Brendan Hoban: Census reveals resilient loyalty to religion                    

Western People 13.6.2023

Much attention has predictably been given to the finding of last year’s Census that the number of people in the Republic who describe themselves as ‘Catholics’ has fallen from  79% to 69%. However, the Central Statistics Office has entered a caveat – the decrease may be influenced by the way the question was framed.

In former Census surveys the religion question was: ‘What is your religion?’ Last year, as The Irish Times reported, under pressure from the Humanist Association, the question was: ‘What is your religion, if any?’

However, Atheist Ireland, was unhappy that the revised question ‘artificially inflates the number of religious responses’ and that if a different question was posed like, ‘Do you have a religion?’ the decline in the number of Catholics would be increased.

Yes, I know. What they want is a question that encourages Catholics to absent themselves altogether from the Census. It is also pertinent to point out that humanist groups mounted a campaign before the Census calling on people not to tick the Catholic box.

It seems that some will never be happy until the last Catholic is banished from our shores. If any other faith group was thus targeted, all Hell (so to speak) would break loose.

 Once, given our history of denominational Christianity with its often sad undercurrent of competitiveness and proselytisation, opposing religious groups drawing from the same well carried on the equivalent of a campaign of guerrilla warfare – computing success in terms of conversions and numbers.

Now that all (or nearly all) Christian denominations – Protestant  and Catholic – regard spreading the Good News of Jesus Christ as trumping any denominational label and are singing from the same hymn-sheet, it’s left to those who oppose any kind of faith to hold religion to account.

Thus, predictably, Atheist Ireland (A.I.) were first on the battlements, calculators at hand, crunching the Census figures to give the impression that those reviled Irish citizens, those religious zealots otherwise known as ‘Catholics’, were even more in decline than the numbers suggested.

While A.I. can be forgiven for an undisguised triumphalism at the Census evidence that religion in Ireland is on the decline, their enthusiasm has led them into dodgy

mathematical territory. Suddenly, they were adding the number of those in the Census who had no religion to those who declined to state their religion and arrived at a figure of ‘over a million’. This mix of supposition, wishful thinking and triumphalism creates the impression that the decline in religion is probably more than the actual figures suggest. Sometimes arguments can be proposed not wisely but too well with both mathematics and credibility the innocent victims.

Others in the religion camp, anxious to interpret the figures in a more positive and favourable light, reject the gloss that the proportion of Catholics has declined by 10% and suggest that Catholic numbers have declined by 181,000 since the last Census in 2016 and that in the intervening seven years at least 130,000 Catholics have died. So take your pick.  Whatever figure you’re having yourself – anything from 50,000 to a million!  

My own view is that most people expected a higher decrease in the number of Catholics than 10% (or as some have suggested) a fall of 10 percentage points of the proportion of Catholics in the Republic. Examining the obvious decline in the Catholic Church – the numbers attending Mass, the decline in vocations, the loss of authority – not to speak of the feelings of shame and betrayal and indeed anger so many feel after the nightmare of the child abuse scandals, the general sense was that the number of Catholics distancing themselves from the Church was significantly greater.

In terms of the nightmare of the last few decades, it is quite remarkable that 69% per cent of the population of the Republic – almost 7 out of 10 – still regard themselves as Catholics. Once a Catholic always a Catholic, we say, and there is an abiding truth in that. Despite the disappointments and the frustrations, more Catholics than we might reasonably expect seem to retain a remarkable though individual loyalty to the faith of their fathers (and mothers).

What has happened, I think, is that many Catholics are simply going their own way, resistant to teachings that no longer make sense to them, refusing to take direction from leaders whose credibility they no longer accept and carving out of the lived experiences of their own lives their own pathway to faith in God. Yet at the same time refusing to jettison those parts of their Catholic heritage and tradition that still engage them. It may not extend to attending weekend Mass or ticking the boxes that traditionally qualified them as members of the Catholic Church but there is, despite failure and shame, a resilient loyalty to a Catholicism that is embedded both in their lives and in the ambient culture.

A mistake those outside the Catholic fold can make, as A.I. sometimes does, is to question the percentage of ‘practicing’ Catholics. In fairness, many Catholics (especially those who regard themselves as ‘real’ Catholics) make the same mistake in looking down their noses at their apparently less observant co-religionists. But not attending religious services, for example, cannot be presumed to indicate a lack of faith as many of those who fit that definition will very quickly point out. And there is the obvious compelling truth that many, not enthralled with the antics of institutional religion, are much closer to the way of Jesus than those who presume to patronise them. And that probably includes more than a few atheists.

The lifelong quest for God has many twists and turns.

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  1. Jim Stack says:

    In an otherwise fair and balanced commentary, Fr Hoban is a bit unfair to people like me who wrote to the newspapers at the time pointing out that the decline in Catholic numbers was nowhere near 10% and was actually 181,000. We did not “suggest” that this was the case, it actually was the case, and it was also the case that the reported ten percentage decline was due mainly to a big increase in largely non-Catholic immigration since the previous census. Others who pointed this out to the media may have had different reasons, but my own motivation was merely to prevent the media interpreting the census data as saying that people were leaving the Catholic church in droves. I was not trying to exaggerate the relative importance of Catholics in the population. In fact, with less and less children being brought up in the faith, I think our future looks quite bleak.

    As for the importance or unimportance of regular attendance at church, Fr Hoban might consider these statistics from the RTE Exit Poll conducted on the day of the abortion referendum in 2018. About 84% of those who attended church several times a week voted No, this fell to about 59% for those who attended church once a week, and fell further to 28% for those who attended once a month, and to 11% for those who never attended church at all. It is when I see data like this that I struggle to accept that formal adherence to religion is unimportant. I think, in fact, that societies change drastically, and for the worse, when the majority of people in that society do not attend church regularly.

  2. Sean O'Conaill says:

    “Now that all (or nearly all) Christian denominations – Protestant and Catholic – regard spreading the Good News of Jesus Christ as trumping any denominational label and are singing from the same hymn-sheet, it’s left to those who oppose any kind of faith to hold religion to account.”

    Here again the studious avoidance by our own Irish magisterium of the most elementary investigation of what understanding of ‘the Good News’ is actually achieved and retained by us Catholics – especially at the point of leaving school – allows the widest range of conjecture on the matter. An analysis of diocesan synodal syntheses in 2022 strongly suggests a prevalence of uncertainty and lack of evangelical confidence, when it comes to defining ‘the Good News’, but I am strongly inclined to share Brendan’s optimism.

    It was the Vatican II document on ecumenism that gave us the fascinating phrase ‘the hierarchy of truth’ – enabling theologians of different Christian denominations to share their insights on what might lie at the summit of such a hierarchy, as a ‘common core’.

    Somewhat panic-stricken our most authoritarian bishops rushed to insist that in any such hierarchy no ‘truth’ could be considered less important than any other or even (God forbid) ‘disposable’. Recalling that this would have left Limbo intact in our belief system forever, we are perhaps discovering the importance of a sense of humour among Christians when it comes to discussing that ‘common core’.

    Also surely important is St Paul’s distinction between love and knowledge, and emphatic prioritisation of the former. Can’t we be reasonably certain that even after all that has happened to us most ‘Irish Catholics’ would agree on that at least?

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