The Catholic Church, the State and Society in Independent Ireland, 1922-2022


Daithí Ó Corráin

Dr Daithí Ó Corráin (School of History and Geography, DCU) is a historian of the Irish Revolution and Irish Catholicism. His most recent publications include The Dead of the Irish Revolution (2020), a re-evaluation of the 1979 papal visit and essays on Irish Catholicism in the Cambridge History of Ireland (2018), the Oxford History of British and Irish Catholicism (2022), and the Oxford Handbook of Religion in Ireland (2022).



No institution was more significant in shaping the nature of Irish society after independence than the Catholic Church. This essay surveys the position and influence of the Church over a century and explains how its once dominant influence was gradually eroded. The term “church” in this survey refers to the institutional Church, especially its leadership by bishops and archbishops, rather than the broader community of believers. For the purpose of clarity, a broadly chronological approach is taken with specific themes addressed within this framework.[1] Throughout the 19th and 20th centuries, Catholicism was a defining element of Irish national identity. Following political independence, the Catholic Church played a central role in the subsequent State-building project. It enjoyed unprecedented power and influence until the 1960s when a combination of social and economic developments changed the direction of Irish life and the place of religion within it. Since the 1990s, as elsewhere in the world, the Catholic Church has been beset by scandal, failure of leadership, and loss of moral authority.


1. Transition to Independence, 1918-23

During the turbulent period between 1918 and 1923 the political stance of the Catholic hierarchy was characterised by a renunciation of violence, advocacy of majority rule, support for order, and condemnation of partition. The bishops’ influence on public opinion during the Irish Revolution should not, however, be overstated. Forceful condemnations of violence, whether perpetrated by republicans or the British government, went unheeded during the War of Independence and did not halt killing, destruction of property, or dislocation of law and order. The Church’s alignment with majority nationalist opinion was demonstrated during the massive protest campaign against conscription in 1918 which the hierarchy declared “an oppressive and inhuman law” which the Irish people had a right “to resist by all the means that are consonant with the law of God.”[2] During the War of Independence, clerical opposition focused on the violent methods employed but not on the goal of independence.

A majority of Catholic Ireland supported the Anglo-Irish Treaty of 1921 which granted a significant measure of self-government, but not a republic. As opposition to the settlement intensified during increasingly fractious parliamentary debates in December 1921, the hierarchy exerted moral pressure on TDs to uphold majority opinion by supporting the Treaty. For example, Archbishop Edward Byrne of Dublin tried, unsuccessfully, to persuade Éamon de Valera to accept the agreement. The Treaty was ratified by the Dáil on 7 January 1922. The Church was committed to the survival of the Treaty and to “sustaining” the authority of an Irish State following the beginning of the Civil War in June 1922.[3]

This extended to producing a partisan pastoral on 10 October, 1922 which rejected the legitimacy of the republican campaign because “no one is justified in rebelling against the legitimate Government … set up by the nation and acting within its rights.”[4] The hierarchy threatened to deprive those engaged in unlawful rebellion of the sacraments of eucharist and confession, and to suspend priests who gave spiritual aid to the anti-Treaty IRA (in the event neither was stringently applied). It is difficult to discern how effective the pastoral letter was. As Patrick Murray suggests, it may have emboldened the government to take a sterner stance against republicans.[5] Two manifestations of this were the policy of executions and the toleration of often gruesome reprisals. This was matched by an anti-Treaty IRA campaign of arson, intimidation, and assassination. Private appeals by individual bishops against executions, such as that of Erskine Childers, went unheeded.

However dismayed the bishops were at the excesses of the Irish State during the Civil War, no public condemnation was issued.

In this there was an element of pragmatic self-interest. The creation of Northern Ireland under a unionist government inimical to Catholic interests filled the Catholic bishops with foreboding. That strengthened their determination to secure the Irish Free State and the opportunities that it promised.


2. State-building in the 1920s and 1930s
2.1 Catholic Nationalism

All of the major Christian Churches in Ireland operate on an all-island basis but in two political jurisdictions. The partition of Ireland reinforced the association of political allegiance and religious affiliation on both sides of the border after 1920. The 1926 census revealed that Roman Catholics accounted for 92.6 per cent of the population in the Irish Free State. Such denominational homogeneity had a significant bearing on the political and public culture of the new State. As Tom Inglis has argued, a Catholic habitus – a way of thinking and acting in conformity with a systematic view of the world – permeated all social classes, and religious capital facilitated the acquisition of economic, political, or social capital.[6] And so, during the first fifty years of independence, both Church and State leaders, irrespective of political party, shared a desire to develop the country according to a philosophy of Catholic nationalism. As a result, the coming to power of Fianna Fáil under de Valera in 1932 was characterised by continuity in Church-State relations.


Photo: Jon Tyson on Unsplash


In the immediate aftermath of the Civil War, Catholicism provided a social bonding power which helped heal some of the fratricidal wounds. It also differentiated the new State culturally from its former colonial master.

