F Rosa Rubicondior: Irish Catholicism is Dying

Monday 23 October 2017

Irish Catholicism is Dying

Irish Catholicism is dying | IrishCentral.com

The news for the Irish Catholic Church just got a lot worse.

The 2016 census shows a further dramatic decline in support for the Catholic Church. Most other Christian denominations saw a similar fall but, given its position as by far the largest of them, as the table on the right shows, the fall was especially acute for for Catholicism.

The table needs to be read carefully. For example, the decline of 'only' 3.4% since 2011 for Catholics represents a fall of 132,200 but an increase of 28.9% for Muslims represents an increase just 14,200.

These changes are despite an annual population growth rate averaging 0.84% over the five years to 2016.

Absolute changes from 2011
Roman Catholic-132200
Church of Ireland-2600
Apostolic or Pentecostal-600
No religion198600
Not stated52400
The combined figure for all Christian denominations is a fall of 122,600. The only Christian denomination to see an increase was that of the Orthodox population, presumably as a result of EU migration.

Allowing for project population growth with no demographic change, the fall in the total Christian population is 158,000 (165,400 for Catholics alone)

Although Catholics still comprise 72% of the Irish population, this is a fall from 78% in 2011 and compares unfavourably with a figure of 94% which was the norm for the 1950s and 60s, when the strength of the Catholic Church gave a handful of clerics an effective veto over government action. In effect, the government of Ireland was an instrument of the Catholic Church and operated under licence from Rome.

There is a long way to go before the non-religious in Ireland reach the level seen elsewhere in Europe (the UK recently recorded a clear absolute majority of 'nones') but the signs are encouraging and must be spreading despair amongst the Church authorities. Just at the time when the demand for new priests is increasing due to an ageing cadre of priests, the supply has fallen catastrophically.

For the first time in living memory, the number of Protestants training for the priesthood in Ireland exceeded the number of Catholics this year. This year just six (yes six!) men began training at St. Patrick’s College Maynooth, bringing the total under training to a mere 41. Last year 14 men began as seminarians in Maynooth. In 2015 the figure was 17, 14 in 2014 and 20 in 2013.

The average age of Catholic priests in Ireland is now 70! The church is not producing anything like enough priests to replace those retiring or dying in post.

But this is not the only demographic time-bomb the church is facing.

As the chart on the right shows, the key age-group, 20-39 years old comprises just 28% of the population but accounts for 45% of the 'nones'. Like the Catholic priesthood, the Catholic population of Ireland is becoming increasingly aged and is not being replaced by the younger generation. The 20-39 year-old age group is a key group in this change as they are the primary group producing the next generation and children almost invariably acquire their religion from their parents.

'Nones' are under-represented in the 0-19 year-old group, reflecting the fact that education in Ireland is almost entirely in Catholic-run schools and is overtly faith-based. This chart shows that once children leave school they quickly reassess their beliefs and many reject their indoctrination. 'Nones' are also under-represented in the 40+ age-group. It remains to be seen whether future censuses show this profile extends progressively into the older age-group, as it has in UK and elsewhere.

From evidence in the USA and in the UK, replacement by those few transferring from 'none' into religion is nowhere near enough to replace those transferring out of religion. Movement into 'nones' is virtually a one-way street with the biggest movement out being into outright Atheism.

Despite his popularity, Pope Francis has been unable to stem the flow of members out of the church or encourage more men to come forward for the priesthood, yet the Irish Catholic Church is pinning all its hopes for stemming the haemorrhage on the planned visit of Pope Francis in August 2018. There may be a short-term recover following his visit just as there was briefly following the visit of then equally popular Pope John Paul II in 1979, but there is nothing to suggest this will have any longer-lasting effect. Papal visits tend to strengthen the resolve of the faithful rather than covert the faithless.

The long-running multiple scandals of clerical child abuse in Ireland has still not played out. Settlements are draining the church coffers and parents are now reluctant to leave their children alone with a priest, just as priests are being urged to avoid being alone with children (both to avoid temptation and reduce the risk of accusations). Priests who should be, and were once falsely believed to be, beyond reproach, are now viewed with suspicion and distrust.

The people have discovered that priests are not gods but mortal men and, in far too many cases, sexual predators who used their position of power to abuse. If not actual figures of contempt, they are regarded now as figures of fun. Volunteering to live a celibate life is not seen as evidence of devotion and self-sacrifice for a greater good, but evidence of being more than a little odd.

It's looking increasingly like the Catholic Church, as it is elsewhere in the developed world, is an endangered species in Ireland.

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1 comment :

  1. You should probably also look at church attendance figures. I don't have any information on that myself, but my guess would be that it's very low among young people, although may be being buoyed up by immigrants (as I believe is the case in England).

    One slightly conflicting factor is that (for some reason) people (in England) seem to highly value church schools (both Catholic and CofE). That probably accounts for some church attendance that otherwise wouldn't happen (as people store up brownie-points as "good Catholics" in order to get their kids into the desired school). It's probably a bit different in Ireland where most schools are Catholic.

    I wonder if one day traditional churches will go the way of the political party, with very few active committed members, and just a core of people bent on power at the top. No longer mass movements, but just representing a few narrow special interests.

    Quite different in Latin America of course, where the opiate of the people still seems potent.


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