This week, the Catholic Archbishop of Dublin, Dermot Farrell, made headlines by claiming that “the evidence for Christian belief in Ireland today” has for all intents and purposes disappeared.
Farrell made the comments in an interview with Síolta (Seeds), the Maynooth National Seminar journal.
Farrell painted a grim picture of declining vocations, financial free fall, and a younger generation increasingly lost in the faith. His remarks were covered by major news outlets like Irish weather and the Independent Irish, but readers had to persevere to the end of the articles for a surprise ending: Farrell claimed he was “not pessimistic” about the future of the Church, adding:
“This period of reduced numbers may well give us the opportunity to be creative and to re-imagine the institutional Church. We have not been forsaken by God. God must be found in this situation.
These comments reminded me of the words of the American Methodist theologian Stanley Hauerwas, who once claimed that the church in the West was not dying, God was killing it. For Hauerwas, it was because the churches had become so engrossed in the exercise of power that they had neglected their mission of love and service.
While Farrell is correct that Christian practice in Ireland has declined rapidly, it is a bit of an overstatement to claim that the belief has “disappeared”. Ireland still ranks among the most religious nations in Western Europe.
A 2018 Pew Research Center report ranked Ireland third most religious country in Western Europe. And a study of Data from the European Social Survey of 16-29 year olds found Irish youth to be among the top four out of 22 countries for regular religious attendance. Attendance and religious affiliation rates in Northern Ireland have fallen but remain higher than in the Republic, so when a holistic approach is taken, the religious decline is more nuanced.
This can be a cold comfort to the Catholic Church, which is still struggling to recover from the bewildering loss of confidence caused by the abuse scandals. But the stubborn persistence of a few devotees may form the basis of Farrell’s cautious optimism. Faith in Ireland is not completely gone, and to say that it has is probably a bit of a disservice to those who still care about it and may be called upon to rekindle it. It is also possible that Farrell forgets the untapped potential of women to help renew Christian ministries.
Additionally, religious practice has been affected by the pandemic, with many church services moving online during the lockdown. Some clergymen and churches have used online resources with energy and enthusiasm, reframing them as an opportunity for renewed mission and a chance to make inroads into a secularized society.
But some devotees still haven’t returned to in-person services, and it’s unclear whether they will.
Last month, an investigation by the Iona Institute on pre-pandemic masseurs in the French Republic found that 54% had not returned, compared to 64% who had not returned in September 2020. Some of the top reasons people did not return were:
Why didn’t you come back to mass? July 2021
|Concerns about COVID-19 and public places||62%|
|Restrictions on numbers and the need to wear masks etc. are off-putting||33%|
|I prefer to watch mass on TV, online or on the radio nowadays||19%|
|My faith is not as strong as it was before Covid-19||6%|
|I have health problems or other problems that prevent me from going back to mass||6%|
In addition, one in five people who regularly attended mass before COVID say they do not know if they will return. This figure remains roughly unchanged from the same question in September 2020.
The Iona survey also confirmed that financial contributions are declining. Among regular massgoters before COVID, 36% contribute less, 46% as much and 9% more, with 9% not contributing to blood drives.
Trends towards reduced attendance and financial contributions will certainly force churches to be “creative and reinvent the institutional church,” as Farrell puts it. I titled a report on my own research among Irish clergy during the pandemic “Something other than a building” to capture an emerging shift in mindset that moves away from the church as a building for a group of people dedicated to serving others in the community at large. I think Farrell comes up with something similar.
It remains to be seen whether Irish churches – Catholic and Protestant – can adapt to the changes in religious practice emerging from the pandemic, caring for the faithful and reaching out to serve the community beyond. The stakes are high: to disappear or to prosper.
Image: ruins of Howth Church in County Dublin.