Tuesday 25 October 2016

Ireland's Thirtysomethings: Church must attend to the needs of its flock

A nationwide survey of 1,000 Irish men and women in their 30s yields surprising results. Their attitudes to life and work, sex and religion, immigrants, same sex marriage, drugs and morality are carried today in the first of a series of reports.

Published 10/11/2013 | 01:00

The Catholic Church is dead – long live the Catholic Church. There are those who will be inclined to nail today's poll to the door of their local church: more people turn to "meditation, yoga and personal reflection" than to the Church for "emotional comfort and reassurance" after all.

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Which is to wrongly assume that a church (building) is not a place to turn to for meditation and personal reflection, whatever about yoga, the physical, mental and spiritual discipline to attain a state of permanent peace.

But I can think of few things more depressing than a state of permanent peace; in fact, it is one of the drawbacks of the Heaven we have been asked to believe in. Give me purgatory any day. Does purgatory still exist? It's hard to keep up. A day trip to Hell might also be interesting.

One of the questions that arises from today's central finding, meanwhile, is where does all of this leave counselling and psychotherapy?

A mere nine per cent tend to turn to the professionals for "emotional comfort and reassurance", according to the poll. A conclusion? The professionals charge too much. In my experience.

There is no surprise in this further finding either: 59 per cent turn to their partner or spouse for – deep breath – "emotional support and reassurance"; 55 per cent (37 per cent of men) turn to female family and friends; 34 per cent (29 per cent of women) turn to male family and friends.

But surely it was always thus, certainly so in living memory if you are in the age group of those polled, 20 to 49 – unless, of course, you are the Bull McCabe, who was even less fond of his wife than of his priest.

The point is: 13 per cent still turn to the Catholic Church for emotional support and comfort and a further four per cent turn to another church or religion, which between them total about the same as those who turn to meditation/yoga/personal reflection (18 per cent).

But what's this?

Sixty-five per cent say they would still have their children baptised in a church, rising to three-quarters (77 per cent) in my age group of 40-49 – a significant majority, then, that cannot be simply put down to keeping the grandparents happy, or even a day out.

Furthermore, a third (30 per cent) say they never attend a religious ceremony or service (not even a funeral?), while almost half (48 per cent) say they do so occasionally; 11 per cent do so on a weekly basis and eight per cent monthly. What are we to make of this finding?

In my view, a few things: certainly the scandals that have rocked the Catholic Church in recent years have damaged, in many cases sundered, the connection, but also – more so, in my opinion – that the standard of sermon is poor, bordering on the facile. Take it up a notch, lads.

But more to the point, people tend to lead busy lives these days: Sundays, or Saturday evenings, are no longer what they once were.

I suspect more people attend a shopping centre, or football field, or indeed attend to their Sky box most weekends than attend Church – but neither is that necessarily to be condemned.

The Catholic Church has spent too much energy on the business of condemnation, rather than on attending to the real needs of its flock, which have evolved over the years.

In an interview in September, Pope Francis said the Church must move away from its "obsession" with condemning homosexuality, abortion and contraception and become kinder and more merciful.

That's half the answer: the other half is not necessarily to do with kindness or mercy, but rather to do with tuning in to the real needs and concerns of the majority of their flock, which have less to do with homosexuality, abortion and contraception than with the day-to-day pressures of modern life.

Perhaps the Church should stack yoga mats at the door, or maybe, like our political friends, be more aware of what really concerns the so-called squeezed middle; which, I can assure you, is not what consenting adults get up to behind closed doors – which is not a lot, truth be told.

Last week the Vatican sent out a questionnaire to dioceses and parishes around the world to canvas opinion on how they are dealing with issues such as gay marriage, single-parent families and divorce.

The questionnaire is being presented as part of Pope Francis's determination to overhaul the Catholic Church: it asks clergy to document the changing nature of their flock and to explain the difficulties they face in teaching (as opposed to preaching) church doctrine.

There are more pressing issues than gay marriage, single-parenthood and divorce (I tick two of those boxes) – but it is a start I suppose. . .

The conclusion is this: the Church will not, as the Pope fears, collapse "like a house of cards". This poll shows that.

It will, rather, find its place in the lives of people who want the Church in their lives, or their life in the Church.

Each to their own. So relax everybody.

Here is a real fact: the 2011 census found that the proportion of the population who were Catholics continued to decline, to reach its lowest point, a not inconsiderable 84.2 per cent, while its congregation, at 3.86 million strong, was the highest since records began.

In other words, not a bad starting point.


  • THIS week there will be more fascinating insights in the Irish Independent, the Herald, and on air on Today FM.
  • There will be further revelations and analysis by our experts, starting tomorrow when we find out how confident people are about their economic future, what are their aspirations towards owning their own homes, and have they been putting off having babies in the hope of better times.
  • On Tuesday, we discover the impact of the recession on people’s day-to-day lives . . . what they’re worried about, what their dreams are and who are the people they depend on.
  • And, on Wednesday, we deal with sex and relationships. We discover the number of sexual partners that is the norm, how people feel about their own sexuality — and that of others — and the importance of a close personal relationship with that “special one”.
  • Plus: these fascinating results will be discussed in detail right through the week on all the main shows on Today FM, with top commentators contributing. Don’t miss the debate.

The survey was carried out by the B&A Acumen and Research Now company for Independent News and Media and Today FM.

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