The centenary of Catholic emancipation in 1929 and the 31st Eucharistic Congress in 1932, an international showpiece of global Catholicism, were symbolic expressions of a triumphant Catholic nationalism. Gillian McIntosh concludes that they allowed the new State “to proclaim its permanence, its separate identity from England, and to give a high profile to its image as a Catholic nation.”[7]

2.2 Institutional Continuity

Amid the uncertainties of the 1920s the Church offered the new State continuity, stability and an extensive infrastructure. In return, a financially bankrupt government was content to see the Church consolidate and extend its institutional presence in the realms of education, health and welfare with minimal interference – a pattern that continued until the 1960s. As various commissions of enquiry have dismally revealed, the status enjoyed by the Church contributed to inadequate State oversight. During the first four decades of independence, the Catholic Church was more secure and more confident than at any previous time and enjoyed close links with the State. While an informal consensus between political and religious leaders was often evident, ministers did not always submissively dispose as the bench of bishops proposed. For example, diplomatic relations were established with the Vatican in 1929 despite the known opposition of the hierarchy and the Dunbar-Harrison case in 1931 demonstrated the resolve of the W.T. Cosgrave government to reject the imposition of religious tests against non-Catholics.[8]

The situation was very different in Northern Ireland where the experience of Irish Catholicism before the 1960s was marked by a sense of being in, but not of, the State. Antagonism initially characterised relations between Church authorities, who had a political importance as spokesmen for the minority, and the Northern administration. After the Second World War the opportunities occasioned by the expanding welfare state saw the northern Catholic bishops adopt a more pragmatic approach, as they moved from highlighting the injustice of the State to injustices within it. There was never any question that the political border would compromise the religious unity of the Catholic Church, whose geographical self-understanding remained an all-Ireland one.[9]


2.3 A Catholic Moral Order

In the 1920s and 1930s, significant elements of the Catholic moral code were enshrined in law, particularly in the areas of sexual morality (other forms of morality were largely ignored) and family relations. Conservatism defined most aspects of Irish life between the 1920s and 1950s. For this reason, the censorship of films (1923) and publications (1929), the abolition of the right to divorce by Private Member’s Bill in 1925 and a constitutional prohibition in 1937, and a ban on the importation and sale of contraceptives (1935) were broadly favoured by all the Christian Churches. A favourite theme of Irish conservatives and the ultra-Catholic lobby at this time was to contrast Ireland’s moral character with that of godless Britain. The disturbing findings of the Carrigan report in 1931 on the prevalence of sexual offences, including against children, shattered any illusions of Ireland’s supposed moral superiority.

Scandalised, the government suppressed the Carrigan report and ignored its recommendations for raising the age of consent to eighteen and that such offences be made felonies.[10] The episode is significant for a number of reasons. First, it disclosed widespread awareness of sexual offences against children among lawmakers, jurists and the public. Second, it revealed an overriding desire to protect Ireland’s reputation. As the Minister for Justice put it at the time:

the obvious conclusion to be drawn is that the ordinary feelings of decency and the influence of religion have failed in this country and that the only remedy is by way of police action. It is clearly undesirable that such a view of conditions in the Saorstát should be given wide circulation.[11]

Finally, as Mark Finnane observes, the Criminal Law Amendment Act of 1935 confused serious crimes with much less harmful sexual practices and revealed an increasingly authoritarian political culture that placed significant emphasis on the appearance of things.[12]

Measures such as censorship were not unique to Ireland. What differed was the stringency and longevity of Irish moral protectionism. For instance, the censorship of publications was not relaxed until 1967. Between the 1920s and the 1950s, the institutional Church was at its most dominant and devotional practices by a devout and deferential laity, in addition to weekly attendance at Mass, were at their most visible and numerous. Nevertheless, after the Second World War, the hierarchy unsuccessfully lobbied the government on aspects of the moral law not deemed rigorous enough! In 1947 the bishops floated the suggestion that wartime travel permits be reintroduced to curtail female emigration and preserve them from grave moral danger abroad; in 1952 the bishops wanted all dancehalls closed at midnight; in 1958 the government was urged to have the police and Censorship of Publications Board clamp down on foreign evil literature; and in 1959 the bishops opposed a liberalisation of the licensing laws.

In this period, sermons and pastorals warned relentlessly of the dangers to faith and morals posed by evil literature and films, immodest dress, excessive drinking, the craze for pleasure, “leakage of the faith” among emigrants (rather than the socio-economic causes of emigration), materialism, secularism, and atheistic communism (at home Saor Éire and the Republican Congress were condemned in 1931 and abroad there was great Irish interest in the Spanish Civil War and concern for the persecuted Church in Hungary and Poland after the Second World War). As depicted by Irish writers from James Joyce to John McGahern, a prudish emphasis on subduing the passions of the flesh, a focus on sin, and a pessimistic view of salvation were integral to the religious culture of the time.


2.4 Bunreacht na hÉireann

Many commentators have suggested that Catholic social teaching had a significant influence on de Valera’s 1937 constitution. The 1922 constitution was secular and did not mention the Catholic Church at all. While Bunreacht na hÉireann guaranteed religious pluralism, Article 44.1.2º conferred a special position on the Catholic Church “as the guardian of the faith professed by the great majority of citizens.”[13] Recent legal-historical scholarship has downplayed the Catholic influences on the 1937 constitution and emphasised its secular values, the extent to which the conceptualisation of the State was greatly enlarged, and the degree to which it borrowed heavily from European constitutions, such as Weimar Germany, before later being supplemented by Catholic teaching on natural law.[14] The 1937 constitution did not establish the Catholic Church or describe it as the one true church and recognised other Churches in Article 44.1.3, to the chagrin of Cardinal Joseph MacRory, Catholic archbishop of Armagh and primate of all-Ireland from 1928 to 1945. Article 45, listing the “directive principles of social policy”, drew heavily on Catholic teaching but was intended only for the “general guidance of the Oireachtas.” The “special position” clause was deleted with minimum fuss in a constitutional referendum in 1972 under the shadow of the Northern Ireland Troubles.


