Religion in the Emerald Tiger

By Andrew M. Greeley


In the 1960’s, the Irish government decided to end the economic policies of the previous 40 years and open Ireland up to the world. It abandoned the mercantilist, protectionist policies that had depressed the Irish standard of living since the wars of independence and began to recruit foreign enterprises (especially in the technology and pharmaceutical industries). It joined the Common Market (as the European Union was then known) and ended its economic dependence on Britain. It poured much of its resources into “human capital” development and improved and expanded its educational system. Thirty years later Ireland has one of the highest standards of living in Europe and the lowest unemployment rate (which fell from 17 percent to 4 percent in the last decade). Ireland is no longer the rural, agricultural, pious Catholic country that Eamon De Valera and the other survivors of the wars thought was an ideal. But neither is it an impoverished and backward country. (The raw material for Viagra, for example, is made in County Cork!)


An intelligent Catholic leadership might have perceived that this change would create religious challenges. Instead, serenely confident in its absolute power, the Irish hierarchy was content to issue solemn warnings about the dangers of secularism and consumerism. Now hand-wringing, not something good, but something that bishops do well, seems to be the only response of the ecclesiastical leadership. The Eminent Cardinal Desmond Connell, Archbishop of Dublin, has lamented that Ireland is a post-Catholic country. A professor at the University of Wisconsin has celebrated the decline of “Marianism” among the Irish. Ireland has become, according to many commentators, a “secularized” country.


Professor Conor K. Ward of the National University of Ireland, Dublin, and I have recently released a report testing this analysis. Based on two surveys of the Republic of Ireland as part of the International Social Survey Program (1991 and 1998), this report (published in the December issue of Doctrine and Life) raises some questions about the decline of Catholicism in Ireland. If the proper measures of Catholicism are faith and devotion, then the Irish are still Catholic. 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. Thus in 1998, 94 percent of the Irish believe in God, 78 percent in life after death, 85 percent in miracles and 85 percent in heaven. Sixty-three percent attend Mass once a week and 73 percent two or three times a month. However, only 40 percent believe that abortion is always wrong, 30 percent that premarital sex is always wrong, and 60 percent that same-sex relations are always wrong. Confidence in the church organization has fallen from 46 percent in 1991 to 27 percent in 1998, and the feeling that the church has too much power has increased from 38 percent to 46 percent.


In contrast, the conviction that premarital sex is always wrong is 19 percent among American Catholics, 18 percent in Poland, and 17 percent in Italy. Abortion is thought to be always wrong by 37 percent of Catholics in the United States, 31 percent in Poland and 12 percent in Italy. Forty-three percent of American Catholics, 22 percent of Poles and 33 percent of Italians have a great deal of confidence in church leadership. The Irish, in other words, are caught up in the emerging conviction, even among devout Catholics, all over the world that the church has 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. But neither is anyone else.


University education has very little impact on these attitudes. This refutes the popular notion that exposing young men and women to an education that is largely secular will have a negative impact on their faith. However, the Irish still think they’re Catholic. When presented with a cafeteria of items that might be essential to a Catholic identity, they give their top votes to help for the poor, the presence of God in the sacraments, the presence of Jesus in the Eucharist, the pope as the head of the church, and Mary the mother of Jesus (this despite the professor from Wisconsin). Moreover the “alienated” younger generation (born since 1970—between 18 and 28 at the time of the 1998 study) score higher on all these items than do their elders.


What about the sex scandals among the clergy that attract so much attention in the Irish media? Believing that all religion, like all politics, is local, Professor Ward and I added to the International Social Survey Program questions about confidence in local leadership—political, business, labor, educational, police and priests. The first three scored low. Teachers had the highest ratings, followed by the Garda, followed by the local priest. As Professor Ward observed, “The Guards are arresting priests and the priests are not arresting the Guards.” However, when the responses were tabulated by age, an astonishing finding emerged—the highest level of confidence in the local priest (70 percent) was among the youngest cohort. In fact, there was a U curve by cohort—high confidence among those born in the 1920’s and 30’s and among those born in the 60’s and 70’s, lowest confidence among those born in the 40’s and 50’s.


Perhaps the older people were clericalists, the middle-aged people anti-clericals and the younger post-clericals. For them, clericalism, dispatched by their parents, no longer is an issue. Only 7 percent of the cohort born in the 1970’s had a great deal of confidence in the church, but 70 percent had high confidence in the local priests. They don’t think much of the organized church, but poor Father Paddy down the road is a grand fellow altogether.


This finding obviously almost demands further research. The local priest is still an important person in Ireland, even to the young, though almost certainly in a very different role—even if not many of the young are ready to follow him into the priesthood or the religious life.


This U curve is in fact a paradigm for generational differences among the Irish. The youngest cohort is the most likely to say that it is “close” to Catholicism, that Mary is essential to their religious identity, that religion is important in their daily life and that it affects their moral decisions large and small. Such judgments are made by a generation that utterly rejects church authority and church sexual teaching and attends Mass much less frequently than its elders.


So striking is this pattern that Ann Thurston, one of the commentators in Doctrine and Life on our study, expressed the fear that the younger generation was turning “conservative”—apparently because it values so highly both the mother of Jesus and the local priest. I don’t think the word is appropriate. But it might also be that young people have chosen what is important to them in Catholicism and want to “conserve” that, come what may.


Two scholars from the Economic and Social Research Institute in Dublin (which incidentally collected our representative sample data), Niamh Hardiman and Christopher Whelan, have reported a similar impression from their research. The Irish religion is changing, they say, but not disappearing. Instead, new patterns are emerging. Perhaps our unusual, not to say extraordinary, findings about the younger Irish point to one of those new patterns. One wonders whether similar patterns might exist in other countries or whether such a paradoxical combination of opposites could only arise in a country where Catholic culture is so old and apparently so durable. The Rev. David Tracy has argued that the essence of the Irish religious experience is that it is based on simple nature mysticism (no Irish poet worth his salt passes up the song of the blackbirds), which is expressed in an intricate, complex and often convoluted style. He cites as “classic” examples the Book of Kells, the writings of Erigena and the novels of James Joyce. From this perspective, if one is studying religious change in the midst of profound social and economic change, one perhaps ought not to be surprised that the patterns emerging are not simple ones (though both of us were surprised). Quite the contrary; one should be surprised only if the patterns are as simple as some Irish intellectuals and commentators would have one believe.


One of the reporters at the press conference about our report asked how I could account for findings about the young Irish that everyone knew couldn’t be true. I replied that accounting for it could be left to subsequent research. But one of the tasks of empirical research (and one of its great joys!) is to be able to say that what everyone knows to be true isn’t true at all.


The Rev. Andrew M. Greeley, whose most recent book is Furthermore, teaches at the University of Chicago and the University of Arizona. Click here for a sample of author's writings in America and for books by author at Link to "sample writings" is slow; link to amazon may list books by authors with similar names.