Good Friday: Why are so many of us still Catholic?

Modern Irish Catholics, from the cultural to the a la carte and conservative

I denied myself three times. I stood at the altar, denounced their image of Satan and promised to raise my godchildren in the Catholic faith.

These were three lies. Like many of my friends who have gone through the same charade, I lied because I loved those children and their parents and knew that what I was really promising was to be a good person and source of support for that child. I lied because everyone around me expected me to lie.

Recently, I was asked to be a godparent for a fourth time. I was honoured and felt lucky, but I said no. I'm a gay agnostic and I believe that whatever God may exist doesn't identify with any human religion. I'm disgusted and angry about the abuse of women and children by some religious, what happened at Tuam, and how those crimes have been covered up. Meanwhile, priests such as Fr Tony Flannery are pushing back against many traditional Catholic teachings on both moral and spiritual issues; the Vatican silenced him in 2012.

In the 2016 census figures, released last week, the percentage of the population who declared they have no religion rose from 198,610 (6 per cent) in 2011 to 468,420 (10 per cent) in 2016. Mass attendances are dwindling and churchgoers are ageing, demand for secular schools is rising and the number of civil marriages has shot up.


Canon law does not allow a formal defection from the church, but the archdiocese of Dublin, citing a wish to respect people’s decision to leave, keeps a register for those who wish their de facto defection to be recorded. Many are leaving.

And yet. The same census figures showed that 3.7 million (78 per cent) of people still do identify as Roman Catholic. It’s a fall from 84 per cent of the population in 2011 but Catholic baptism, communion, confirmation and funerals are still the choice of a majority. Are they making the choice, or are they defaulting to these options in the absence of alternative traditions? Why are so many of us still Catholic?

My own father has been provoked to consider his faith time and again. First there was his daughter, pregnant at 16, back in 1990. He and my mother faced down the gossips and chose to live out the gospels by supporting their child and helping raise my nephew, who is now 26. My father has never been anything but supportive of me. Now, as Brendan Smyth and Artane and Letterfrack and the Sisters of Charity and Tuam and other bywords for crimes against humanity keep spilling out, I ask how he can stay.

“Priests are people, and people are fallible. What happened with Tuam was deeply wrong; Our Lady got pregnant out of wedlock, don’t forget. But I do have a faith, a belief in God, and Catholicism for me is the only way I know to get to it.”

Slightly agnostic

Dorothy Dowling, a retired teacher, is 74. She describes herself as a slightly agnostic Catholic and is culturally connected to the church in many ways, but she is also increasingly typical of both younger and older people who describe themselves as Catholic. Her parents brought her and her three siblings to Mass every Sunday, but she didn't really relate to it until she was in her 20s and started going to church to say a few prayers. She says it gave her a sense of peace, but this was short-lived.

She and her husband went to the US about 40 years ago, and divorced. It was a painful experience that drove a wedge between her and God but, as an Irish woman and divorcee in a country where only in 1995 did the people vote to legalise divorce, it also exposed her to stigma. Although she says she wasn’t shunned, she sensed that some people kept her at a distance.

Dowling says the church was cruel and that her mother could barely utter the word divorce. “They were un-Christian. But, over time, being in a church brought me a sense of peace and solace. I’ve developed my own personal beliefs. I don’t subscribe to their teachings on divorce, abortion, contraception, homosexuality, women, transubstantiation, heaven and hell and judgment, and they should not have control of schools and maternity hospitals, but I do pray, and I think religion can be a good way to teach the difference between right and wrong. For me it is important to have a sense of spirituality.”

Catholic rituals

Many nonpractising or lapsed Catholics put their children through Catholic rituals like First Holy Communion and confirmation because of family or social pressure, or to get them into a local school. Olivia Typrowicz is a 40-year-old mother of two. She and her husband, who is Polish, are lapsed Catholics. They baptised their children to please their own parents. They are part of a growing movement of Catholic parents who choose to send their children to Protestant schools but still take part in Catholic rites. Why?

"I chose to send the children to a Church of Ireland school because it was nearby and I wanted them to be able to walk there," she says. "Class sizes are small and the school has a good reputation. Religion was not a consideration."

But they can’t avoid religion. As most secondary schools in the area are Catholic, and the children will have attended a Protestant primary school, they are worried about securing a place. So the children, like many others at their Protestant school, are making their First Holy Communion in a Catholic church. Typrowicz recognises the contradictions but says she is in a bind. Other parents at the school have the same reasoning; others go through with the rite to please the children’s grandparents.

“I had to do this to get them into a secondary school,” Typrowicz says. “I actually love the school they’re in now: it’s small, and the [Anglican] services they occasionally attend are inclusive. I’m not sure they even realise I’d nearly consider converting. But we need to move away from a religion being a criterion for school admission.”