2.5 Catholic Social Teaching Before the Second Vatican Council

In assessing the Church’s influence on policy-making, a useful approach is to differentiate between its moral and social teaching. Liam Ryan uses this distinction to identify two fundamental domains: the relationship of the Catholic moral code and the law of the State and, secondly, Catholic social teaching and perceived Church rights in education, health, and welfare.[15] Outside of these domains, there were limits to the Church’s political influence, just as there was a variety of political standpoints within the hierarchy and among the clergy. The Church’s magisterium has the duty to prescribe the moral law and impose Catholic teaching. The Irish bishops were not diffident about propounding particular elements of the magisterium. As the bishop of Limerick put it in April 1955: “The Church will not be muzzled where any matter relating to Divine Law is concerned.”[16] By contrast, social teaching was less prescriptive and sought to offer general principles on socio-economic matters. This became increasingly important as the State became more involved in areas of traditional church concern such as education, health, and welfare.

Pope Pius XI’s seminal Quadragesimo Anno (1931) developed the concept of subsidiarity. In the interests of distributive justice and the public good, the State should grant subsidium (assistance or support) to component parts of society within strictly delineated limits. Under the principle of subsidiarity, the State’s duty was to supplement the individual or smaller societal units such as the family, not to supplant them. The most important manifestation of the new Catholic social teaching in this period was Muintir na Tíre, a community development organisation founded by Father John Hayes in 1931. Dr Alfred O’Rahilly was a prolific exponent of Catholic social teaching in the pages of the Standard which enjoyed a wide circulation.[17] The Legion of Mary, a lay Catholic organisation founded by Frank Duff in 1921, was somewhat different, in that it was a rare example of autonomous mobilisation by lay Catholics. It focused on spiritual and social problems such as homelessness and prostitution.[18]

The most notable effort to incorporate Catholic social teaching into the State’s administrative system was the Commission on Vocational Organisation between 1939 and 1943, chaired by Bishop Michael Browne of Galway. Its 300,000-word report proposed a vocational board composed of employers and workers for each trade or craft. The Fianna Fáil government (and the opposition parties in the Dáil) simply ignored it, having no appetite for a non-party centre of power in Irish life. Furthermore, it was not costed and its attack on the civil service alienated that constituency.[19]


2.6 Church, State and Control of Education

Until the Second Vatican Council, Quadragesimo Anno was frequently cited by the Irish bishops, who remained suspicious of State activity, even though in an Irish context the State “stepped in not too much but too little.”[20] The most significant areas of policy interaction between Church and State before the 1960s were the sensitive areas of education, and to a lesser extent health. Control of education (its ethos, school management and teaching appointments), wrested from the British government in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, was regarded as essential if Catholic faith and values were to be transmitted to future generations. After 1922, the Department of Education had limited power over the management of primary and secondary schools, which remained vested in the Catholic and Protestant clergy. The State paid the salaries of teachers, but its influence was largely restricted to control of the curriculum and an inspection system to ensure minimum teaching standards.[21] Catholic Church authorities flexed their muscles when the Vocational Education Act (1930), which provided continuation and technical education for 14 to 16-year-olds, was viewed as a threat to primary schools and to the curriculum of secondary schools. The hierarchy sought and secured the place of religious instruction in the vocational system, as well as clerical representation on local vocational education committees.[22]

So modest was the State’s role in education before the 1960s that General Richard Mulcahy, Minister for Education from 1954 to 1957, likened his function to a “plumber” who “will take the knock out of the pipes and will link up everything.”[23] The Church’s priority, which was facilitated by the State, was to maintain the status quo.


2.7 Health and Welfare; The Mother and Child Controversy and its Aftermath

In the domain of health and welfare there was also significant continuity with patterns established in the nineteenth century. Following Catholic emancipation in 1829, a number of Catholic voluntary hospitals were founded by religious orders, particularly in the cities. For example, in 1835 the Sisters of Charity opened St Vincent’s Hospital on St Stephen’s Green in Dublin. After the 1898 Local Government Act, religious orders also began to extend their influence into the poor law or workhouse system. When this was abolished in the mid-1920s many workhouses were closed, some became county hospitals and others became county homes to care for the infirm, the elderly, the intellectually disabled and unmarried mothers.[24] With plentiful vocations, religious orders increased their involvement in county homes and hospitals which were financed by local rates.

By the late 1920s, the voluntary hospitals, both Catholic and Protestant, faced grave financial challenges due to rising operational and treatment costs, a fall in the value of their endowment funds following the First World War, and a reduction in income from charitable donations. Increasingly, hospitals relied on income from patient fees as their debts mounted. To meet this, in 1930 the Public Charitable Hospitals (Temporary Provisions) Act permitted Sweepstakes on horse racing.[25] The proceeds of this remarkably popular venture went into a Hospitals Trust Fund which was increasingly controlled by the Minister for Local Government. To benefit from the fund voluntary hospitals had to reserve at least one-quarter of their beds for non-paying patients. As Ruth Barrington has observed, the Sweepstakes ensured the survival of a large number of voluntary hospitals which otherwise would have been forced to close or amalgamate.[26] From the late 1940s, the fund was used for capital investment in the State hospital sector.

After the Second World War, expanded medical services in western Europe and the establishment of the National Health Service in Britain prompted the Irish government to address the pressing issues of tuberculosis, wider access to medical care, and improved ante- and postnatal care. When a comprehensive Health Service was mooted in the mid-1940s, the medical profession feared socialised medicine and the end of private practice. The bishops were anxious about State control of voluntary hospitals and a dilution of Catholic medical ethics. Opposition to greater State involvement in healthcare by doctors and the hierarchy was at the root of the Mother and Child controversy in 1951, on which much has been written.[27] This cause célèbre has often been portrayed simplistically as a clash of Church and State, with the latter coming off second best. In fact, it was a tri-partite tussle involving the State, the Church, and the powerful medical profession, which will be briefly sketched here.

