So now we know. While commentators were avidly awaiting the results of the 2016 Census to see how Irish society had (or hadn’t) changed in the five years since Census 2011, my sense is that what kept many awake at night wasn’t the number of, say, Lithuanians as distinct from Romanians in the country. Rather, I suspect, it was the extent of the expected decline in the number of Catholics, those who no longer were happy to tick the Catholic box. There were quite a few vested interests waiting on that particular result.
In the 2011 Census Catholics registered at 84% of the total population. At the time that figure was regarded as unusually high as something of a campaign had been fought to encourage Catholics unhappy with their church not to declare their traditional religious affiliation.
The figure for the Catholic population this time is 78%, a seeming decline of 6%, though those better able to crunch figures than I am say that those declaring to be Catholics declined by just 3.4% since 2011. It’s a tribute to the control of those respectively disappointed and elated with the result that there was very little recrimination afterwards, apart from one group of secular educationalists announcing the equivalent of a new secular dawn. On 3.4%?
What secularists don’t seem to get is that Irish people, after a long and complex history, are well able to make a distinction between their faith and their Church. The first is deeply embedded in our culture and in the lives of our people; the second is now regarded by many as a very flawed institution, incapable of retrieving their trust.
Irish Catholics, often regarded by what passes for a liberal intelligentsia as a vulgar superstitious lot, are much more sophisticated than they’re often given credit for.
Many Catholics today bring a sensible rationality to the practice of their religion, holding their faith up to the light of reason and experience and carving out a personal, liveable faith for themselves and their families.
For example, when Catholic couples of child-bearing age decide to plan their families without either (what some regard) as a Russian roulette of natural family methods, or (as others feel) the straitjacket of the absolute ban on the use of artificial contraception, they see their decision as sensible, responsible and reasonable and at one with a God whom they believe loves them and who doesn’t want to place undue burdens on them or their children.
Another example is the space Catholics today have found for themselves in terms of what constitutes religious practice. The traditional template was weekly attendance at weekend Mass. As this is running somewhere between 50% in rural parishes to 3% in some urban parishes and if Catholics in 2016 declared themselves as 78% of the population of Ireland, there’s a gap here that needs some explaining.
Those dismissive of religion and all its works and pomps contend that the gap is explained by a convenient hypocrisy, people wanting to be Catholics but not prepared to accept its tenets. Extreme Catholics plough the same furrow of disloyalty, selfishness and doublethink.
Both sides are loud in their respective condemnations, one railing against superstition, the other believing that in ignoring the injunction of Mass attendance (which once carried the threat of mortal sin) Catholics are exposing themselves to the imminent threat of hell-fire.
However, most sensible Catholics today take a more balanced approach. The ritual of regular Mass attendance is important but other considerations may diminish its regularity – the decline of a fear-ethic in religion, obsessive sermonising, a sense that the ritual of Mass attendance is not engaging with lived experience, family outings, sport and recreation, etc.
Most sensible Catholics today know too that just because their Church gets its so wrong so often and its leaders seem trapped in a time-warp doesn’t mean that they should throw the baby out with the bathwater. They know that faith in a God who loves them adds immeasurably to their own lives and to their children’s lives.
My sense is that most Catholics have an instinctive respect for God and the things of God that they first discovered in their own homes. Many have direct experience of religion as a life-force, an energy, a wisdom, a resource, a richness, a comfort, a sustenance and a way of life that brings with it a personal connection to a God who loves them beyond all their imagining.
The rituals of the Church are important not because they have threats of eternal damnation attached to them or they don’t make sense to those with no religious faith but because, unexciting and inadequate as they often are, they feed a faith that helps us make sense of the compelling and complex adventure that life is.
Parents with faith want their children to have faith. That’s why baptism retains its popularity. That’s why First Communion and Confirmation are such important events. That’s why so many couples still prefer to exchange their vows before an altar. That’s why churches are inundated with funerals. And so on. It really is as simple as that. And it explains why that figure of 78% will take more than a census or two to disappear.
A more interesting statistic from the 2016 Census is the roughly 10% of the population who declare they have no religion. Surprisingly, some commentators have been surprised by it. I’m not, I have to say. That figure is a greater tribute to the fundamental decision that faith entails rather than the 92% figure of Mass-going Catholics in Ireland from surveys in the 1970s. Healthier too.