The speed and conviction of Ireland's repudiation of the Catholic Church is without precedent in the world—and for good reason.
I remember well the feeling from my Catholic school days in Dublin in the early 1990s: we could laugh at Catholicism, we could ignore it, but we couldn’t openly question it—and we rarely asked why this was.
Somehow, to openly reject Catholicism would have been as much treason as apostasy. Though we rolled our eyes or imitated the reedy voices of teachers or the school priest, we never really dissented. It would take an enormous injection of moral outrage before that was broadly normalized. This is the transformation I have tried to describe in my forthcoming book, Unholy Catholic Ireland: Secular morality, religious hypocrisy and Irish irreligion.
Holy Catholic Ireland
To begin, we must return to a time when Catholicism was independent Ireland’s primary justification for its existence. Deference to the One True Church was a means of asserting Irish difference, especially from the ‘Pagan English’. Paradoxically enough, obedience was an expression of Irish freedom. Compulsory public piety also helped to salvage national pride by establishing the spiritual superiority of one of Western Europe’s most economically and temporally unenviable societies.
While the link between Irishness and Catholicism is ancient, it was reinforced in the 19th century, a critical era in the development of nationalist consciousness not just in Ireland but in Europe more generally. In the bruising wake of the Great Famine of 1845 to 1849, Ireland’s first Cardinal, Paul Cullen, rose to power. He expanded Church infrastructure and personnel, working tirelessly to remake the nation’s religious behavior and traditions according to the strict Roman vision of his conservative master, Pope Pius IX. Most welcomed their new disciplinarians. Around 45% of the population attended weekly Mass at the time of the Famine. In the decades after it, this soared to 95%. Priests came to occupy a powerful and unquestionable position in Irish life, a position only reinforced after independence in 1922. Perhaps the quintessential visual motif of post-independence Ireland, one found in a great many homes almost like a mandatory photograph of a totalitarian leader, was the Sacred Heart of Jesus, a mass-produced image showing an androgynous Christ baring his bleeding thorn-wrapped heart. Under what has been described by the influential sociologist Tom Inglis as the Church’s “moral monopoly,” to be a good Irish person was to be (or be seen to be) a good Catholic. The result was that everyday life was wrapped in a web of behavioral signals indicating fidelity to the ethno-religious ingroup.
This is no longer the case.
The religious bubble that quarantined Ireland from Western European secularization has burst. Mass attendance has collapsed to well below its pre-famine levels. Irish priests, once so dominant and so numerous, are a dying breed; barely a handful train each year. Constitutionally-encoded Catholic injunctions against same-sex marriage, abortion, and blasphemy were repudiated by the electorate in a series of public referenda from 2016 onwards, something often taken to indicate that the majority of the population is now prominently progressive in its social orientation. Secularization has even come for Cardinal Cullen himself, whose remains recently had to be removed after his place of interment (a disused seminary) was sold to property developers. In time, more religious infrastructure will follow. Outside of “special occasions” like Christmas, weddings, or First Communions, the vast brutalist churches thrown up after independence to house the teeming faithful feel sepulchral and cavernous.
High-speed secularization and the inversion of the Church
This change has been unusually quick. In most Western European societies, the loss of interest in religious matters follows an intergenerational pattern, with each generation practicing, praying, and believing that bit less than the one before. Unusually, Ireland shows both intergenerational and period-based declines in religiosity. That is to say, while each generation is less religious than the one before, since the early 2000s all Irish generations self-report as somewhat less religious. There is no shortage of complex and interconnected causal factors for the ‘intergenerational’ part of this equation. These include economic development, the rapid expansion of tertiary education, EU accession, female access to the workforce and the ensuing decline of the traditional ‘Irish mother’ as domestic religious enforcer, mass immigration (almost one in six of the population are foreign-born), the decline of mass emigration (meaning more of those likely to want change now stay at home), and globalizing technologies such as television and the Internet. Sandwiched between the UK and the USA, Ireland has definitively switched to Anglophone free market capitalism over Catholic isolationism, a process set in train in the late 1960s but which snowballed during the mid-noughties economic boom known as the “Celtic Tiger.” But this shift towards affluence and consumerism might simply have resulted in Catholicism moving to the periphery of people’s lives. It is not quite adequate to explain the accelerating rejection of Catholic affiliation since the early 2000s.