Part III of the 1947 Health Act proposed a scheme of free, non-means-tested medical care for mothers and children up to the age of 16. In October 1947, the Catholic hierarchy informed the Fianna Fáil government of its concerns about the moral dimensions of health education and its belief that part III infringed the rights of the family and the Church. Before the Act could be implemented, Fianna Fáil lost power in February 1948, and was succeeded by a five-party coalition led by John A. Costello. Noël Browne of Clann na Poblachta became Minister for Health and in 1950 moved to introduce the contentious part of the Act.

During lengthy and complex negotiations, two aspects of the subsequent political crisis emerged: inept handling of vested interests (both medical and episcopal) by a callow minister and the fragmentation of Clann na Poblachta. An episcopal committee headed by Archbishop John Charles McQuaid of Dublin privately raised concerns with Browne and Costello about the primacy of parental rights in respect of the health of children, fears that gynaecological care might include information on birth limitation or abortion, and a defence of the confidential relationship between patient and doctor. The last point reflected effective lobbying by the doctors for whom a means test for access to public health services was a bulwark against State encroachment.[28] The Cabinet abandoned the scheme and sought Browne’s resignation on 10 April 1951. Sensationally, Browne published the Church-State correspondence, but the decisive role of the Irish Medical Association was not revealed.

When Fianna Fáil returned to power with a mandate to implement the scheme, the bishops and doctors once again objected. The medical profession secured concessions on retention of a means test and private practice. The 1953 Health Act ended any prospect of a health service on British lines. Free medical care of mothers before and after birth, and of their infants until the age of six weeks was permitted along with free health clinics for schoolchildren to the age of six. The pattern of hospital consultants using voluntary hospitals for private medical practice in return for treating the poor for free became entrenched. The voluntary hospitals retained their independence, as they did after the 1970 Health Act established eight regional health boards, even though they were largely funded by the exchequer. The Sweepstakes went into decline from the early 1960s and were wound up in 1987.


3. A Changing Ireland, 1960s-1990s
3.1 Aspects of Modernisation

From the 1960s, a variety of factors combined to transform Irish society. From the premiership of Seán Lemass onwards, the State prioritised economic growth over the simpler Catholic nationalist vision of Irish society which had prevailed since independence. The establishment of a national television service in December 1961 was the most significant instrument of modernisation.[29]

Coupled with the relaxation of the laws on censorship, programmes such as the Late Late Show facilitated the questioning of traditional structures of authority.

The expansion of the market and the media in subsequent decades “ushered in a new habitus that was based on liberal-individualism, materialism and consumerism, the very things against which the Church had preached so vehemently for generations.”[30] The changing position of women was also crucial in modernising Ireland, particularly from the 1970s onward. Irish women challenged the patriarchal nature of Irish society and traditional Church teaching on birth control and on the natural role of woman as mother and home-maker. Inglis contends that the Irish mother played a vital role in the development and transmission of Irish Catholicism from generation to generation. Once women were able to access alternative sources of power through the workplace and public life, a key pillar of the Church’s ideological control was removed.[31]


The Marian shrine at Ballinspittle, Co. Cork, the site of a popular enthusiasm for “moving statues” in the summer of 1985. Photo: CC BY-SA – Sheila1988

3.2 A Changing Balance of Power in Education

It was belatedly recognised in the 1960s that the extension of educational opportunity was a central aspect of national economic development. In 1965 Investment in Education, an OECD study of Ireland’s long-term educational needs, revealed that just one-quarter of those leaving primary education continued to second level. This prompted the introduction of free post-primary education from the 1967 school year. John Walsh has revised the cordial characterisation of Church-State interaction in this period put forward by earlier studies. Although the denominational character of schools remained unaltered, a new balance of power in education had been achieved, in which the enhanced influence of the State in education was accepted with varying degrees of reluctance.[32]

During the 1990s and 2000s, there was a flurry of new policies in education by an increasingly interventionist and secular Irish State. For example, under the new primary school curriculum, introduced in 1999, there was a greater separation of secular and religious instruction than ever before. Under the 1998 Education Act, for the first time the State recognised a variety of nondenominational schools such as Gaelscoileanna (Irish-language schools) and multidenominational schools (which from 1984 came under the umbrella of Educate Together).

The Catholic Church still exerts immense influence on the education system through its patronage, management and ownership of 90 per cent of primary schools; in addition, about half of post-primary schools are under denominational control. But there is a growing demand by parents and the State for a plurality of models of provision and a school system better aligned with the needs of a more culturally, ethnically, and religiously diverse population.


3.3 The Second Vatican Council

The Catholic Church’s self-understanding also changed with the Second Vatican Council (1962-5) which sought aggiornamento, the bringing of the Church up to date. Proceedings were extensively reported by the media and Catholic Ireland greeted the key deliberations – on the nature of the Church as the people of God, the collegiality of the bishops, and lay participation in the mission of the church – with optimism. By contrast, the Irish ambassador to the Vatican described the hierarchy’s attitude as “the reverse of exuberant.”[33] The bishops were wary of change lest it undermine their magisterium or endanger the faith and morals of the laity. Hence Archbishop McQuaid reassured a congregation that “no change will worry the tranquillity of your Christian lives.”[34] Ireland did not witness the fractious division over alterations to liturgy, theology, Church governance and ecumenism that occurred in other European countries and in North America, but the local implementation was legalistic and narrow.


