A return to paganism or disillusion with the church?

Ireland’s Christian churches blame paganism for the decline of their congregations, but the real reasons are more modern

Summer solstice: people celebrate at the megalithic monument of Stonehenge, in England, last weekend; suggestions that Irish Catholics are becoming pagan have been rejected. Photograph: Matt Cardy/Getty Images

Summer solstice: people celebrate at the megalithic monument of Stonehenge, in England, last weekend; suggestions that Irish Catholics are becoming pagan have been rejected. Photograph: Matt Cardy/Getty Images


In interviews surrounding the publication of his final novel, That They May Face the Rising Sun, in 2001, the late John McGahern commented, “Irish culture is a great deal older than Christianity, and people were buried so that they would face the rising sun. All the pedantic priests would try and get them to face the church as the centre of authority, but they always thought the sun was more powerful than the church.”

Last weekend a report from the Association of Catholic Priests indicated that the Irish may have slipped back to old ways. It said that, following meetings with priests and bishops in more than half of Ireland’s Catholic dioceses, “a substantial number of bishops, and some priests” believe the Irish people “have, to all intents and purposes, become pagan”.

This view has been rejected by the association itself. Fr Tony Flannery of its leadership team has insisted it is “seriously wrong”. Priests in the association sensed “a great hunger for faith and religion” among the people. “The problem is not a loss of faith in religion and spirituality, it is a loss of faith in the Church,” he said.

The Catholic Church has been damaged by the abuse scandals of recent years, but all four of Ireland’s main Christian churches are losing membership and have ageing congregations. Fewer are marrying in churches. In 2010, 29 per cent of marriages in the Republic were in civil ceremonies, and the figure is rising.

Funerals are more likely to be secular, too. Brian Whiteside of the Humanist Association of Ireland says the organisation conducted 78 funerals in 2012, up from 12 in 2007. Last year it conducted 200 weddings, up from 80 in 2007.

In what he believes to be a first for Ireland, Whiteside recently conducted a humanist funeral for an 84-year-old man in St Patrick’s Catholic Church in Monkstown, Co Dublin. The deceased man was from a Catholic background, and as so many of his family and friends lived locally the priests agreed to his funeral being conducted there.

Michael Nugent of Atheist Ireland says the number of atheists is “increasing constantly”, to the degree that he believes recent censuses “underestimate the situation”. The 2011 census found that the next most significant group after Catholics were those who declared themselves as having no religion. They numbered 269,800. A further 72,914 did not state their religion.

That census found that more than 84 per cent of people in the Republic, 3.86 million, ticked the Roman Catholic box. Of the remaining three of the traditional four main Christian churches, members of the Church of Ireland numbered 129,039, Presbyterians 24,600 and Methodists 6,842.

It meant that in 2011 there were more agnostics, humanists, atheists and nonreligious in the Republic than there were Church of Ireland members, Presbyterians and Methodists combined.

The 2012 Global Index of Religion and Atheism, a survey conducted by the Gallup International Association, showed that of 57 countries in five continents studied, only Vietnam was losing interest in religion faster than Ireland. It found that 44 per cent of Irish surveyed said they were not religious and 10 per cent said they were “convinced atheists”, up from 3 per cent in 2005. Significantly, the report also said that “most of the shift is not drifting from their faith, but claiming to be ‘not religious’ while remaining within the faith”.

This would appear to support the view of the Association of Catholic Priests that people are turning not so much against faith as against the institutional church.

Change felt in North
The change is being felt in Northern Ireland too. Its 2011 census found that, at 48.4 per cent, Protestants numbered 875,717, while Catholics accounted for 45.1 per cent or 817,385. But one-sixth (17 per cent) of the population stated they either had no religion or no stated religion.

In the North, too, the common experience of the four churches is the absence of young people. At the recent Presbyterian General Assembly in Derry, the outgoing moderator, Rev Dr Roy Patton, lamented that, while the church was growing in the developing world, “here the story is more likely to be one of decline”.

It is a topic discussed at Church of Ireland, Presbyterian, and Methodist church get-togethers every year. In Dublin the Catholic archbishop, Diarmuid Martin, has repeatedly commented on the absence of people between the ages of 16 and 34 from church liturgies.

Writing about the phenomenon for this newspaper in November 2000, the late Fr Andrew Greely, formerly of the University of Chicago, said, “Humankind (in Europe) will continue to believe, perhaps hesitantly and not without doubt, in God. Belief in life after death will survive. Faced with an alternative between Macbeth’s ‘tale told by an idiot’ and Teilhard de Chardin’s ‘something is afoot in the universe, something that looks like gestation and birth’, humankind will continue to tilt, however uncertainly, towards the latter option.”

He continued, “The churches will no longer be able to control the private behaviour of their members. People will decide their own terms for affiliation. Eventually – heaven knows when – religious leaders will learn that it is no longer enough to give orders. They must also learn to listen.”

Will they? Perhaps. At the recent Irish Inter-Church meeting, attended by representatives of the four main Christian churches, the Catholic primate, Cardinal Seán Brady, said, “I’m not breaking any secrets from the conclave when I tell you that with the election of Pope Francis there was a move from the head to the heart.”

The election of Pope Francis has ushered in unexpected hope for all churches. Not since John XXIII has a Christian leader inspired such warmth, whether within or without his own denomination. Even the “pagan” Irish may take notice.

À la carte: Are Catholics becoming Protestant?
One wry online comment on our report last week that a substantial number of Catholic bishops and some priests believe the Irish people “have, to all intents and purposes, become pagan” was that those Catholics were also “probably a la carte pagans”.

It is a phenomenon frequently remarked on that Irish Catholics are increasingly ‘Protestant’ in outlook. This was underscored in a survey of Catholics on the island in February 2012, commissioned by the Association of Catholic Priests. It found that Catholic Church teaching on sexuality had “no relevance” for 75 per cent of Irish Catholics or their families. It also established that 87 per cent of Irish Catholics believe priests should be allowed to marry and 77 per cent believe there should be women priests.

As for Catholic teaching on homosexuality, 46 per cent “disagree strongly” while a total of 61 per cent “disagree” with the church. On divorced or separated people in a second stable relationship, 87 per cent believed they should be allowed to take communion, currently not allowed by the church.

On abortion, most Irish Catholics are also in disagreement with their church, which teaches it is wrong in all circumstances. An Irish Times/Ipsos MRBI poll earlier this month found that 75 per cent of people surveyed in the Republic supported the Government’s abortion legislation, currently before the Dáil. Those opposed came to 14 per cent; 11 per cent had no opinion.

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