Fiona Flynn is a 43-year-old mother of two from Co Kildare. Both of her sons are at Newbridge Educate Together National School; it's part of a network of schools that are seen as secular havens, but about half of the parents also send their children to after-school Catholic faith-formation classes. Fiona is one such parent. She describes herself as a progressive Catholic and is in favour of gay rights and repealing the eighth amendment.

I have huge misgivings about staying involved in the church after the scandals but I believe in the gospel message of love and the connection with God it provides.

“I go to mass every week. I have huge misgivings about staying involved in the church after the scandals but I believe in the gospel message of love and the connection with God it provides. We chose Educate Together because we saw it is a good model that teaches positive values of inclusion and respect. Religion was way down my list of priorities in choosing a school; it is up to me and my husband to provide that education.”

Flynn says there was “fierce” resistance to Educate Together at first, but parish priests are coming to see that the after-school faith model works well. “We pay for it and it is an opt-in rather than opt-out model. The support of the parish has been crucial for preparing our children for communion and confirmation and helping deliver the curriculum.

“The faith formation teacher chooses to teach them about religion. I know that some secular people – of which I am one – resent us taking the school places. I understand that, but we also want our kids in a school where their classmates don’t sit at the back while they learn about religion. I think this model is the way forward.”

Most of us could name several people whose children are making communion or confirmation but who generally attend church only for the rituals of baptism, marriage and funeral. Ferdia Kelly of the Catholic Schools Partnership, an umbrella body for the Catholic managers of 92 per cent of Irish primary schools and a majority (60 per cent plus) of secondary schools, says if a parent wishes for their child to make communion or confirmation, they respect and support that by inviting the parent to engage in a programme of preparation led by the parish and supported by the school.

Two of those I speak to could be described as more orthodox Catholics, but they’re part of a still thriving movement of young – and sometimes evangelical – Catholics. These are among the Catholics who were more reluctant to talk to the mainstream press because, they say, they fear abuse on social media. Another, not interviewed here, quietly told me: “It’s just not worth it.”

Ciaran* is in his mid-30s and has asked for his real name not to be used. We've known each other for about 15 years although most of our contact these days is through Facebook. He went to university in Dublin and lived the wild student life.

Social justice

His best friends were and still are left-leaning and many are strongly pro-choice; although he often disagrees with them, those friendships have stayed solid and strong. He has been involved in social justice and anti-war campaigns. One summer, hitching a lift from Galway, the driver spoke to him about faith and it struck a chord. He got involved with youth group Youth 2000, which regularly meet for prayer, and his prayer group was involved in soup runs.

He began dating the woman who would later become his wife and mother of his two children and, over time, she also became immersed in the faith she was baptised into but had drifted from.

He struggles with his conscience though, having studied theology, he broadly lives his life according to church teaching on contraception and family planning; that said, he says he has reservations about some aspects of the teachings, and accepts that people’s lives are complex. He would never want to see his decisions pushed on anyone else. He is supportive of the many LGBTI people in his life.

Ciaran is horrified by the past abuses of the church and completely understands and shares the anger that many feel. “I do feel it is an awkward relationship sometimes but I haven’t abandoned my Catholicism because I believe in the Eucharist. I spend time in adoration and we bring my boys in and say a prayer, and I know great priests.”

Roger Berkeley is a 21-year-old student business and law student in UCD. "I am Catholic because God became man and died for me, for you, for everyone. He rose again to release us from the finality of a physical death. There is a place for everyone in the church, and Christianity is a religion of love."

Ecumenism fan

Roger is a fan of ecumenism and inter-faith dialogue and believes this can help believers, non-believers and everyone in between to understand each other. For him, the most important message of Catholicism is self-sacrifice. “I want to be able to provide for my wife and kids when the time comes and am saving myself for my wife so I can give everything in our marriage; I am motivated to continually deepen my prayer life and learn about my faith.”

There are many Catholics with a deep faith and belief in the gospel who are unhappy with the hierarchal Catholic church. Phil Dunne and Brendan Butler are joint co-ordinators of We Are Church Ireland, an international network of Catholics calling for reform within the church.

Dunne, the mother of four adult sons, is a retired speech and drama teacher from south county Dublin. She believes in the message of Jesus and in the gospel, but objects to the “male, hierarchical, misogynist structure” of the church.

Brendan Butler is from north county Dublin and he is 73 years old. He is a retired teacher and father of five; in his early 20s he trained as a Franciscan friar but left before ordination. In 1979, he was a co-founder of the Irish El Salvador Support Committee and, during the 1980s, he played a major role in the international resistance to US-backed death squads.

For me, the big issue is the women's question. I ask myself: by staying a Catholic, am I taking part in my own oppression?

“The centre of community in Ireland has, for a long time, been parish,” says Dunne. “That is shifting, but people still want community and may find it elsewhere, such as in local organisations and groups. For me, the big issue is the women’s question. I ask myself: by staying a Catholic, am I taking part in my own oppression? When I was diagnosed with cancer, and told to avoid stress, the biggest stress for me was the hierarchical church so, for health reasons, I stopped going to my parish church.”