3.4 Advocacy of social justice

Arguably, the Church’s conservatism on moral issues obscured a growing social justice agenda. From the 1970s, the Church developed a more critical view of the State’s social policy shortcomings, particularly in relation to inequality and poverty.[35] This reflected the influence of John XXIII’s Mater et Magistra (1961), which overturned Church suspicion of State involvement in social provision, and the continuing reception of the Second Vatican Council’s Gaudium et Spes (1965). Many priests and religious became household names for their work in championing those on the margins. Brother Kevin Crowley founded the Capuchin Day Centre in 1969 to provide food, clothing, and care facilities for those in need. Donal O’Mahony, another Capuchin, founded Threshold in 1978 to address housing inequality, deprivation, and insufficient legislative protection for tenants.[36] It assisted almost 3,000 people in its first two years and celebrated its fortieth anniversary in 2018.[37] In 1983 Peter McVerry, a Jesuit, founded the Arrupe Society (later re-named ‘The Peter McVerry Trust’) to tackle homelessness, drugs, and social disadvantage. He is arguably the best known and most outspoken advocate of greater equality and social inclusion. In 1985 Sister Stanislaus Kennedy (‘Sister Stan’) of the Sisters of Charity was a co-founder of Focus Ireland, a housing charity. She later established the Immigrant Council of Ireland.

Voluntary organisations led by religious or under religious patronage such as the Society of St Vincent de Paul were in the vanguard of public commentary on socio-economic issues. Poverty may have been “rediscovered” by sociologists in the 1960s, but in an Irish context the St Vincent de Paul sodality had been working quietly to ameliorate the consequences of poverty since the 1840s. The best-known Irish Catholic lay organisation of social concern and action, in 2014 it had 10,500 members and 1,500 auxiliary members in 1,235 conferences active in every county in Ireland.[38] It should also be stated that Trócaire, the bishops’ overseas development agency established in 1973, paralleled these efforts through aid to the developing world.

From the 1970s, the hierarchy was vocal about the interlinked problems of poverty, long-term unemployment, and emigration, as well as the inadequacy of Ireland’s social infrastructure. The bishops of the west of Ireland were proactive in commissioning a major jobs and regional development study to stem unemployment and emigration; this was published in 1994 as Crusade for Survival.[39] It led to a public campaign and the establishment, three years later, of the Western Development Commission as a government agency. Aside from economic issues, members of the hierarchy addressed a broad range of social problems, including, among others, drug abuse and alcoholism, the commercialisation of Sunday, responsible advertising, suicide, and discrimination against the Travelling community.

During the Celtic Tiger era, many Church figures, such as Fr Seán Healy and Sr Brigid Reynolds of the Justice office of CORI,[40] criticised the neoliberal approach to economic growth and the dominance of the market and the individual over society. In Prosperity with a Purpose: Christian Faith and Values at a Time of Rapid Economic Growth, a wide-ranging pastoral in November 1999, the bishops stressed that economics should serve society and the common good.[41] The document received little media attention because the Church struggled to communicate its message in the secular realm. The most significant impact of the Celtic Tiger was the transformation of Ireland to a multi-ethnic country. At a civil society level, numerous well regarded pro-migrant organisations such as the Immigrant Council of Ireland and the Migrant Rights Centre Ireland owed their foundation to Catholic clergy or religious, primarily returned missionaries and diaspora chaplains.[42]


3.5 A Shrinking Church

For the first time in the 20th century, a decline in the total number of priests, brothers and nuns was recorded in 1968.[43] Within a decade, for every ten who entered all forms of religious life, seven others died and eight departed.[44] The power of the Church has partly waned due to this drying up of vocations. Without the human resources to staff the myriad of hospitals, welfare homes and schools, the Church’s institutional presence inevitably contracted. Depleted ranks, increased running costs, greater State involvement, professionalisation of services, new management structures, and a post-Vatican II reassessment of their mission prompted a withdrawal of religious from traditional areas of activity such as education and health.

A high-profile example was the decision of the Sisters of Charity to leave healthcare in 2017, one hastened by negative public reaction to reports that the Order would own the new national maternity hospital and the subsequent decision to transfer the site to a new charitable body. In September 2014, only ten religious, half of them women, served as principals of post primary schools compared to 104 in 1991.[45] Religious orders withdrew almost entirely from the care of orphaned or neglected children during the 1990s and this was accelerated by revelations about abuse of some children in their care. At a parish level, the number of diocesan clergy declined sharply. In 2015 there were 1,966 active priests assigned to parish ministry, a fall of 1,010 since 2000 and almost half the 1961 total of 3,702.[46] Alongside this crisis of vocations, census data revealed a steady decline in Catholic self-description amongst the laity. In 1981 the proportion of the population self-ascribing as Catholic was 93 per cent, falling to 78.3 per cent in 2016, the lowest on record. The most noticeable finding in 2016 was that 9.8 per cent identified as ‘No Religion’.[47]

A survey by Mícheál Mac Gréil SJ in 1977 revealed a growing gulf between the orthodox beliefs of the Vatican and those of the faithful in respect of artificial contraception (63 per cent disagreed that it was always wrong), celibacy (46 per cent agreed that priests should be allowed to marry) and homosexuality (43 per cent agreed that it should be decriminalised).[48] The survey findings indicated that the higher the level of educational attainment, the lower the level of orthodox religious belief and acceptance of Church teaching. In this sense the papal visit in 1979, when an estimated 2.7 million people greeted John Paul II, was less a celebration of Catholic Ireland than an unsuccessful attempt to slow down the inroads made by materialism and secularism.[49]


3.6 The Northern Ireland Troubles

The most significant address during the 1979 papal visit was Pope John Paul II’s speech at Drogheda. This concerned building peace in Northern Ireland, reconciliation based on justice, and an unequivocal renunciation of violence.[50] Throughout the Northern Ireland Troubles, the Catholic Church was indefatigable in condemning violence (whether paramilitary or State-sanctioned), disassociating the vast majority of the nationalist community from the IRA campaign, and calling for cross community dialogue.[51] At the New Ireland Forum in 1984, established by the Irish government as a means of finding a democratic solution to the Northern impasse, the oral submission of the Catholic hierarchy made clear that the Catholic Church ardently sought peace and justice in Northern Ireland, that it rejected the concept of the confessional State, and that it was “acutely conscious of the fears of the Northern Protestant community.”[52] The Catholic and other Church leaders supported the peace process during the 1990s. The hierarchy welcomed the Belfast Agreement in 1998 as balanced and providing for a constructive and peaceful resolution of the conflict.