The second part of the equation (period-based decline, outright disaffiliation) can be better understood as stemming from a moral backlash against Irish Catholic theocracy. It involves a pivot towards an anti-nostalgic moral stance based upon the rejection of the ‘darkness’ of the past. This darkness is comprised of the punitive character of the post-independence Catholic system and the truly spectacular hypocrisy of many of its clerical paragons. Over the course of the twentieth century, those who besmirched the unifying national image of Catholic sanctity, in particular women or the poor, could very quickly find themselves spirited away into the country’s sadistic carceral institutions for moral undesirables: Magdalene Laundries for wayward women, Industrial Schools for troublesome working-class children, the Mother and Baby Homes for those pregnant outside of wedlock. To this must be added the country’s particularly awful history of clerical child abuse and institutional cover-ups. After decades of revelations about the abuses perpetrated by unquestionable religious elites outlined in excruciating detail in one government report after another, the country’s traditional sacred symbols have become imbued with deeply profane undertones.
Over the course of the 2000s, all of this came together. Trust in the Church collapsed, and with it any last vestiges of the obligation to ‘act Catholic’. Surveys suggest that the average Irish person now tends to estimate that around a third of priests are pedophiles. My own data suggest that for those who consider themselves to have left Catholicism, “pedophilia” is the swiftest mental association with the term “Irish Catholic Church.” This stark moral contamination of religious elites (and indeed past Catholic society in its entirety) has pushed people of many generations towards disconnecting from the Church, including many of those who go on calling themselves Catholic.
Terrible though these protracted revelations have been, it is difficult to judge whether on their own they would have been sufficient to drive the Irish relinquishment of Catholicism. After all, much evidence suggests that people at the time were not at all oblivious to what was going on behind the scenes, and it was arguably the weakening hold of the Church that made ‘the scandals’ possible in the first place. But coming when they did, these revelations and reappraisals both hastened the Church’s loss of power and built on the secularizing bedrock established by the more conventional economic and cultural factors glossed above. Perhaps most importantly, they combined with two other things. One was a widely shared experience of religion as little more than a ‘phoned in’, near-unconscious conformist habit. The other was liberalized opposition to entrenched religious influence left over from post-independence theocracy. Without the same level of sentimental autobiographical memory of devout elders, younger generations have fewer compelling reasons to cleave to a very queasy (and somewhat personally irrelevant) religious legacy.
Opposing lingering influence and religious conscription
It is important to know what, exactly, they reject. Irish disaffiliation does not really mean rejecting the rosary-worrying, curtain-twitching variant of Catholicism, because that version has long had one foot in the grave. While the 2016 census recorded 78% of the population as ‘Roman Catholics’, the majority of the Irish population have long since become what is sometimes referred to as ‘cultural Catholics’. A cultural Catholic is someone who enjoys (or puts up with) Church rites of passage, has little interest in religious dogma, and sustains this low-cost relationship to a humbled religious tradition for its comfort or its expediency while often opposing the Church’s conservative social influence or condemning its moral failures on those odd occasions when such things show up on their radars. Many Irish people – many de facto atheists included – will intuitively describe themselves as having been born Catholic, showing just how elided ethnic and religious identities still are, secularization notwithstanding. This link can go on in an almost zombified state precisely because the amount of mental space the Church occupies has shrunk so very much as its hold has weakened.
In a strange way, this growing irrelevance helps to preserve the institutional power of the Church in such spheres as education (where the Church operates over 90% of primary schools). To be culturally Catholic is to exist in a kind of malleable and socially advantageous superposition with respect to religious matters, and to prioritize not rocking the boat. Children are baptized to unlock desirable school places, to please grandparents, and generally to fit in. Ostracism is the great fear underlying cultural Catholicism. One of my informants, who described himself simultaneously as having ‘no religion’, being ‘born Catholic’, not believing in God, but also not being an atheist (because he objected to what he saw as atheist truculence), described his motivations for baptizing his son as follows: “I don’t want Keith to be the only kid who doesn’t make his communion, confirmation or get the huge bonanza of cash or whatever, like…to me it’s nearly a peer pressure thing or a schooling pressure…I suppose it’s the fear of being left out, not by the Church, but everything else.” This informant described himself as not wishing to ‘martyr’ his son ‘because his principles were too strong’.
