Indicators of Change

During this period there were also other indicators of change; a referendum on abortion, to prevent suicide being  grounds for a termination of pregnancy was defeated in 2002 and political commentator Dick Walsh suggested this was the first occasion “in which the alliance of Fianna Fáil, the Catholic bishops and lay activists were defeated, largely by social democrats”. Historian Brian Girvin concluded in relation to this that “those in a minority in the 1970s now represented a majority”. Girvin also pointed to another shift in the church/state equilibrium, when the Minister for Children, Brian Lenihan, insisted in 2005 it was his responsibility to ensure that the church’s guidelines in respect of children were compatible with the state’s.  But the state made some strange decisions in this regard also. Despite the assertion in the Ryan Report that “it is impossible to determine the full extent of sexual abuse committed in boy’s schools”, an indemnity deal was agreed between some religious orders and the state which many believed was patently inadequate and failed to involve sufficient external scrutiny. In 2011, Taoiseach Enda Kenny excoriated the Vatican for its alleged lack of co-operation with Irish inquiries into child abuse, while the Irish embassy at the Vatican was closed down, supposedly on grounds of cost. In 2013, the government finally legislated for abortion on the grounds of possible suicide. The legislation was considered very restrictive, but it was the first time a government had legislated in this regard and it was done despite the strong opposition of the Catholic hierarchy. Taoiseach Enda Kenny asserted “I am a Taoisecah who happnes to be Catholic, but I am not a Catholic Taoiseach” which was a complete reversal of what a predecessor of his, John A Costello had announed in 1951 when he said he and his government felt bound to accept the instructions of Catholic bishops in matters of faith and morals.

In terms of the practice of religion and mass going, an opinion poll in April 2005 revealed average weekly mass attendance was 44% among Irish adults (28% in Dublin); this compared with a figure of 78% in 1992 and 65% in 1997. It was also clear that a laissez faire approach to Catholicism had at that stage been firmly and irreversibly established: three quarters of Irish adults agreed in a poll in 2005 that the Catholic church should allow women priests, support IVF treatment for couples, and relax its views on sex before marriage, on divorce and on having a child outside marriage. An even higher proportion did not accept the church’s view on the use of artificial contraception (83% of those questioned), and believed it should change its stance on the prohibition of condoms in Africa to prevent the spread of AIDS (87%). Quite simply, many Irish adults decided to be Catholics on their own terms, but this did not mean that Ireland was a ‘post-catholic’ society.  The 2011 census results revealed that the proportion of the population who were Catholics reached its lowest point in 2011 at 84.2%, while the population, at 3.8 million strong, was the highest since records began. One 2011 survey found that 35% of Catholics attend mass once a week, while according to Catholic Archbishop of Dublin, Diarmuid Martin, the figure among Dublin residents was much lower, at 18%.

The 2011 census also underlined that Ireland has an increasingly diverse population in terms of religious affiliation; between 1991 and 2011 there were increases in the non-Catholic population, driven by not only growing numbers with no religion but also large increases in the religions of immigrants from Eastern Europe, Africa and Asia.  Of the 3.8 million Catholics in Ireland in 2011, 92 per cent were Irish while the remaining 8 per cent belonged to a range of nationalities. Among the non-Irish, Poles were the biggest group with 110,410 persons. The total of those with no religion, atheists and agnostics, increased more than four-fold between 1991 and 2011 to stand at 277,237 in 2011.There were 129,039 members of the Church of Ireland, an increase of 6.4 per cent on 2006 and 49,204 Muslims, a sharp rise on five years previously. From 1991 to 2011, the number of Muslims increased from just 0.1 to 1.1 per cent of the total population.


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