Cardinal launches MacGreil Survey

June 16, 2009 in General, News

macgreil_01.jpgMicheál MacGréil opted for an internal launch of his report on religious attitudes in the Republic 2007-2008. John Cooney, who has always been fair to Micheál, gave the survey a headline in the Irish Independent: “95% of us still believe there is a God”. The sixty or so who gathered for the launch in Maynooth on 10 June included the Archbishops of Armagh, Tuam and Cashel, the secretary to the hierarchy, and Mgr Hugh Connolly, president of Maynooth, who chaired the meeting. Cardinal Sean Brady took ample notes during Micheál’s presentation (“More than many of my students would take”, commented Micheál), and showed real enthusiasm in his response to the survey. Micheál named the two ministries he would prioritise if he was a bishop: to women and to third-level students. Read Micheál’s summary below:


1. 2007-08 National Survey

This Report presents the findings of a national survey of the adult population of the Republic of Ireland (1,015 respondents) into the religious attitudes, beliefs, practices and other related issues. The questions on religion and religious behaviour were part of a broader survey of intergroup attitudes and prejudices carried out between November 2007 and March 2008 by the Economic and Social Research Institute (ESRI) on commission. The religious questions are among the independent variables used to explain differences in intergroup attitudes. This research project has been facilitated by the Department of Sociology, NUl Maynooth and directed by Dr Micheal Mac Greil, S.J., who is the author of the Report. 

The 2007-08 survey is the third of its kind carried out by Dr Mac Greil over a period of 35 years, i.e. the Greater Dublin Survey of 1972-73, the National Survey of 1988-89 and the current National Survey of 2007-08. This has made it possible to monitor changes in the religious attitudes, beliefs and practices of the Irish people over three decades. The majority of questions in the 1988-89 and the 2007-08 surveys were replicated from the 1972-73 one. A number of questions relating to religion and Church Unity have been taken from Richard Rose’s 1968 survey of Northern lreland (Rose, Richard, Governing Without Consent, London, Faber, 1971)  and already included in the 1972- 73 and 1988-89 surveys.

2. Religious Distribution and Worship

It was shown in Chapter II that the distribution of the population in regard to religious affiliation has fluctuated relatively little. The rise of those declaring ‘No Religion’ to 4.4% since 1961 (according to the Census reports) is noted. The evidence of the 2007-08 would show that those migrating into Ireland had higher percentages declaring no religion than those born or reared in Ireland, whose percentage was as low as 2.1%. When comparing the religious affiliation of respondents with that of their spouses and parents, there is no significant variation. (See Table No. 2.2.) 

Religious Practice has and is declining in the Republic of Ireland for thirty years. Weekly religious worship has fallen to 42% (for the total sample) in 2007-08 from 79% in 1988-89. The drop in monthly worship over the same period has been from 85% in 1988-’89 to 54% in 2007-08. While some would hold that these current levels are relatively high, the downward trends must be a source of concern for those engaged in the promotion of religion in the lives of the people.

Mass attendance by Roman Catholics was close to the total sample’s worship figure at 43% ‘weekly or more often’ and 55% ‘monthly or more often’. Some 78% of those attending Mass regularly receive Holy Communion. Some 9% of Roman Catholic respondents reported that they had given up going to Mass and 17% would never receive Holy Communion at present.

The practice of going to Sacramental Confession was found to be relatively low, with 27% going to Confession ’several times a year or more frequently’ and one-third (33%) giving up the practice altogether. This marks a downward trend from 80% in 1988-89 going to Confession ’several times a year or more often’ to the current 27%. This change is very substantial and heralds a crisis in this traditionally strong Irish Catholic practice. It means a drop of 66% (or -53% nominally) in 19 years!

When examined by age and other personal variables the percentages attending formal worship recorded a wide range of difference between sub-samples. Age and education recorded the widest variations. The younger sub-samples, i.e. 18 to 25 and 26 to 40 years and those with higher education, i.e. ‘Complete Second Level’ and ‘Third Level’, were those with the lowest practice. The level of religious participation of older people is extraordinarily high, i.e. Mass attendance at 83% weekly and 91% monthly or more often for respondents of 71 years or older. Rural-born people were higher than those born in cities or towns in the regular Mass attendance, i.e. 63% weekly and 77% monthly or more often for those born in a ‘rural/village’ area as compared with the city- born whose weekly Mass attendance was as low as 30% weekly and 40% monthly. Respondents aged 18 to 25 recorded a weekly Mass attendance of 20% and a monthly or more often rate of 31% at a time when urbanisation is on the increase in Ireland. These figures raise questions about the viability of city parishes and the declining influence of family and community life in urban /sub-urban /ex-urban environments.

The findings also spell out the reasons given by those who did not “attend weekly worship” every week. The predominant reason was: “Just don’t bother” (65%). A further 10% said they were working and 5% said they were ill. The percentage of Roman Catholics who gave “Just don’t bother” as their reason was as high as 68%. In the opinion of the author, here-in lies a clue to the problem of recent trends, namely, indifference, which he has highlighted in the title of this Report, The Challenge of Indifference. The relatively high minority who gave “working” as their reason for not attending weekly worship records the intrusion of commercial activity on the Sabbath and, thereby, on religious worship. 

3. Personal Prayer and ‘Closeness to God’

The practice of personal prayer is still relatively strong and its decline has been less severe than the drop in formal worship and sacramental participation. Two-thirds (72%) of the adult population pray “weekly or more often”, while 10% said they did not pray at all at present. Almost half of the sample (47% ) prayed “daily or more often”. There was a nominal decline of 18% since 1988-89 when 90% said they prayed every week or more often. (See Table No. 5.1, page 56.)

