Residents of the Republic of Ireland filled out census forms today. Unlike in the U.S., there is a religion question on Ireland's census. The data collected will be an important barometer of sorts for Catholicism in Europe. Ireland is among Europe's most Catholic nations in affiliation and frequency of Mass attendance.
This year, a group called Atheists Ireland has actively campaigned for residents to be "Honest to Godless." This group doubts previous census estimates of the Catholic population: "We believe the true figure for Roman Catholics is much lower. … We believe that this inaccuracy happens because many people tick their childhood religion out of habit, or tick a religion that they don’t really practice, or let somebody else fill in the answer for them. But you won’t write in your childhood home address unless you still live there. So don’t write in your childhood religion unless you still really practice it."
Ireland has undergone enormous change in the last decade. It's economy boomed as the Celtic Tiger and drew in immigrants from elsewhere in Europe. Then it went bust with a housing slump and recession and many immigrants left. Irish Catholics learned the details of physical and sexual abuse of children committed by clergy and men and women religious in the Ryan and Murphy reports and many read the pastoral letter of Pope Benedict XVI that followed apologizing for the abuse. Ireland, like most other areas in Europe, has also been affected by a generalized and generational decline in religious practice and formal religious affiliation.
Yet in the last census, in 2006, there were more Catholics in the Republic of Ireland than had ever been counted in any previous census of this territory dating back to 1881. Just under 3.7 million identified themselves as being Catholic in 2006 representing 87% of the country's population and an increase of 6.7% from the previous census in 2002. Although growing, Catholicism has lost a bit of its overall affiliation percentage. Some of this has occurred through immigration. In Ireland this has resulted in some new population that is not Catholic. Although significant numbers of immigrants are also from Catholic areas of Eastern Europe (e.g., Poland, Lithuania). Some of the drop is also clearly related to changes in the Catholic retention rate.
Some evidence of the changes occurring can be seen in population numbers within specific birth cohorts over time. For example, among young adults in 2006 (those born from 1972 to 1986), there are losses of Catholic affiliation. Catholics between the ages of 15 and 19 in 1991 numbered 312,899, As of the 2006 census, this group (then 30 to 34) numbered only 289,676 for a loss of more than 23,000 (-7.4 percent change).
At the same time, numbers of older Catholics, those born from 1952 to 1971 have experienced growth. Among these adults in Ireland (ages 35 to 54 in 2006) there was a population gain of +87,737 between 1991 and 2006. Some of these gains may be related to adult conversion and certainly a lot of it may be related to immigration. However, some of it is also likely related to life-cycle changes. Some Catholics "come home" in their thirties after leaving the faith they were raised in during their teens and twenties (i.e., before the 1991 census). Among Catholics born before 1952 the losses in the table above are mostly related to mortality.
Once the 2011 census data are out it will be interesting to see what happened to the 1972 to 1986 birth cohort. Will losses have been stemmed as Catholics come back? There actually is some evidence of this already occurring when comparing the numbers in 2002 to 2006 (yet this is not a perfect match for birth years).
Dire predictions have been in the news for Ireland. Last month a paper presented by three physicists predicted religion would soon become "extinct" in Ireland and elsewhere in Europe using census data. I would comment further on this paper if I thought it had any merit (you did not misread that last sentence it said "physicists" ... I promise never to address the unified field theory or the existence of the Higgs-Boson particle on this blog). The paper had all the qualities religion reporters love but I don't think many sociologists of religion take it seriously. Its a good example of research that forgets the numbers being studied are human beings, not particles. History has many predictions of the demise of religion. This paper just represents the latest.
Nineteen Sixty-four is a research blog for the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate (CARA) at Georgetown University edited by Mark M. Gray. CARA is a non-profit research center that conducts social scientific studies about the Catholic Church. Founded in 1964, CARA has three major dimensions to its mission: to increase the Catholic Church's self understanding; to serve the applied research needs of Church decision-makers; and to advance scholarly research on religion, particularly Catholicism. Follow CARA on Twitter at: caracatholic.
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