To ask this question would once have been as redundant as asking ‘Is the pope Catholic?’
Yet this was the question investigated recently on prime Irish TV time, by the national broadcaster’s RTE One.
The programme — subtitled ‘Ireland’s curious relationship with religion’ — presented the findings of a survey of religious views specially commissioned by RTE.
Analysing the survey — undertaken by the TNS/MRBI Market Research Bureau of Ireland — the programme (broadcast on 25 September) gave a very different picture of Ireland’s relationship with Catholicism from previously ‘received wisdom’.
It examined attendance at mass, acceptance of traditional dogmas, esteem for the Catholic Church as an institution, and esteem for the clergy against other professionals.
Mass attendance has fallen from 82% in 1988 to 50% today. While 85% of over 65s are still weekly mass attenders, the numbers fall to 48% in the 35-49 age bracket and 24% in the 18-24 age bracket. While 60% of rural dwellers still attend weekly mass, the figures drop to 43% in the urban areas.
Students interviewed by the programme stated that while the church had ‘some importance’ in their lives, mass-going was reserved for special occasions like Christmas and Easter. This suggests that Ireland is moving relentlessly towards the Continental pattern, where Catholicism is culturally pervasive but not systematically practised by the majority.
The figures show that belief in traditional doctrines still holds up quite well. Fully 85% believe that Jesus is God, 75% accept transubstantiation, and 60% believe that abortion is wrong.
However, for the moral teachings that have traditionally defined Roman Catholicism, it is another story. Only 25% accept the need for the clergy to be celibate (unmarried), and 45% would allow ‘gay marriage’ in church. A mere 20% accept the church’s teaching against contraception.
In terms of esteeming the clergy, the news is bad for the Catholic Church. Esteemed by 49% of respondents, priests ranked higher than lawyers (35%) and journalists (20%), but lower than police (78%), teachers (81%) and doctors (90%).
Of those interviewed, 81% said that the influence of the church on them had weakened in the last five years. Most linked this to the avalanche of child abuse scandals.
Over 80% of respondents held the Roman Catholic religious orders who ran orphanages and reform schools to be solely responsible for the child abuse and subsequent cover-ups.
The Government recently agreed a scandalous deal with the religious orders, in which the State — really, Irish taxpayers — has undertaken to meet the claims of victims.
The Comptroller and Auditor General of the Dail (Irish parliament) is expected to announce that claims will approach 1 billion euros, while the religious orders’ liability is capped at 120 million euros.
The survey highlights two further issues, which seem to suggest that, amidst widespread disillusionment with the church as an institution, there is still a hunger for spirituality.
71% of respondents said they prayed privately at least once a week, and 87% of parents said they wanted their children brought up as Catholics.
What are the implications for the Evangelical Church? Firstly, they confirm what most pastors and missionaries have been encountering ‘on the ground’ — that there is a growing openness to Christianity, provided it is ‘packaged’ in a non-Roman Catholic way.
This should help to overcome an enormous difficulty that Evangelicals have hitherto experienced in Ireland — how to communicate the truth with those who are not prepared to entertain religious ideas not sanctioned by ‘the one true church’ of Rome!
Secondly, it is a sad irony that, while institutional Catholicism plummets in public esteem, some professed Evangelicals are trying to boost its credibility!
By foolishly joining in with the Roman Catholic Church in such joint public efforts as the recent ‘Power to Change’ campaign, they are implying that all churches are the same and that there is no point in looking for a credible alternative to a discredited Catholicism.
The Lord of history
Never before have an increasingly sceptical Irish people been so willing to question the Roman Catholic system, while looking for spiritual answers to life’s questions.
We believe that our God is the Lord of history, that he is sovereign. What we pick up in opinion polls is simply the manifestation of his hand at work, even in those who do not know him.
This time of change and uncertainty in the people of Ireland is an opportunity for the true Church. To a people hurt and unsure it is the time to bring true healing and stability through the gospel of Jesus Christ.
What Evangelical churches offer is not based on the broken credibility of failed institutions, but on the glorious work of the once crucified and now exalted Saviour.