Disaffiliation and the decision not to baptize offspring are in large part reactions to this accommodationist relationship between the disengaged majority and the Church. In my interviews, I found that ex-Catholics often positioned themselves in opposition to ‘complicit’ culturally-Catholic indifference. Consider the sentiments of this ex-Catholic woman as she recounts her culturally-Catholic sister’s decision to baptize her niece: “I was complaining to a group of friends and one of them said, ¨well, what’s the harm?’ Well, let’s see, what is the harm? Ignoring the whole pedophilia, Magdalen Laundries, homophobia, sexism, crusades, Inquisition, cover-ups and scandals question, there is a very large community who believe the Church should have no hand in education, healthcare or politics. Even people I know who are like my sister believe it should be separate. So, surely baptizing your child is a vote to keep the reins in the hands of the Church?”
Rejecting Catholic affiliation is thus very often a response to two perceived layers of hypocrisy: the hypocrisy of the Church of course, but also the hypocrisy of those who are perceived as blithely supporting its ongoing influence even though they have little or no interest in Catholicism as a religion and do not adhere to its conservative social standpoints. This means that the interaction between the Church’s moral collapse, its lingering institutional influence, and the default position of disengaged cultural Catholicism has created a distinctive way of ‘not being a religious person’ in the Irish context. It results from the pressure between two moral stances. The better established of these stances prioritizes ‘harmony’ and is quite comfortable with ambiguity or contradiction if this facilitates smooth social relations. Its swiftly growing competitor prioritizes ‘authenticity’ and demands consonance between private beliefs and public identification. The act of disaffiliation is thus frequently experienced and portrayed as a kind of awakening from zombified unconscious conformity. As another informant phrased it: “After the 2011 Census when I entered myself as Catholic and subsequently realized that I had just put this down because I felt I had to, as though honoring some strange sense of conscription, I considered that this sort of response was possibly hugely falsely inflating the numbers of Catholics that the Church was able to claim were extant in the country, which they can then use to wield power and lobby the government. I don’t want to be a number in their favor that can be employed in service of agendas I vehemently disagree with. And I’m really not a Catholic.” This Irish trajectory may be instructive: it would not surprise me at all if recent events around Roe vs Wade create a similar wave of disaffiliation in the US, with ‘unconsciously’ or ‘culturally’ affiliated individuals jolted into ‘awakening’ by a newfound obligation to distance themselves from natal denominations implicated in conservative politics.
The echoes that remain
But even amidst the turbocharged capitalism and ostensible progressivism of contemporary Ireland, odd resonances of the past remain. This became acutely apparent to me during a recent failed mortgage odyssey through Dublin’s absurdly expensive inner suburbs. Outbid again and again, I started to lose hope. I stopped bothering to ask about boiler systems or ‘room to extend’ and turned my thoughts instead to homeowners’ presentations of self through décor. One type of property I quickly became familiar with was ‘the probate house’, somewhere with a recently deceased occupant. The probate house is like a tiny equivalent to one of Ireland’s abandoned churches. It is generally characterized by carpeted floors, the whiff of stale smoke and, above it all, the inevitable Sacred Heart. But the other kind of property I saw I will call the ‘Yes’ house. These were the same little terraced houses, but bought and revamped by young urban professional families. Just as with the probate house, I was struck by the occupants’ choice to signal the endorsement of collective moral norms even within the private sphere. Many of these houses contained paraphernalia indicating secular morality (‘Yes’ badges indicating support for liberalization of abortion laws, and in a curiously high number of cases a copy of Sinead O’Conner’s recent autobiography was carefully positioned beside the bed). In a substantial proportion, the Rainbow Flag seemed to occupy a position uncannily similar to that once held by the Sacred Heart. There is, I think, a hunger among many to be seen to be at the cutting edge of a progressive vision of modernity. Today, Irish progressivism can look almost invulnerable and, perhaps due in part to its postcolonial history, the country has a notably marginal far right presence. However, it wasn’t so long ago that the Church looked invulnerable too. Only time will tell whether Ireland’s new moral order has firmer foundations than its Catholic nationalist forerunner.