February 4, 2021 - 7:00am

There is probably no country in the Western world where the Catholic Church has come under more sustained attack than Ireland. The reason is perhaps that in no other Western country did the Catholic Church exercise such influence for so long in the 20th century.

A major new study going by the cumbersome title, ‘Historical Political Cleavages and Post-Crisis Transformations in Italy, Spain, Portugal and Ireland, 1953-2020’, highlights how far things have fallen.

Over the period 2011 to 2016, 19% of Irish people said they never went to church, but by last year this had jumped to an incredible 50%. That’s higher than in Italy or Portugal (30% and 18% respectively), but lower than in Spain where the equivalent figure is 61%.

The report also states that there has been a much smaller drop in regular church attendance (monthly or more), which has fallen from 33% to 28%.

What seems to have happened in the meantime is that those who were only loosely connected to the Church have now become completely disconnected, except maybe for weddings, funerals and the like.

In other words, the big fall hasn’t been in regular church attendance, but in sporadic attendance. Just under half of Irish people were coming to church less than once a month four or five year ago and this is now just 22%. Many of those sporadic attenders have stopped coming altogether.

Consider the many scandals that have rocked the Church in recent decades, and it isn’t hard to work out why the Mass attendance rate in Ireland has plunged.

Only last month there was another outburst of anger against the Church following the publication of a major, 2,800-page official report into Ireland’s mother and baby homes. It examined how those homes for unmarried mothers and their children were run in the decades following Independence in 1922.

The report found that they had a much higher infant mortality rate than the wider population. About 15% of all infants born in the institutions died, almost all before the advent of modern medicine. The report adds that Ireland appears to have put more unmarried mothers in these homes than any other country.

The report also made clear that mother and baby homes were not unique to Ireland and were not a Catholic invention; unmarried mothers were stigmatised almost everywhere, and that the county homes (the successors to the workhouses), where many unmarried mothers also ended up, were usually far worse. These were run by local county councils.

But the fact is that that most of the mother and baby homes were run by female religious orders — that is, by nuns — and therefore in the Irish (and often international) imagination they are indelibly associated with the Catholic Church.

What is happening is a reaction to scandals such as this. But two other factors are also at work. Even without those scandals, we were always going to become more secular. The Protestant Churches have suffered even bigger declines in attendance because of this.

Secularisation has swept across the whole of the western world, and Ireland is part of the West. It was impossible for Ireland not to eventually be affected by social and intellectual trends elsewhere. What almost certainly delayed secularisation in Ireland is that, in the years after we gained independence, one way of showing we had shaken off British rule was by making Catholicism an integral part of our national identity. As we no longer believe it is necessary to do this, we are now shaking off the Church.

The third factor is that, as a small country it can be particularly hard to stand out from the crowd. Once, we all went to Mass. Now, below a certain age, almost no-one goes. We were a nation of nuns and priests. Now, we are becoming a people with no direct religious affiliation: a country of ‘nones’.

David Quinn is an Irish social and religious commentator.