'People's experience of church and the method of belonging' is set to change

ANALYSIS : Censuses and polls show the nature of adherence to religious institutions in Ireland is evolving

ANALYSIS: Censuses and polls show the nature of adherence to religious institutions in Ireland is evolving

A FEATURE of recent surveys on Irish Catholicism has been the findings of a steady decline in weekly Mass attendance. The Irish Times/Ipsos MRBI poll, published today, shows 34 per cent of Catholics in the Republic attend Mass at least once a week.

This is broadly in line with an Amárach survey last February, conducted for the Association of Catholic Priests, which found weekly Mass attendance on the island of Ireland stood at 35 per cent.

What is intriguing about this latest Irish Times/Ipsos MRBI poll is its finding that weekly Mass attendance in Dublin is 25 per cent.


This clashes with figures published by Dublin’s Catholic archdiocese last November.

In its financial report, diocesan financial administrator Kieran O’Farrell reported that out of a Catholic population of 1,162,000 in Dublin, weekend Mass attendance “at the last count” was 164,000 (one in seven), or about 14 per cent.

You can take it, not least as it involves finance, that this latter is the more accurate figure when it comes to weekly Mass attendance in Dublin.

So how is the disparity of 11 per cent between the archdiocese’s own figure and that of the Irish Times/Ipsos MRBI poll accounted for? Are we to conclude a significant number of those Catholics in Dublin surveyed between May 23rd and 25th were telling porkies? Was mother present when they answered questions?

This disparity between church figures and those found in polls or censuses is not new.

A certain bewilderment was expressed by the Protestant churches, particularly the Church of Ireland and the Presbyterian Church in Ireland, after the 2006 census indicated their populations in the Republic had increased.

It showed, for instance, that the Church of Ireland population in the Republic rose to 125,580, an increase of 10,000.

Although it was generally acknowledged that migration had added numbers to all denominations where the mainstream Protestant churches were concerned, this was not very evident in church attendance or church membership.

Commenting on this in May 2008, then Church of Ireland Archbishop of Dublin Dr John Neill said the nature of adherence to religious institutions in Ireland was changing.

Where once believers were wedded to Sunday worship, now “they might only attend at special occasions, or at the occasional routine service, but still describe themselves by proclamation as members of a particular church”, he said.

“We are heading towards a time when people’s experience of church and the method of belonging is going to change. The way of ‘being church’ is changing. It is too early to say what its shape will be. At the moment that is not clear.”

Since then, church records continue to show a decline in numbers while censuses continue to show an increase in those Irish people who tick relevant denominational boxes on census night. For instance, in the 2011 census, 129,039 people ticked the Church of Ireland box, representing another “invisible” increase.

On attitudes towards the Catholic Church, those revealed in the Irish Times/Ipsos MRBI poll might be seen as marginally more positive than those expressed in an Amárach survey conducted for the Iona Institute last October.

It had found 47 per cent of Irish Catholics had an unfavourable view of the church, while 46 per cent agreed Catholic teachings were of benefit to Irish society.

Just 9 per cent of respondents to the poll said they believed Ireland would be a better place without the Catholic Church. Some 38 per cent said Ireland would be a worse place to live without the Catholic Church.

However, 46 per cent of Irish Catholics believed it would make no difference to life in Ireland if the Catholic Church withdrew and 7 per cent expressed no opinion.

An Irish Times/Ipsos MRBI poll conducted in January 2010 after publication of the Murphy report the previous November found 47 per cent had a more negative view of the church then, while another 47 per cent said their view had not changed.

That poll also found 61 per cent believed the Catholic Church should give up control of the primary school system (where it manages about 93 per cent of schools).

According to this latest Irish Times/Ipsos MRBI poll, 47 per cent do not accept “the diminishing influence of the Catholic Church in primary education is bad for Irish education as a whole”, while 32 per cent do.

In general, however, there is respect for the church’s contribution to education.

Some 48 per cent believe “the management of the primary school system by the Catholic Church since the foundation of the State has been positive for Ireland”, while 31 per cent do not.

Patsy McGarry

Patsy McGarry

Patsy McGarry is a contributor to The Irish Times