Breda O’Brien: It’s complicated - our relationship with Catholicism

We may not choose to actively support something - but heaven help anyone who tries to say that we are not entitled to it.

'It's complicated' is a Facebook relationship status, denoting anything from a relationship on the rocks to one that doesn't fit standard parameters, but is working relatively well.

For many Irish people, "it's complicated" describes their relationship with institutional churches. Certainly, many feel both disillusioned by and sceptical about formal religion. Yet when there is a community tragedy, church rituals provide a supportive framework that is deeply appreciated. Think of the role played by chaplains to the Travelling community six months ago, or by priests after the tragic drowning in Buncrana.

Perhaps it is because of that supportive framework that any parish priest brave enough to suggest parents should not present their children for Baptism or Holy Communion if they do not intend to practise, is likely to be met by angry and offended parents.

It’s complicated. The recent social media campaign that urged people to tick “No religion” on their census form failed to understand that views on religion are not black and white. The picture regarding schools is also complicated. For example, if you believed the media, you would think that children who are not baptised are being turned away from schools in droves, and that there is a vast nationwide crisis.


Cathal Barry of the Irish Catholic surveyed Catholic schools to see how many are oversubscribed, and found that only 46 are. So that means 1.6 per cent of the 2,900 Catholic primary schools in the country have more applicants than they have places for. And many of those places are being sought by Catholics.

Could the perception of a huge crisis come from the fact that most journalists live in middle-class urban areas, where the problem is most acute? According to Barry's survey, there are 17 oversubscribed Catholic schools in the Archdiocese of Dublin, many of them in places like Greystones, Terenure, Cabinteely, Foxrock, Clontarf and Donnybrook. Presumably, they are oversubscribed because they are excellent schools. Aside from Dublin, oversubscribed schools are found in commuter belt counties such as Wicklow, Kildare and Meath. The problem is failure of provision.

The Government’s own surveys showed no great appetite for changes in school patronage. As a result, the department decided there was sufficient demand for multidenominational schools to provide 20 new four-teacher schools, an important development, but a drop in the ocean.

When it comes to divesting, or transfer of patronage of primary schools, the hierarchical church is willing, but local parents usually are not. A parish chaplain told me of a disadvantaged Dublin parish where, while planning the normal First Holy Communion preparation meetings, somehow, completely erroneously, word spread that the parish was thinking of divesting the school. To her amazement, the meeting for First Holy Communion parents, instead of just the usual faithful few, was packed with anxious, protesting parents, who wanted their child to receive the same education they had – even though few were actively trying to raise their children as Catholics.

It is certainly complicated, and contradictory, and terribly Irish. We may not choose to actively support something, but heaven help anyone who tries to say we are not entitled to it. And even those who ticked the “No religion” box did so for complicated reasons.

Spiritual element

Britain is one of the least religious countries in the world. Theos, a British interdenominational think thank, surveyed Britons who self-describe as non-religious, and discovered that only 25 per cent of them believe “humans are purely material beings with no spiritual element”. About 35 per cent of the non-religious believe spiritual forces affect events; 8 per cent of the non-religious claimed that they or someone they knew had experienced a miracle.

“No religion” does not automatically mean being an atheist or an agnostic. And it certainly can’t predict what kind of school people want. Denominational schools in Britain are incredibly popular.

By trying to reduce religion's role in society, maybe we need to be careful what we wish for. For example, this week, the Jesuit Refugee Centre published important research – No End in Sight: Lives on Hold Long Term in the Asylum Process.

It describes the scandal of asylum-seeking children who have never seen a parent cook a meal, and who have spent their entire short lives in direct provision.

The search for justice by the Jesuit Refugee Service is motivated by the same reasons that drive another Jesuit, Pope Francis – a deep care for others because they are created and loved by God.

Do we want to lessen that type of care, or end the work of people like the Capuchin Br Kevin whose organisation provides 700 meals each day and over 1,500 food parcels each Wednesday?

Even Richard Dawkins, the famous atheist who likened raising a child in a religion as a form of child abuse, said he had mixed feelings about the decline of Christianity, as it might be a bulwark against something worse. For sure, people should have been honest in the census, but they should also be honest and acknowledge complexities when they draw conclusions from the resulting statistics.