After the Covid pandemic, where does churchgoing fit into Irish lives?

Rite & Reason: A new survey aims to highlight Irish views on assisted dying, climate change and artificial intelligence, and how people’s thoughts are influenced by their faith perspective

As a researcher, surveys are a regular feature of my work. If I want to learn more about a phenomenon or discover how people feel about an issue, I ask questions. Later, I often return and perhaps ask further questions.

Sometimes I feel like the young Oliver Twist approaching the master with his empty bowl asking for more. When you add in the fact that my research subject matter often concerns faith, religion and topics relating to church, especially Catholicism, the whole experience can feel even more intimidating.

I am part of a research team exploring churchgoing and what it means to people across Ireland and the UK. Our survey, called Church-24, is the third collaborative study between York St John University and the Mater Dei Centre for Catholic Education in recent years. Previously, we studied the impact of Covid-19 on clergy and laypeople across the UK and the Republic of Ireland. The Church-24 survey is open to all denominations of Christianity, both clergy and laypeople, and participants are welcome to complete it regardless of how regularly or not they attend church services.

We are always conscious of survey saturation, whereby people may feel bombarded by yet another survey regardless of the subject matter. Or perhaps they are deterred from responding due to irritation at being asked yet again about certain issues. Especially in faith-related matters, some may feel that ticking a box does not give a broad or accurate enough account of their complex opinion. It is important to reiterate why ongoing research, especially in matters of faith, beliefs and values is so necessary. Even Jesus challenged his followers to stop, think for themselves and give voice to their own opinion: “Who do people say I am? . . . But who do you say I am?” (Matt 16: 13-15).


It is not fair to assume how people of various ages and backgrounds feel about churchgoing or about how faith impacts their decision-making processes on political, moral and societal questions. People change their minds and adjust their stance on issues for a variety of reasons over time and with experience. It is always better to ask, and gather up-to-date information on people’s opinions and values so that future work is based on the most recent evidence.

Policy-making and decisions with long-term and far-reaching impact should not be knee-jerk reactions or political moves in a game of cultural chess. Author Terry Pratchett phrased it so well when he said: “I’ll be more enthusiastic about encouraging thinking outside the box when there’s evidence of any thinking going on inside it.”

We are keen to represent the viewpoints of the Irish people authentically in matters of faith and education. To do this, we depend on obtaining as wide a variety of responses as possible to our ongoing research. In the past, the Irish public have been very generous in giving their time to help us with our work and we are inviting them to help again by completing the online survey. It should only take about 10 minutes to complete but the findings from the responses could be fascinating. It is designed to be as user-friendly as possible, filtering the questions based on your initial responses so that you are encountering only those questions relevant to your stated religious affiliation and whether you are a layperson, a member of the clergy or a religious community.

This survey addresses topical issues including assisted dying, climate change and artificial intelligence, what Irish people think about these topics and how their thoughts are influenced by their faith perspective, along with more general inquiries on churchgoing practice and revisits the recurring questions such as the role of women in the church.

There are elements of this survey that have been used in research studies in the Anglican context by our partners at York St John University for more than a decade. It is possible, then, to compare trends in opinions over those years. Adding a Catholic dimension as well as an Irish flavour to the growing datasets puts us in a more informed position for the future.

Another aspect of the survey is an examination of our faith communities and how people’s sense of belonging in a community has changed, or not, since the lifting of Covid-19 restrictions. In our earlier research, we noted that respondents were jolted out of their long-standing habits around churchgoing by the pandemic. Some stopped attending church gatherings. Others availed of online options.

Now, roughly four years since the reset button was pressed on our churchgoing habits, what is the current state of play? As we move into the next quarter of this century, where does churchgoing fit into the Irish landscape?

Dr Bernadette Sweetman is a post-doctoral researcher at the Mater Dei Centre for Catholic Education, Dublin City University.