3.7 “Moral Issue” Politics

The papal visit took place just two months after the passage of the Family Planning Act. For much of the twentieth century, Ireland was unique among western countries in not permitting abortion, contraception, or divorce. The hierarchy held the traditional line on these issues but for the first time in November 1973 openly acknowledged that the State should not be the guardian of private morality: “There are many things which the Catholic Church holds to be morally wrong and no one has ever suggested, least of all the Church herself, that they should be prohibited by the State.”[53] In Britain and America change in this sphere occurred over a century but in Ireland this was telescoped into a much shorter time span. Seven bruising “moral issue” constitutional referenda on abortion and marriage were held between 1983 and 2002. They were preceded by the legalisation of contraception in 1979, as a result of a Supreme Court ruling in the McGee case, with further extensions in 1985 and 1992. The insertion of an ambiguously worded pro-life amendment in 1983 (the Eighth Amendment) was carried by a two to one majority in a poll of only 54 per cent turnout of the electorate.

In the wake of the ‘X’ case, which permitted the risk of suicide by the mother as grounds for abortion, three concurrent referenda in 1992 affirmed freedoms of travel and information about abortion services but not the risk of suicide as grounds to allow an abortion. The latter position was reaffirmed in a further referendum in 2002. Garret FitzGerald recalled that concerns about property rights more than pressure from the pulpit led 63 per cent to reject divorce in 1986.[54] But a significant minority dissented from Church teaching and nine years later divorce was narrowly approved. The so-called liberal agenda pursued during this tumultuous period was a reflection rather than a cause of change. As Máire Nic Ghiolla Phádraig has noted, accompanying these campaigns was “a growing coolness between the government and the hierarchy” and little prior Church-State consultation, something unimaginable in earlier decades.[55]


4. Irish Catholicism in Crisis, 1990s to the Present
 4.1 Detachment from the Institutional Church

Various reasons for an increasing detachment from the institutional Church can be advanced. First, atypically high participation rates which for decades made Ireland and outlier in Europe may simply be converging with other European and Western countries, many of which went through periods of declining church-based religion. Secondly, the Church in contemporary Ireland has little influence over public opinion, the State, or the media. The latter has become the chief supplier of alternative value systems and new forms of conformity.

The media has also provided an intense critique of religious institutions which were once above public scrutiny. Investigative journalism played a major role in uncovering clerical sexual scandals and televised documentaries such as Suing the Pope (BBC, 2002) and Cardinal Secrets (RTÉ, 2002) prompted the establishment of inquiries.

Marie Keenan has noted that in Ireland the coverage of clerical sexual abuse led to the emergence of a new and powerful media template: Brendan Smyth (a Norbertine Order priest sentenced to twelve years imprisonment) and the paedophile priest.[56] Thirdly, adherence to Church teaching on social and moral matters, for decades the predominant concern of the hierarchy, such as abortion, pre-martial sexual relations and same-sex relations have sharply declined. The percentage of non-marital births grew from 4 per cent in 1977 to 31.4 in 2005; the divorce rate among Catholics in 2016 was 4.1 per cent, up from 3.6 per cent in 2011 (the rate for the general population was 4.7 per cent).[57] Most spectacularly, in May 2015 a referendum on same-sex marriage was approved by 62 per cent and in 2018 two-thirds of Irish voters favoured the repeal of the Eighth Amendment. Fourthly, for an increasing number, Catholicism is part of a socio-cultural identity expressed at key rites of passage such as baptism, marriage and last rites. Lastly, the clerical sex abuse scandals and the Church’s inadequate response have been intensely corrosive.


4.2 Scandal

Since the early 1990s the Catholic Church in Ireland has been besieged by scandals too numerous to itemise. The first wave of sexual scandal involved paternity cases. In 1992, Catholic Ireland was shocked to discover that Éamonn Casey, Bishop of Galway, had secretly fathered a child with an American woman in the 1970s and used Church funds to support her. Shortly afterwards, it emerged that Fr Michael Cleary, a media figure well-known for his defence of traditional Catholic values, had fathered two children with his housekeeper. Both Casey and Cleary had introduced Pope John Paul II in Galway in 1979. For an institution so preoccupied with questions of sexual morality, the consequent loss of credibility and moral authority was swift.

Far more destructive and larger in scale due to the extensive involvement of the Church in welfare provision, was the emotional, physical and sexual abuse of vulnerable children by a minority of clergy and religious. This was revealed in a cascade of harrowing inquiry reports: Ferns (2005), Ryan (2009), Murphy (2009) and Cloyne (2011) among others. These revealed a failure of leadership, hypocrisy and a dysfunctional authoritarian institutional culture more concerned with secrecy and avoiding scandal than protecting the vulnerable. The Cloyne report prompted an unprecedented condemnation of the Vatican by Taoiseach Enda Kenny in the Dáil. In November 2011 the Irish government decided to close its Vatican embassy on economic grounds; it was subsequently reopened in 2014.

