The State of Ireland’s ‘Soul’: Results from a New Survey on Religion

A new poll commissioned by the Iona Institute confirms that Mass attendance in the Republic has still not reached its pre-pandemic levels. And it highlights a stark lack of engagement among regular Mass-goers with the Church’s synodal process – a worldwide initiative that Pope Francis hopes will renew the church.

The survey also asked an unusual question about the ‘soul’ of the nation: ‘In your opinion, has Ireland lost her soul?’ Forty percent of the general population said yes, 23% were not sure, 23% said no, and 15% did not understand the question. Among those who have returned to Mass, 55% said that Ireland had lost her soul.

The responses to these varied questions paint a complex picture of the decline in authority of institutionalized Catholicism, and people’s engagement with it. Yet the question about Ireland’s soul – while very ambivalent and difficult for at least 15% of people to understand – perhaps detects some unease about the state of Ireland’s spiritual health.

Mass-Going

Among those who identified themselves as regular Mass-goers before the pandemic, 59% reported that they are now attending again, up from 47% in March 2022. Among the 41% who have not returned to Mass, reasons included:

  • I still have concerns about Covid-19 and public places (31%)
  • My faith isn’t as strong as before Covid-19 (31%)
  • I prefer to watch the Mass on TV, online, or on the radio nowadays (20%)
  • Other (19%)
  • I have health or other issues that prevent me from returning to Mass (16%)
  • Wearing masks etc is off-putting (2%)

While those who still have concerns about Covid and/or health issues may at some point return to Mass, it is less clear whether that is the case for the 20% who say they prefer to access Mass virtually. This is even less clear for the 31% who admitted that their faith has wavered.

Women and young people who were regular attenders before Covid are also less likely to have returned. The survey found that 66% of men have returned, but only 52% of women.

Among those under 35, just 34% have returned, followed by 55% of 35-44 year-olds, 63% of 45-54 year-olds, and 66% of those over 55.

While in most Western countries Christian women have higher levels of religious practice than Christian men, recent pre-pandemic research indicates that Catholic women in the Republic may be becoming an exception to this trend – especially young women. It is possible that women’s lack of enthusiasm around returning to Mass reflects their growing disengagement from the Catholic Church.

While declining Mass attendance was a firm feature of pre-pandemic Ireland, these results hint that Covid may have accelerated this trend. At the same time, further questions could be raised about how those who say they prefer to engage with Mass in a virtual format are practising their faith – and how churches might adapt (or not) to virtual religious practices.

Have you Ever Heard of Synodality?

The poll also asked whether people had ‘heard of the synod or synodality currently underway in the Catholic Church.’ There is a world-wide synod, initiated by Pope Francis, which is conceptualized as a process of discernment about the future of the church – or to use Francis’ words, it is concerned with: ‘what the Lord expects from the Church of the third millennium.’

There also is a separate ‘Synodal Pathway of the Catholic Church in Ireland,’ which will lead toward the holding of a National Synodal Assembly by 2026, focused on ‘What does God want from the Church in Ireland at this time?’

Among the general population, 17% had heard of the synod or synodality, 78% had not, and 5% did not know. Again, there were age differences, with just 8% of those under 35 having heard of it, 10% of those 35-44, 17% of those 45-54 and 28% of those over 55.

Among regular Mass goers, 45% were aware of synodality, but 55% were not.

Among those who have returned to Mass, just 9% said that they had taken part in the Synodal Pathway launched in 2021 by the Irish Catholic bishops. Women (11%) were more likely to have taken part than men (8%). Younger people were less likely to have engaged, with just 6% of those under 35 indicating that they had, followed by 14% of those 35-44, 10% of those 45-54, and 8% of those over 55.

Further research is needed to explore the reasons behind parishioners’ rather widespread disengagement with (and relative lack of awareness of) a project designed to encourage engagement and to promote renewal.

It is perhaps nothing new that many laity do not engage with ‘extracurricular’ church-related activities, (i.e. anything beyond attending Mass), quite apart from the synodal process. So it would be important to ask how those who did engage learned about the process, what their experience was like, and whether they are more likely to engage in other church-related activities outside of Mass.

Has Ireland Lost her Soul?

It is not surprising that regular Mass-goers were more likely to say that Ireland had lost her soul than the general population: 55% to 40%. After all, these are people who (it might be assumed) remain quite committed to an institution which once did so much to shape and develop the souls of the faithful, but has now in many ways fallen from grace.

Men (44%) were more likely than women (35%) to say that Ireland had lost her soul. Those under 35 (33%) were the least likely to say that Ireland had lost her soul – while having the highest percentage (27%) of those who did not understand the question.

As a sociologist of religion, I am not quite sure what I make of the question myself (including giving Ireland a feminine rather than a gender-neutral soul!). At the same time, 40% of the general population seems like quite a lot of people who (presumably) feel uneasy about the nation’s spiritual health. (If we can accept spiritual health as a sort of definition of ‘soul’.)

And that is a finding worth pondering.

The survey was conducted by Amarach and featured a nationally-representative sample of 1500 people in the Republic.

Thanks to the Iona Institute for providing the research findings.

Image: Close-up of a Celtic cross gravestone from the Abbey Graveyard in Donegal (Ireland). By Nicolas Raymond (Flicker).


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