A Survey of Religious Practice, Attitudes and Beliefs, 1973-74

A Survey of Religious Practice, Attitudes and Beliefs, 1973-‘4

This study was labelled the first national survey of religion inIrelandand has been used as a baseline for subsequent studies.  The then Research and Development Unit (R&D) had decided that such a study was needed and approached Fr. Donal O’Donohue to direct the study.  Fr. O’Donohue was a priest of theDublinarchdiocese who had completed his MA in Sociology at Loyola and had lectured in UCD (where he tutored my social survey methods workshop).  He was then Director of the Dublin Institute for Adult Education and it was on returning from a conference inSligothrough the North that he was killed by a British Army vehicle.  This was a huge loss to Irish Sociology and it was a great privilege for me (then Research Officer with R&D) to be allowed to take on the planning and direction of the study in his place.

The Director of R&D, the late Fr. James Lennon (afterwards Auxiliary Bishop ofArmagh), set out to convince the Hierarchy to fund the fieldwork and analysis.  He arranged that I should talk to Cardinal Conway (at a dinner in Pranstown House, cooked by Fr. Joe Dunn) so that he could be fully briefed as to the potential of such data for pastoral planning.  He also facilitated my request to meet with theologians to identify core beliefs and principles prior to questionnaire design.  I received much useful advice and guidance, but was never subject to pressure to include/exclude topics from the questionnaire or the subsequent reports.  There was also lots of helpful advice from other sociologists as to the planning of the fieldwork and questionnaire.  One female colleague who had just completed a large-scale study advised that I should only recruit females as interviewers, coders and research assistants.  As a true believer in gender equality, I ignored this advice and we recruited a team of 10 men and 12 women (mainly recent graduates in the social sciences).  A total of 22 worked on the project (along with the Director and Secretaries – Carmel Pereira and later Marie Nolan).

The sample design provided for a two-stage random sample to proportionately reflect rural and four different categories of urban areas (excluding the North).  A total of 3,309 were validly sampled from the electoral registers for the sampled areas.  From these, 2,623 interviews were successfully completed and of these 2,499 were lay Catholics.  The fieldwork stretched over several months from July to December 1973 with a resumption of ‘recalls’ in February 1974.  The team moved around the country, spending one or two weeks based in a hotel/B&B in a central location and travelling two or three to a car.  Some of the interviewers remained with the project throughout the coding phase, while others took up employment or postgraduate courses.

As to the advice to only recruit female team-members – although there were some tensions, the process went smoothly on the whole.  Looking back through the list of names, it is striking that several male members reached quite prominent positions, whereas their very able female colleagues did not seem to do so.  It was the year when the marriage bar was removed from public sector employment, but not the glass ceiling…

The publication of the first of four research reports dealing with different sections of the data caused something of a media scrum.  The finding of 91% Sunday Mass attendance was greeted by journalists with incredulity.  In time, confirmation of this high adherence from other surveys brought acceptance, followed by media use as in “Although 91% attend Mass they do not…(insert shortcoming!)”  The research reports were used by specially convened working parties (both lay and clerical) to identify pastoral needs and recommend strategies for addressing the coming challenges.  I was asked to contribute to the process by meeting each working party and responding to their questions.  My main contribution was to point to the extent to which the high attendance level was underpinned by conformism and ‘legalistic’ thinking (because it’s a sin if I don’t/ because it’s Church teaching, etc.).  Based on the comparison with American Catholicism, Mass attendance (and other aspects of religious adherence) were seen as vulnerable in the case of loss of authority by the Church.  In theUSthis had been triggered by the impact of the 1968 papal encyclical Humanae Vitae which declared use of contraceptives sinful, although they were in widespread use by American Catholics (Greeley, A.M. McCready, W.C.  and McCourt, K.  1976, Catholic Schools in a Declining Church,Kansas: Sheed and Ward: Chapter 5).  Although this situation was not replicable inIreland(as contraceptives were largely unavailable legally), nevertheless any undermining of the teaching authority of the Church, or its pastors, was seen as likely to accelerate the minor secularising trends which could be identified.  A strategy of spiritual development was recommended to provide a solid basis for adherence to Catholic norms in advance of any such erosion of authority.  No such initiative was taken.  While it is unlikely that a 91% level could have been maintained, the decline might not have been so great – we’ll never know.

Máire Nic Ghiolla Phadraig is Senior Lecturer at the Department of Sociology, UCD


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