Dunne was absolutely delighted with the “large majority” for same-sex marriage. “I was glad it didn’t sneak in. How can the church look at people’s gay children and grandchildren and declare their love ‘intrinsically evil’? Many Catholics saw that it was rubbish. They went with their conscience and said yes.”

Why does she stay? “If I was younger perhaps I would walk away. I have thought about moving to another denomination, but this is my home and where I was brought up. This is where I have tried to live my life. I stay because I firmly believe in the gospel of Jesus and because there are enough like-minded people I can work with and find support from. I believe the spirit is at work in the church though,” she smiles wryly, “sometimes it is hard for her to get through.”

Cover-up shock

The clerical abuse and, more so, the cover-up, was a genuine shock to Brendan Butler. He had seen priests as good men who were often at the mercy of authoritarian bishops and afraid to speak out on many issues, but he had never suspected some of them could commit such crimes against children.

“The abuses, their treatment of women and LGBTI people; I had to do something. We want to see women priests, clerical celibacy being optional, conscience being recognised as primary, everyone being allowed to participate in decision-making, and the church being inclusive of all. There are about 30 of us who meet once a month, and there are 200 on our mailing list.

“But most of us are older and young people don’t want to join us. They feel the church is beyond reform and that it is a waste of time when they could be getting involved in social justice movements like Apollo House. I don’t blame them.”

Most of his friends have given up or joined other denominations including Unitarianism and Protestantism. Why stay? Butler believes in the message of Jesus and that Christianity is innately good but has been hijacked by men in search of power.

He says there has been a “creeping infallibility” under the previous two popes, and the church has been imposing teachings on contraception, LGBTI people as disordered, transubstantiation and the virgin birth. Far from becoming more liberal, the cardinals have been doubling down against Francis’s reforms and those still attracted to the clergy are more hardline, more conservative; their influence will probably grow and they seem content to lose members.

“Am I colluding in a church that has perpetrated such injustices, especially against women? They created the mindset that led to the Magdalene laundries and they have besmirched Mary Magdalene, apostle to the apostles, as a prostitute, because they wanted to blacken and subjugate women. But there is a role in the church for a prophet to stand up to religion when it subverts society. I’m not saying that is me, but Jesus and John the Baptist certainly were those prophets.”

The rituals

All societies need ritual to mark major life events. But, among this number, there are quite a few lapsed Catholics who take part in the rituals because of family pressure, community expectation and a perceived lack of choice. Enter Karen Dempsey, 39, an ordained inter-faith minister. Like most Irish people, she was raised Catholic; her uncle is a priest. She rejected the Vatican because of the abuse scandals, but her training has helped her to see that she doesn't entirely reject Catholicism.

When working as a nurse at the Rotunda, she met parents who ticked the “Catholic” box on forms. “One night, I cared for a woman having an early miscarriage; she was upset and confided that she didn’t believe in God, but she believed in something. She could call herself a Catholic, a Protestant, a humanist, an atheist, but none of them could help the woman on that middleground where she stood.”

Dempsey, who also has a master of science in psychotherapy, decided to become an interfaith minister. She presides over weddings, funerals and naming ceremonies and has taken a vow to be inclusive.

Naming ceremonies proceed with a welcome, then there may be music and poetry. She tends to light a candle to create a sacredness around the space. She might ask if the grandparents would like to offer a blessing for the baby because, while the couple may not be religious, their parents may be. The ‘godparents’ become ‘guideparents’ and they vow to share insights about their life with the child and to life their life well. Nobody rejects Satan.

Weddings are completely focused on the couple, and couples have to decide which elements of tradition to keep, which to jettison and, because tradition is always evolving, which to adapt. Do they enter the room together or will one wait at the top of the room?

I don't mind if I am called an a la carte Catholic because I am happy to hold the pieces that contain beauty

“I start by welcoming everyone, asking them to be present, and then music, readings or both. The core of the ceremony is the transitional moment when two people commit to each other – this can be for the rest of their days or as long as it is right for them; the vows are flexible. I join hands and they exchange rings and reflect on what it means to them. The ceremony contains gravitas and respect for the institution of marriage and some of those from more traditional backgrounds who might have been wary are often surprised by it.

"There is a great richness to the culture of faith in Ireland going back to the time of the druids and, later, the monasteries at Glendalough, " she says. "Early Christian monks wrote about God as present in nature. With the Vatican, it became about money. My Jesus is a lovely man who preached love, acceptance and inclusion above all else, but too often I see the church preaching exclusion and division. I don't mind if I am called an a la carte Catholic because I am happy to hold the pieces that contain beauty. I don't enforce my views on others but my experience of life has given me a sense of something more."