholics out of habit if nothing else. So that is why the vast majority of people in Ireland are Cultural Catholics, people who are Catholics out of a sense of tradition and community, and see being Catholic as something separate from agreeing with the Church, which few do.
So back, to the original question: how many Catholics are there in Ireland? Well, it should be obvious by now that there are less than the official number of 84%. Only about third of Catholics (or about a quarter of the overall population) fulfil the basic requirement of going to Mass once a week. If people aren’t even willing to give up half an hour of their time every week for their beliefs, then the beliefs must not be that important to them. Only about 10-20% of people take a strict Catholic position on Church social teachings, indicating there are few true Catholics in Ireland. The situation is even worse when you consider that these surveys were conducted by Catholic groups and only examined people who call themselves Catholics, a group that is dominated by the elderly and getting smaller by the day. While it once was one of the most Catholic countries in the world, Ireland has become a place where actual Catholics are a rare breed. As their numbers grow smaller, so does any reason to let Catholic teachings govern our nation.