Roman Catholicism in Ireland

Roman Catholicism in Ireland

The Catholic Church in Ireland, part of the world-wide Catholic Church, is under the spiritual leadership of the Pope, the curia in Rome, and the Conference of Irish Bishops. 88.4% of the citizenry of the Republic [] and 43.8% of the citizenry of Northern Ireland [BBC News:Facination of religion head count] are baptised Catholics on the island of Ireland out of a total population of about 6 million.

The Church is organised into four provinces, not however, corresponding with the modern civil provincial divisions. It is led by four archbishops and twenty-three bishops. But the number of dioceses is more than twenty-seven, there have been amalgamations and absorptions.Fact|date=May 2008 Cashel, for instance, has been joined with Emly, Waterford with Lismore, Ardagh with Clonmacnoise, the bishop of Galway being also Apostolic Administrator of Kilfenora. The number of parishes is 1,087, a few of these are governed by administrators, the remainder by parish priests, while the total number of the secular clergy—parish priests, administrators, curates, chaplains, and professors in colleges—amounts to around 3,000. A full list of dioceses can be found here: List of the Roman Catholic dioceses of Ireland.

There are also many religious orders which include: Augustinians, Capuchins, Carmelites, Fathers of the Holy Ghost, Dominicans, Franciscans, Jesuits, Marists, Order of Charity, Oblates, Passionists, Redemptorists, and Vincentians. The total number of the regular clergy is about 700. They are engaged either in teaching or in giving missions, but not charged with the government of parishes.

In addition there are two societies of priests founded in Ireland, namely St Patrick's Missionary Society with its headquarters in County Wicklow and the Missionary Society of St. Columban who are based in County Meath.

Legal status

Until disestablishment in 1869, the Church of Ireland was the state church. The "special position" of The Roman Catholic Church was recognised in the Constitution of the Republic of Ireland from 1937 until 1973, until removed by the Fifth Amendment of the Constitution of Ireland after a referendum supported by the Roman Catholic Church itself. This amendment removed the reference to "special position" of the Catholic Church.

Following the disestablishment of the Church of Ireland freedom of religion was established. However, at founding of the Irish Free State in 1922, the Church actually had equal status with others until the drafting of the 1937 Constitution of Ireland. The Constitution of the Irish Free State had no special position for religion, (Article 8).

Influence on Irish society

Republic of Ireland

In the Irish Free State, now the Republic of Ireland, the church had a great influence on public opinion as it had supervised public education for about 90% of the population since at least the 1830s. Historically it was associated with the Jacobite movement until 1766, and with Irish nationalism after Catholic emancipation was secured in 1829. The church was resurgent between 1829 and the disestablishment of the Church of Ireland in 1869, when its most significant leaders included Bishop James Doyle, Cardinal Cullen and Archbishop MacHale. The hierarchy was slow to support the Irish republican movement until 1921 as it espoused violence, in spite of support from many individual priests, and it opposed the anti-Treaty side in the Irish civil war.

After independence in 1922, the Church remained heavily involved in health care and education, raising money and running institutions which were staffed by Catholic Orders, largely because the new state remained impoverished. Its main political effect was to continue to run schools where religious education was a major element. From 1930 hospitals were funded by a sweepstake (lottery) with tickets frequently distributed or sold by nuns or priests. It helped reinforce public censorship and maintained its own list of banned literature which influenced the State's list. Divorce allowing remarriage was banned in 1924 (though it had been rare), and selling artificial contraception was made illegal. On health matters it was seen as unsympathetic to women's needs and in 1950 it opposed the Mother and Child Scheme. The hierarchy opposed the free public secondary schools service introduced in 1968 by Donagh O'Malley, in part because they ran almost all such schools.

Major popular events have included the Eucharistic Congress in 1932 and the Papal Visit in 1979.

The Church's influence slipped somewhat after 1970, impacted partly by the media and the growing feminist movement. For instance the Health (Family Planning) Act, 1979 showed the ability of the Catholic Church to force the government into a compromise situation over artificial contraception, though unable to get the result it wanted; contraception could now be bought, but only with a prescription from a doctor and supplied only by registered chemists. In the 1983 Amendment to the constitution introduced the constitutional prohibition of abortion, which the Church supported, though abortion for social reasons remains illegal under statute law. However the Church failed to influence the June, 1996, removal of the constitutional prohibition of divorce. While the church had opposed divorce allowing remarriage in civil law, its canon law allowed for a law of nullity and a limited divorce "a mensa et thoro", effectively a form of marital separation.

Northern Ireland

The Government of Ireland Act of 1920 acted as the constitution of Northern Ireland, in which was enshrined freedom of religion for all of Northern Ireland's citizens. [cite web
url =
title = The Constitution of Northern Ireland being the Government of Ireland Act, 1920, as amended (Clause 5)
accessdate = 2007-02-13
author = His Majesty's Government
date = 23/12/1920
work = Government of Ireland Act, 1920
publisher = Her Majesty's Stationery Office, 1956
] Here Roman Catholics formed a minority of some 35% of the population, which had mostly supported Irish nationalism and was therefore historically opposed to the creation of Northern Ireland.