The institutional Church does not stand indicted alone. The Irish State and society were complicit by their failure to safeguard the marginalised in the industrial schools and Magdalene asylums. As in the US, the Irish Church responded by first developing child protection guidelines in 1996. This was followed five years later by the establishment of a child protection office (now the National Board for Safeguarding Children in the Catholic Church in Ireland) and a pastoral directive on clerical child abuse in 2011 called Towards Healing and Renewal. The commissioning of an independent study Time to Listen: Confronting Child Sexual Abuse by Catholic Clergy in Ireland (2003) to understand the impacts of and responses to clerical child sex abuse was the first of its kind in the global Church.[58]


Pope Francis’ synodal emphasis represents an opportunity for the church. Photo: CC BY-SA – Gabriel Sozzi


5. Conclusion

In 2018 when Pope Francis visited Ireland, much ink was expended contrasting contemporary Ireland with that of the first papal visit in 1979. The transformation of Irish society and the place of Catholicism within it was so profound as to render comparison meaningless. Many commentators have engaged in a sweeping but simplistic and at times populist narrative of the Church’s decline and fall. As this essay has demonstrated, what has failed or been rejected is a particular model of Church – the patriarchal, authoritarian model that enjoyed a lengthy heyday in Ireland from the 1920s to the 1960s or even 1980s. The narrative of decline and this essay’s focus on the institutional Church should not obscure the fact that a critical mass of believers remains, that religion retains a public salience, that developments at a local grassroots level have prioritised greater lay involvement and a more evangelical church – the field hospital image advocated by Pope Francis, that adaptation rather than demise is possible. An analysis of Europe-wide surveys of 22 countries in 2014 and 2016 found that 36 per cent of Irish adults attended a religious service at least once a week, whereas the average was 12.8 per cent.[59]

Since the turn of the present century there have been several consultative assemblies and listening exercises. The most ground-breaking was a diocesan synod in Limerick in 2016, the first for eighty years. This produced a ten-year diocesan pastoral plan which emphasises a more mission-shaped church and the co-responsibility of all the baptised.[60] In March 2021 the Irish bishops announced a new synodal pathway for the Catholic Church in Ireland which placed the Irish Church at the forefront of the universal Church in this regard. The first phase from 2021-3 involves a nationwide consultative process, the insights from which will inform the planning phase for a national synodal assembly. At the very least, this unprecedented development demonstrates a belated but welcome attempt to adapt the Church in a meaningful way to the challenges of contemporary Catholic Ireland.