 The level of perceived “closeness to God” is still relatively high with 86% of the total sample admitting they felt a degree of closeness (to God). Although this marks a nominal drop of 7% since the 1988-89 national survey, it is still a clear manifestation of the widespread presence of faith in God in the current adult community. (See Table No. 5.5, page 70.) An interesting finding in relation to the response to the question on the level of perceived “closeness to God” was the reply that only 4% stated they “did not believe in God”. This was as low as 2.1% for respondents reared in Ireland. These figures would indicate that a “revival of religion in Ireland” (Report’s sub-title) should still be possible if the response to the findings is well thought-out and successfully implemented.

4. Handing on of Religion to the Young

The findings in relation to the question: “How important would you say it is for children to be brought up with the same religious views of their parents?” are interesting and very important in relation to the socialising of the young in the faith of their family. Still the vast majority 65% (two-thirds) of the sample replied in the affirmative. This marked a nominal decline of 17% since 1988-89. The percentage who replied that it was ‘not very important’ also dropped from 12% to 9%. The big increase was in the proportion saying ” leave it up to themselves 11. The author interprets the increase in this latter category, i.e. from 4% in 1988-89 to 24% in 2007-08, as further evidence of the growth of indifference and the decline of the perceived role of the family in raising the children in the faith of the parents. (See Table No. 6.2, page 85.) 

5. Perceived Social and Personal Support of One’s Religion

In reply to the questions on ‘perceived social and personal advantage’ of the religion that respondents were raised in (questions originally included in Richard Rose’s 1968 survey of Northern Ireland), it was possible to discover the extent of religious discrimination in Irish society and the contribution of one’s religion to personal development. With regard to perceived religious discrimination that less than 1% found their religion to be a great disadvantage and less than 3% (2.4%) found it to be a slight advantage. By any standards, these results clearly indicate the absence of perceived religious discrimination in the Republic of Ireland. 

In relation to the perceived influence of one’s religion on one’s personal growth and development, the findings are interesting. Over two-thirds (68%) felt their religion helped them, while 28% thought it “neither helped nor hindered”. Less than 1% said their religion was ‘a serious or grave hindrance’. These figures must pose questions for religious leaders in raising the level of religious self-consciousness in the People of God, and translating the positive experience towards religion into more regular participation in worship. The changes since 1988-89 have shown a nominal drop of 16% in perceived help of one’s religion to personal development and a nominal rise of 13% in the proportion of those who saw their religion as neither a help nor a hindrance. The variations by personal variables, i.e. age, education, etc. were in line with those of religious practice. 

6. Vocations to the Priesthood and Sisterhood

Attitudes toward a vocation to the priesthood and the sisterhood were measured by means of a question replicated from the 1988-89 survey, i.e. “If you had a son/daughter and he/she came to you and said he/she had decided to become a priest/nun, how would you respond? The replies of respondents were quite supportive.   Some 64% and 61% respectively would encourage their sons or daughters to pursue their vocations to the priesthood and religious life. Only 12% and 15% would discourage them to become a priest or a nun (respectively). Once again this relatively high support was down by 15% and 14% nominally since 1988-89 and the discouragement percentage was up 9% (see Table No. 7.2, page 112). In the case of the ‘marital status’ variable, it was interesting to record that ‘married’ and ‘widowed’ respondents were most supportive of their children pursuing vocations (see page 118). In other words, those likely to have children were more favourably disposed than respondents who were ’single and unmarried’. 

7. Religious Prejudice and Christian Church Unity

Religious prejudice reduced and tolerance increased over the period since 1988-89 according to the social-distance findings, i.e. measuring how close people would admit members of the following categories: ‘ Agnostics’, , Atheists’, , Jews’, ‘Muslims’, ‘Protestants’ and ‘Roman Catholics’. (These findings will be analysed in greater detail in a later publication on “Prejudice in Ireland in the Early Twenty-First Century”.) There was a greater tolerance towards’ Atheists’ and’ Agnostics’. The negative attitude towards ‘Muslims’, while having improved over the nineteen years since 1988-89, is still quite problematic. 

Two questions relating to Christian Church Unity from Richard Rose’s survey of Northern Ireland in 1968 (and included in the 1972-73 and 1988-89 surveys) were replicated in the current survey. The questions were:

(a) “Do you think that in principle unity of the Protestant and Catholic Churches is desirable ? ”

(b ) “Do you think that in practice uniting the Churches is possible?” 

The replies to both questions were pessimistic and disappointing. The responses in the four surveys show the negative trends, i.e.  to the question:

Desirable in principle
Possible in practice
Rose 1968 (Northern Ireland)
Mac Greil 1972-’73 (Dublin)
Mac Greil 1988-’89 (National)
Mac Greil 2007-’08 (National)

At a time when inter-Church relations and attitudes in Ireland seemed to be improving the above findings are most disappointing. It was very interesting to note that those who were more devout and recorded higher Church attendance and prayed more frequently were most supportive of the Church Unity of Protestants and Catholics.

8. Suggestions and Recommendations

The recommendations or suggestions proposed by the author arising out of the findings included:

1. Serious research into the causes of religious indifference;

2. The setting up of a Church Commission to report on the urban pastoral situation;

3. Support for family and local community, including family prayer;

4. Catechetics and pastoral pedagogy should be re-appraised;

5. The need for a range of liturgical services to respond to the variety of cultural tastes in the community;

6. Respond to crisis in vocations on a broad basis;

7. Urgent need for a revival of the Sacrament of Penance;

8. A united Christian Churches’ initiative towards Christian ecumenism, leading to an “integrated pluralist form of unity”, is called for.

Meitheamh 2009. Micheál MacGréil, S.J. (Author and Director of Research). The full report is available in Veritas and in the Gardiner Street bookshop.