Tuesday, 6 March, 2001, 12:13 GMT
Changing attitudes of Ireland's Catholics
A country of pious Catholics becomes the 'Emerald tiger'
By BBC News Online's Peter Gould
Is Ireland still a Catholic country?
The answer may appear obvious in a nation where almost two-thirds of the population attends Mass once a week.
But a leading Catholic academic says research shows that Irish attitudes towards religion are changing.
The question was posed by Father Andrew Greeley, an American priest who lectures in sociology at the universities of Chicago and Arizona.
If the proper measures of faith are acceptance of church authority and adherence to the church's sexual and reproductive ethic, then the Irish are no longer Catholic
Father Andrew Greeley
Writing in the religious magazine America, Father Greeley points to the social and economic changes that have taken place in the Irish Republic.
He says it is no longer the rural, agricultural, pious Catholic country it one was. Now, as the "emerald tiger", it has one of the highest standards of living in Europe.
The leadership of the Catholic Church might have seen that this would create religious challenges, says Father Greeley.
Instead, "serenely confident in its absolute power", the Irish hierarchy was content to issue solemn warnings about the dangers of secularism and consumerism.
Recent surveys had raised questions about the decline of Catholicism in Ireland.
"If the proper measures of Catholicism are faith and devotion, then the Irish are still Catholic," says Father Greeley.
Father Greeley's research
94% of the Irish believe in God
85% believe in heaven and miracles
78% accept there is life after death
40% believe that abortion is always wrong
30% that premarital sex is always wrong
60% that same-sex relations are always wrong
"There has been no change in their belief in God, heaven, miracles and life after death in the last decade, and church attendance rates are still the highest in Europe, and have not declined either.
"If, on the other hand, the proper measures of faith are acceptance of church authority and adherence to the church's sexual and reproductive ethic, then the Irish are no longer Catholic - but then neither are any other people in Europe, including the Italians and the Poles.
"Like many other Catholics all over the world, the Irish are still Catholic, but now on their own terms," Father Greeley argues.
'Too much power'
Father Greeley says the research showed that 94% of the Irish believe in God, 85% believe in heaven and miracles, and 78% accept there is life after death.
They don't think much of the organised church, but poor Father Paddy down the road is a grand fellow all together
But only 40% cent believe that abortion is always wrong, 30% that premarital sex is always wrong, and 60% that same-sex relations are always wrong.
The feeling that the church has too much power had increased, and the Irish were caught up in the emerging conviction, among devout Catholics all over the world, that the church had no right to try to control their private lives.
"If sex and authority are what Catholicism is about, and many will contend that they are, then the Irish are no longer Catholic," says Father Greeley.
"But neither is anyone else."
Father Greeley says university education has had little impact on attitudes, despite the popular notion that exposing young men and women to a largely secular education would have a negative impact on their faith.
In an "astonishing" finding, the highest level of confidence in the local priest was among young people.
Only 7% of those born in the 1970's had a great deal of confidence in the church, but 70% had high confidence in their local priests.
"They don't think much of the organised church, but poor Father Paddy down the road is a grand fellow all together," he says.
"The local priest is still an important person in Ireland, even to the young, though almost certainly in a very different role."