[1] This essay draws heavily on Daithí Ó Corráin, ‘Catholicism in Ireland, 1880-2016: rise, ascendancy and retreat’ in Thomas Bartlett (ed.), The Cambridge History of Ireland vol. 4 (Cambridge, 2018), pp 726-64.
[2] Irish Times, 19 April 1918.
[3] Patrick Murray, Oracles of God: the Roman Catholic Church and Irish politics, 1922-37 (Dublin, 2000), p. 34.
[4] Freeman’s Journal, 11 October 1922.
[5] Murray, Oracles, p. 77.
[6] The term “habitus” was coined by the French anthropologist Pierre Bourdieu. Tom Inglis, Moral Monopoly: the rise and fall of the Catholic Church in modern Ireland (Dublin, 1998), pp 11-12.
[7] Gillian McIntosh, ‘Acts of “National Communion”: the centenary celebrations for Catholic Emancipation, the forerunner of the Eucharistic Congress’, in Joost Augusteijn (ed.), Ireland in the 1930s: new perspectives (Dublin, 1999), p. 87.
[8] See Dermot Keogh, Ireland and the Vatican: the politics and diplomacy of church-state relations, 1922-1960 (Cork, 1995), pp 36-92; J. J. Lee, Ireland 1912-1985: Politics and Society (Cambridge, 1989), pp 161-7.
[9] See Daithí Ó Corráin, Rendering to God and Caesar: the Irish churches and the two states in Ireland, 1949-73 (Manchester, 2006), pp 43-69.
[10] See Finola Kennedy, ‘The Suppression of the Carrigan Report: A Historical Perspective on Child Abuse’, Studies 89:356 (Winter, 2000), pp 354-63.
[11] Memorandum by Department of Justice, 27 October 1932 (National Archives of Ireland, D/Justice 90/4/3) cited in Moira J. Maguire, ‘The Carrigan Committee and Child Sexual Abuse in Twentieth-century Ireland’, New Hibernia Review, 11:2 (Samhradh/Summer 2007), p. 93.
[12] Mark Finnane, ‘The Carrigan Committee of 1930–31 and the “Moral Condition of the Saorstát”’, Irish Historical Studies 32:128 (2001), pp 519-36.
[13] The relevant subsection, along with 44.1.3º, were removed from the constitution under the Fifth Amendment which passed on December 7th, 1972 and was signed into law on January 5th, 1973. Bunreacht na hÉireann (Dublin: An Gúm, 2016).
[14] Gerard Hogan, ‘De Valera, the constitution and the historians’, Irish Jurist 40 (2005), pp 293-320; Bill Kissane, ‘Catholicism and the Concept of ‘the State’ in the Irish (1937) Constitution’, Oxford Journal of Law and Religion  (2020), pp 508-28; Donal Coffey, Drafting the Irish Constitution, 1935-1937: transnational influences in interwar Europe (Basingstoke, 2018).
[15] Liam Ryan, ‘Church and Politics. The Last Twenty-five Years’, The Furrow 30:1 (1979), pp 3-18.
[16] Irish Catholic Directory 1956, p. 632.
[17] John Whyte, Church and state in modern Ireland, 1923-1970 (Dublin, 1971), pp 68-72.
[18] See Finola Kennedy, Frank Duff: a life story (New York, 2011).
[19] For a fuller account see J.J. Lee, ‘Aspects of corporatist thought in Ireland: the Commission on Vocational
Organisation 1939-43’ in Art Cosgrave and Donal McCartney (eds), Studies in Irish history (Dublin, 1979), pp 324-46
[20] Ryan, ‘Church and Politics’, p. 6.
[21] Séamus Ó Buachalla, Education policy in twentieth century Ireland (Dublin, 1988), p. 60.
[22] See Marie Clarke, ‘The response of the Roman Catholic Church to the introduction of vocational education in Ireland, 1930-1942’, History of Education 41:4 (2012), pp 477-93.
[23] Dáil Debates clix, 1494 (19 July 1956).
[24] For an overview see Catherine Cox, ‘Institutional space and the geography of confinement in Ireland, 1750-2000’ in Bartlett (ed.), Cambridge History of Ireland vol.4, pp 673-707.
[25] See Marie Coleman, The Irish Sweep: a history of the Irish Hospitals Sweepstake, 1930-87 (Dublin, 2009).
[26] Ruth Barrington, ‘Catholic Influence on the Health Services, 1830-2000’ in James P. Mackey and Enda McDonagh (eds), Religion and politics in Ireland at the turn of the millennium (Dublin, 2003), p. 156.
[27] These include, among others, Ruth Barrington, Health, medicine and politics in Ireland, 1900-1970 (Dublin, 1987), John Horgan, Noel Browne: passionate outsider (Dublin, 2000); Eamonn McKee, ‘Church-State Relations and the Development of Irish Health Policy: The Mother-and-Child Scheme, 1944-53’, Irish Historical Studies 25: 98 (1986), pp 159-94; Whyte, Church and state.
[28] McKee, ‘The Mother-and-Child Scheme, 1944-53’, p. 175.
[29] On this see Robert Savage, Irish television: the political and social origins (Cork, 1996).
[30] Tom Inglis, ‘Individualism and secularisation in Catholic Ireland’ in Sara O’Sullivan (ed.), Contemporary Ireland: a sociological map (University College Dublin Press, 2007), p. 68.
[31] See Inglis, Moral monopoly, pp 178-200.
[32] John Walsh, ‘Ministers, bishops and the changing balance of power in Irish education 1950-70’, Irish Historical Studies 38:149 (2012), p. 125; the older studies are Whyte, Church and state and Ó Buachalla, Education policy.
[33] Ó Corráin, Rendering to God and Caesar, p. 203.
[34] Ó Corráin, p 206. On McQuaid see John Cooney, John Charles McQuaid: ruler of Catholic Ireland (Dublin, 1999).
[35] See Carole Holohan, ‘The Second Vatican Council, poverty and Irish mentalities’, History of European Ideas 46:7 (2020), pp 1009-26.
[36] Turlough O’Riordan, ‘O’Mahony, Donal’ in Dictionary of Irish Biography, DOI: (accessed 7 September 2021).
[37] Threshold, “Threshold @ 40,” Threshold, August 29, 2018,
[38] Bill Lawlor & Joe Dalton (eds.), The Society of St Vincent de Paul in Ireland: 170 years of fighting poverty (Dublin, 2014), p. xx.
[39] Irish Catholic Directory 1995, pp. 8-9.
[40] In 2009 CORI Justice became a secular body called Social Justice Ireland.
[41] Irish Times, 4 November 1999.
[42] Breda Gray, ‘The Politics of Migration, Church, and State: A Case Study of the Catholic Church in Ireland’, International Migration Review 50:2 (Summer 2016), p. 335.
[43] A survey of vocations in Ireland, 1971 (confidential report submitted to the hierarchy in June 1971), p. 3.
[44] Tom Inglis, ‘Decline in Numbers of Priests and Religious in Ireland’, Doctrine and Life 30:2 (Feb. 1979), pp 81, 84.
[45] Eithne Woulfe, ‘Religious life in Ireland today’ in Niall Coll (ed.), Ireland & Vatican II: essays theological, pastoral and educational (Dublin, 2015), p. 219.
[46] Irish Catholic Directory 1962, p. 653; Irish Catholic Directory 2001, p. 284; Irish Catholic Directory 2016, p. 329.
[47] Census of Ireland 2016: Profile 8 Religion: Religious Change, (accessed 7 September 2021).
[48] Mícheál Mac Gréil, Prejudice and tolerance in Ireland: based on a survey of intergroup attitudes of Dublin adults and other sources (Dublin, 1977), p. 411.
[49] On the papal visit see Daithí Ó Corráin, ‘Why did Pope John Paul II visit Ireland? The 1979 papal visit in context’, British Catholic History 35:4 (Oct. 2021), pp 1-24 [Open Access].
[50] Ibid., pp 19-21.
[51] See Maria Power, Catholic social teaching and theologies of peace in Northern Ireland: Cardinal Cahal Daly and the pursuit of the peaceable kingdom (London, 2021).
[52] Irish Times, 10 February 1984.
[53] Irish Times, 26 November 1973.
[54] Garret FitzGerald, All in a life: an autobiography (Dublin, 1991), p. 631.
[55] Máire Nic Ghiolla Phádraig, ‘The power of the Catholic Church in the Republic of Ireland’ in Patrick Clancy et al. (eds.), Irish society: sociological perspectives (Dublin, 1995), pp 611-12.
[56] Marie Keenan, “Them and Us”: The clergy child sexual offender as “other”’ in Tony Flannery (ed.), Responding to the Ryan Report (Dublin, 2009), pp 192-4.
[57] Census of Population 2016 – Profile 8 Irish Travellers, Ethnicity and Religion (accessed 7 September 2021).
[58] Brian Conway, ‘Religious institutions and sexual scandals: a comparative study of Catholicism in Ireland, South Africa and the United States’, International Journal of Comparative Sociology 55:4 (2014), p. 331.
[59] Stephen Bullivant, Europe’s Young Adults and Religion (2018), (accessed 14 September 2021).
[60]Diocese of Limerick, “Moving Forward Together in Hope” Limerick Diocesan Pastoral Plan 2016-2026 (2016), (accessed 14 September 2021)