As part of a series on the Church in Ireland, the Irish Times has written a number of articles on the subject.
The first article discusses the notions of belief in Ireland. The piece begins “Despite the fallout from clerical sex abuse scandals, a significant proportion of the country – including non-Catholics – believe the church has had a broadly positive influence on Ireland. The national survey was undertaken last month among a representative sample of 1,000 voters aged 18 and over. A total of 89 per cent of respondents were Catholic. The remainder were either not religious (6 per cent), Protestant (3 per cent) or from other faiths. Fianna Fáil supporters were most likely to be Catholic (95 per cent), followed by Sinn Féin (89 per cent), Fine Gael (88 per cent), Labour (85 per cent) and Greens (58 per cent). Overall, just under a third (31 per cent) of Catholics said they attended Mass at least once a week. More than two-thirds attended services far less frequently. Some 39 per cent said they either never or very occasionally went to Mass. A further 20 per cent said they attended every two to three months, while 8 per cent went once a fortnight. Those who attend Mass regularly are twice as likely to live in rural rather than urban areas. They are also more likely to be older and support Fianna Fáil or Fine Gael. When it comes to the church’s teachings, many Catholics do not subscribe to key tenets such as transubstantiation. Almost two-thirds (62 per cent) believe the blessing of bread and wine during Mass only represents the body and blood of Christ. Just over a quarter believe it is transformed (26 per cent)”.
It is heartening to see that many still think of the benefits of the Church in Ireland however, these people are normally too afraid to speak up and defend the Church when it comes under attack from those who preach nihilism and relativism. Either unaware of unconcerned by its consequences. Thankfully there are some who do defend the Church. To be welcomed is the number of people still attending Mass, which is probably among the highest in Europe. Obviously what the survey does not highlight is the age profile of these people and it can be safely assumed that the vast majority are over 60 with only a small fraction under 30.
In a related article in the series notes “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”.
The piece adds “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” but worryingly for the supposed tolerance of society “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”.
Again this obvious lack of tolerance is seen when another article notes “On one of his first visits to Poland, Scally almost laughed out loud when a Polish friend mentioned that he was a member of the Club of Catholic Intellectuals. The idea of Catholic intellectuals seemed hilarious. But when Polish people needed a bulwark against the communist authorities, the Catholic Church offered people a place to meet and an alternative space to think. It remains the case today: one of Poland’s leading weekly publications is a Catholic newspaper”. The fact that the Solidarity movement worked with the Church to overthrow Communist tyranny and have free speech, the rule of law and a free press after its downfall and the fact that Scally should be so narrowminded and dismissive of the Church speaks volumes.
Predictably reform is mentioned, “Fr Crombie distances himself from themes closely associated with the Association of Catholic Priests, such as the call for national assemblies and dialogue on the looming dearth of priests, on compulsory celibacy and on the ordination of women. Priesthood and celibacy are indivisible for him”. Indeed the ACP, far from being a canonical organisation is totally opposed to any thoughful (liturgical) reform as envisioned by Pope Benedict dismissing it out of hand. As for the question of celibacy it is not practiced in the Eastern Catholic Churches or the Orthodox Church so it should not be ruled out completely. The article goes on “A question that preoccupies the Association of Catholic Priests – the second Vatican Council’s unfulfilled decision that every parish would have a lay-dominated council, linked to a diocesan council, feeding into a national assembly – seems to puzzle him. He has never heard of it”. There is also the issue of what such a proposed assembly would be for.
Lastly, a piece notes the admittedly depressing figures, “In 1970 Ireland had almost 4,000 diocesan priests. Today that figure is 2,160, with 687 others retired, ill, on study leave or working elsewhere. Their average age is 64. In 1970 164 men entered Irish seminaries. Last year the figure was 22. The Amárach survey also found weekly Mass attendance in Ireland was 35 per cent. Last December  Archbishop Martin disclosed that weekly Mass attendance in Dublin is down to 14 per cent and said that within eight years just 235 priests will be available to serve full time in Dublin’s 199 parishes. Dublin’s Catholic archdiocese was facing its biggest crisis since Catholic Emancipation in 1829, the archbishop said”.
Finally a piece calls for “new thinking”. The article mentions that “By 2020, the number of priests in Dublin will drop by about 36 per cent, from 456 to about 294. Just 235 will be available to serve full-time in Dublin’s 199 parishes, he said, with the remainder serving as chaplains or at central services. Meanwhile priests’ income in Dublin has fallen 15 per cent in the past two years to an average of €24,079 per annum, as weekly Mass attendance hovers at 14 per cent. What has been happening in Dublin is reflected in each of the 26 Catholic dioceses on the island. In each, too, as the priests get older and their income drops, their workload increases. This is due to parish clustering, whereby priests who would normally serve in just one parish must now also take care of the needs of the faithful in nearby parishes as well. This, itself, is due to the growing shortage of priests. No wonder morale is low among Irish Catholic priests”. However he adds that this is not the only story, “Of the 1,965 priests currently in parish ministry in Ireland, 838 are 54 years and under. Even the 54-year-olds will not have reached retirement age by 2032. And between now and 2032 more priests will be ordained on an annual basis, though nobody should get too excited about that”.
He adds ” in 2032 there will also be additional permanent deacons. Eight such men were ordained in Dublin’s pro-cathedral last Monday, with other such ordinations to take place in seven more Catholic dioceses in Ireland. It is highly likely this pattern will be followed in the church’s remaining dioceses on the island also. These permanent deacons will be able to officiate at baptisms, weddings and funerals. In so doing, they will greatly lessen the workload of priests. Another way of freeing up, indeed liberating, priests to exclusively exercise their essential spiritual function is for the laity to take over parish administrative duties. This is happening already and is a source of immense satisfaction to the great majority of priests”. Indeed this does make some sense. There is little reason for a priest to spend his time filling in forms when it could be far better spent elsewhere.
Yet is obvious from these reports is the the Church in Ireland faces organisational, financial, “personnel” and credibility problems. However, the common thread that runs through these reports is that the Church is treated as some political actor rather than a divine institution run by flawed human beings who are trying to achieve some beyond the transitory existence of this life and at the same time aim for something more than just material possessions and whatever else this world offers.