Never less cause for celebration with just a third of Catholics attending weekly Mass


ANALYSIS: A recent survey reveals some startling facts about the faithful in modern Ireland

A FEW months ago, at a large funeral in a mid-western Irish town for a devout, much-loved 88-year-old family man, his 13 handsome, 20- and 30-something grandchildren brought joy and life to the occasion. The one thing they failed to bring was a knowledge of basic Mass etiquette. Throughout the consecration, oblivious to the bowed and kneeling congregation behind them, all 13 remained seated, exchanging the odd friendly word. Then they all trooped solemnly up for Communion.

It generated some quiet exchanges afterwards. The local priest said cheerfully that all were welcome in his church, regardless of their knowledge or devotion – “sure, isn’t that what we’re here for?” A visiting priest remarked mildly that “nearly all Irish Catholics were infantilised – their spiritual development was arrested back around First Communion time”.

A 50-something layman shrugged and said : “They’re gone in any meaningful sense. They’ll turn up in church because they know their grandad would have wanted it and they like the sense of community it gives them – but do they really believe in any of it anymore . . . ?”

We have some of the answers now. The 13 grandchildren had forgotten that transubstantiation – the belief that bread and wine becomes the body and blood of Christ during Mass – is a core tenet of the Catholic faith, but they’re not unusual. Two-thirds of Irish Catholics in this survey believe that what happens at Mass is not transubstantiation, but merely symbolic – that the bread and wine only represents the body and blood of Christ. Which means they have forgotten or chosen to reject everything they solemnly ingested at First Communion.

Once the 12 per cent of don’t knows are eliminated, the startling fact is just a quarter of Irish Catholics believe what they recite in the Creed. And there is little comfort for church figures in the breakdown of age or Mass attendance. Even among weekly Mass-goers and/or those over 65, precisely half believe that what happens is merely symbolic.

How many Irish Catholics still go to Mass? About a third attend once a week or more; another 8 per cent once a fortnight. Another 20 per cent ramble in to Mass between every three to four weeks and three months.

The interesting part is that 18 per cent say they rarely or never attend and they’re not just the grandchildren. Half of them are over 34. As always with religious practice in Ireland, location is significant. An urban Catholic is only half as likely as a rural one to go to Mass, and is also more likely to be a male who votes Green, Independent, Sinn Féin or Labour, in that order.

At the opposite end, are the third of Catholics who attend Mass once a week or more. At its simplest, this is more likely to be a working-class woman, aged over 65, from Connacht/Ulster, who votes Fianna Fáil or – less likely – Fine Gael.

Age is also significant. Nearly two-thirds of the over-65s attend Mass once a week or more, compared to 13 per cent of those aged 18-24.

Interestingly, while women have always been perceived as the stereotypical daily Mass attenders, the gap between male and female attendance is not as wide as might be expected. Four per cent of women attend daily, while 3 per cent of men do. The gap widens to 8 per cent in the once-a-week or more category: 35 per cent of women versus 27 per cent of men. Overall, the gap between the two is about 10 per cent – substantial but still probably narrower than expected.

So apart from problems with transubstantiation, what other tenets of faith do Irish Catholics call into question?

Some eight in 100 don’t believe in God; 15 in 100 don’t believe Jesus is the son of God; and 18 in 100 don’t believe God created man. But the flipside of those figures is that well over 80 per cent of Irish Catholics still accept these tenets.

Amid increasingly vocal proponents of rationality and science over belief in gods and supernatural explanations for the meaning of life and death, it is interesting to note that over 80 per cent continue to believe in heaven, a belief shared fairly equally across regions, party and class, and rising to 90 per cent among the over-65s and women.

By contrast, precisely half don’t believe in hell, particularly in Munster and Dublin. They’ve come a long way from the religion of fire and brimstone and eternal damnation.

Penitential sites such as Croagh Patrick and Lough Derg remain almost unique to Ireland, yet some might ask, what is the point of them if everyone is going to heaven? According to fieldwork by Prof Tom Inglis of UCD, the people who believe in hell may not have a clear concept of it but they have to believe there is a particular destiny for really bad people.

So aside from belief, is the Catholic Church still welcome in Ireland? Do people think the country would be better off without it? The question was asked of all respondents, not only Catholics, and the remarkable fact is only 9 per cent said yes.

Nearly 40 per cent said the country would be a worse place without it, a figure that includes 29 per cent of Protestants. It also includes a third of those under 34, rising to nearly half of the over-65s.

Fianna Fáilers are far more likely to say this, followed by Fine Gaelers, but even 28 per cent of Labour voters agree the Catholic Church makes things better. Are these the people who find their personal experience of decent pastors in well-run parishes, trumps anything the institution might do to harm it?

For all that, it’s worth noting a very significant 46 per cent remains agnostic on this question, saying it would make no difference if the Catholic Church withdrew from Ireland.

Is this simple indifference? Or benign hostility? Is it possible a church once so embedded in Irish people’s lives could now be ignored by nearly half the citizens?

This poll also attempts to answer questions about the controversial role of the church in the Irish primary education system, and the answers might not be as clear-cut as expected. Nearly half the respondents – not confined to Catholics – agreed that Catholic Church management of the primary school system has been positive – just 31 per cent disagreed – but nearly half believe the diminishing influence of the church is good for Irish education.

Nearly half those polled agreed that national primary schools should be non-denominational by default (including four in 10 of the over-65s) and only 29 per cent of Catholics disagreed, though a quarter of the Catholics surveyed also gave the neither/nor reply.

Over half agreed that religious education should be part of the normal school day – including 37 per cent of Catholics and 48 per cent of Protestants, with only a five-point gap between urban and rural respondents.

With the Eucharistic Congress set to begin this week, there is some debate around the country as to how engaged the Irish laity and even the priests are in preparations.

Six out of 10 Catholics polled said they were aware it was taking place, although just 4 per cent of all Catholic respondents said they intended to attend the opening ceremony and the same numbers said they planned to attend the Statio Orbis.

“It’s another imposition from Rome,” said a rueful priest, “at a time and in a place when there was never less cause for celebration”. All strands of the church see it as a test.


This survey was conducted exclusively on behalf of The Irish Times by Ipsos MRBI, among a national quota sample of 1,000 representative of the circa 3.4 million adults aged 18 upwards, covering 100 sampling points throughout all constituencies in the Republic of Ireland. Personal in-home interviewing took place on May 23rd, 24th, and 25th and the accuracy level is estimated to be approximately plus or minus 3%. In all respects, the survey was conducted within the guidelines laid down by the Marketing Society of Ireland, and by ESOMAR. Extracts from the report may be quoted or published on condition that due acknowledgement is given to The Irish Times and Ipsos MRBI.

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