The Roman Catholic schools' council was at first resistant in accepting the role of the government of Northern Ireland, and initially accepted funding only from the government of the Irish Free State and admitting no school inspectors. Thus it was that the Lynn Committee presented a report to the government, from which an Education Bill was created to update the education system in Northern Ireland, without any co-operation from the Roman Catholic section in education. Instead, in regard to the Roman Catholic schools, the report relied on the guidance of a Roman Catholic who was to become the Permanent Secretary to the Minister of Education — A. N. Bonaparte Wyse.

Cquote|We hope that, notwithstanding the disadvantage at which we were placed by this action, it will be found that Roman Catholic interests have not suffered. We have throughout been careful to keep in mind and to make allowance for the particular points of view of Roman Catholics in regard to education so far as known to us, and it has been our desire to refrain as far as we could from recommending any course which might be thought to be contrary to their wishes. [cite book
last = Morrison
first = John
title = The Ulster Cover-Up
year = 1993
publisher = Ulster Society (Publications)
location = Northern Ireland
isbn =1-872076-15-7
pages = 40
chapter = The Ulster Government and Internal Opposition
] |20px|20px|Lynn Commission report, 1923

Many commentators have suggested that the separate education systems in Northern Ireland after 1921 prolonged the sectarian divisions in that community. Cases of gerrymandering and preference in public services for non-Catholics led on to the need for a Civil Rights movement in 1967.

Vatican II

In both parts of Ireland Church policy and practice changed markedly after the Vatican II reforms of 1962. Probably the largest change was that Mass could be said in vernacular languages and not in Latin, and in 1981 the Church commissioned its first edition of the Bible in Irish.

Recent decline of influence

Beginning in the 1990s the Roman Catholic church in Ireland was increasingly immersed in controversy following revelations of institutionalized and parochial child sex abuse cases. Having given its opinion on public matters since 1922, it emerged that suing the church was equivalent to suing any sports club or social group. The church initially defended itself in court with a sense that its legal rights were more important than providing justice to the alleged victims. Subsequent investigations showed concealment of the crimes at high levels within the church hierarchy and resulted in a sum of €128 million being paid to the State by the Catholic Church in an indemnity deal in 2001-02. The alternative to this was probably bankruptcy. As the full cost is currently estimated to be in the region of €1 billion the deal has been criticized in the Dáil. Abuse cases have continue to appear in the courts into 2008 and new allegations continue to emerge; including some false claims.


Although there are still, as detailed above, several thousand clergy, brothers and sisters, there is a shortfall in personnel. For example, 160 priests having died in 2007, while only 9 were ordained, and 228 nuns were lost with just 2 new recruits.Current trends would see a fall to under 1,500 priests over the next two decades, and an even more dramatic loss to the orders.

The matter has been exacerbated in a small but highly visible way by the loss of clergy to the Church of Ireland, but more significant, are the bans on married and female clergy. In 2005 the conservative Western People criticized priestly celibacy: "...not one senior member of the Hierarchy admits that obligatory celibacy of priests has been at the core of the church’s malaise. The Irish Church’s prospect of a recovery is zero for as long as bishops continue blindly to toe the Vatican line of Pope Benedict XVI that a male celibate priesthood is morally superior to other sections of society." [ [ Western People Nov 2005] ]

Ironically, the early church did not entirely oppose or support celibacy until the Gregorian Reforms after 1074, and it was not usual in the early Irish church.

The shortfall is being addressed by such measures as mergers or unions of parishes (last availed of in Penal Law times), sharing of clergy within deaneries, and a proposed programme to appoint ordained Deacons, who will be able to perform many services, and who can be married, if not female.

Affiliated groups

As well as numerous Orders, there are many Irish Catholic-ethos laity groups including the:
*Legion of Mary (1921)
*Knights of Columbanus (1915)
*Ancient Order of Hibernians (1890s)Other organization with Irish branches:
*Society of Saint Vincent de Paul
*Order of Malta

Popular traditions

Alongside the church itself, many Irish folk traditions persisted for centuries as a part of the church's culture. Holy relics are thought to possess curative or magical powers, colourful "patterns" (processions) in honour of local saints persisted into the 1800s, and in 1985 thousands gathered to pray during the Moving statues phenomenon. Marian Devotion is a central element, focused on the shrine at Knock, where the Virgin Mary appeared in 1879. Recent feasts and cults such as the Immaculate Conception of Mary (1854) and the Sacred Heart of Jesus (1856), and the concepts of martyrology are still important elements. Respect for mortification of the flesh has led on to the veneration of Matt Talbot and Padre Pio, and claims of miracles are investigated.

Missionary activity

Initially inspired largely by Cardinal Newman to convert the colonized peoples of the British Empire, after 1922 the church continued to work in healthcare and education what is now the Third World through its bodies such as Concern and Trócaire. Along with the Irish Catholic diaspora in countries like the USA and Australia, this has created a world-wide network, though affected by falling numbers of priests.

ee also

*Roman Catholicism by country
*Apostolic Nuncio to Ireland
*Roman Catholicism in Great Britain
*Roman Catholicism in Scotland
*Roman Catholic Church in England and Wales
*Roman Catholic sex abuse cases by country
*Ferns Report


External links

* [ Homepage of the Irish Bishops' Conference]
* [, Content-rich portal of the Catholic Church in Ireland]

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