Case-Study: Trends in Irish Church Personnel 1990-1994

05 Nov 2010

Case-Study: Trends in Irish Church Personnel 1990-1994

The years that I served as Director of the Council for Research and Development were years in which the nature of Irish society – and the work of the Council – underwent significant changes.   Indeed, it is arguable that we are only now beginning to understand the significance of the transformation thatIrelandunderwent in the 1990s.  When I first joined the Council in 1990, our work was largely a continuation of the practice of carrying out large-scale research projects commissioned by the Episcopal Council relating to the area of religion and society inIreland.  At the time I became Director in 1992, the most notable of these was a lengthy content-analysis study of representations of the Church in the media.   Conducted in a period prior to the digitisation of newspapers, this project involved acquiring, and then reading through – page-by-page – a range of national and local Irish newspapers, looking for mentions of religion, clergy, the Church, and related topics, which we then categorised and coded.  Today, of course, almost all Irish newspapers are produced digitally or have online editions; recalling those rooms stacked with newspapers, I cannot help but wish that we had that technology twenty years ago, as it would have made that study much simpler.

While that survey did not show any strong anti-Church bias in either the national or the local press, as a whole, it was clear to those of us working in the Council in the early 1990s that long-established patterns of Church involvement in Irish life were changing.  As such, it may well be that historians of the future will find that the most valuable work we did in the 1990s was that which seemed, at the time, to be our most pedestrian task: the collection and analysis of the annual vocations figures.  Since the foundation of the Council, one of its annual tasks has been to conduct an audit of Church personnel: vocations, ordinations, deaths and departures.  Compiled annually, these figures were based on data provided by what is effectively a census return that is filled out by every diocese and religious order in Ireland.  Because the vocations figures provided key operational information, we took great care always to achieve a full response rate when compiling the statistics.

For the first few decades of the Council’s existence, the vocations data showed little in the way of significant change, and its value was primarily administrative.  However, a retrospective survey conducted by the Council in 1994 showed how they could be used to trace longitudinal trends.  The innocuously titled “Trends in Irish Church Personnel 1990-1994” (Council for Research and Development, 1994), showed, for instance, that Church personnel – including diocesan clergy and members of religious orders – totalled just under 26,000 in 1985; by 1994 that figure had dropped to just over 22,000.   What is more, the figures indicated the rate of decline would continue to accelerate, for the numbers of new entrants were decreasing at an unprecedented rate.  The rate of decrease for new vocations for the period 1994 to 1990, for instance, was 34%; however, the rate for the period 1994 to 1985 was only slightly higher, at 36%, indicating that most of the decrease over a ten-year period had taken place in the final five years.  Other figures, such as the average age of religious and clergy, and rates of departure, indicated that the trend of lower numbers of clergy and religious inIreland would continue, and accelerate, into the foreseeable future.

The longer historical implications of this change have yet to be measured.  However, in the mid-1990s, I wrote reports for the Council that turned to the work of historians such as Emmett Larkin, who had argued that the distinctive character of Catholic religious practice in Irelandin the period since 1850 had been determined, at least in part, by the relatively high number of clergy as a percentage of the population.  The importance of confraternities, community religious groups, and the general interweaving of the Church into almost all aspects of social life in Irelandwas, it has been argued, only possible because of the large number of diocesan priests and religious in the country.  Equally, key components of the Irish social fabric – education, religion, social services – took shape as they did (particularly in the South of Ireland since 1922) because of the expertise, energy and available personnel within the Church.  Indeed, it has been argued that in the years immediately after 1922, those Church personnel made it possible for a new nation with limited resources to provide the services expected of the state.

It was partly in response to the recognition that a massive demographic change was underway in the Irish Church that the work I did for the Council began to change, moving away from large research projects, to providing summaries and analyses of a work being done more widely in the field of the sociology of religion.  So, for instance, I began drawing on data being gathered by the Eurobarometer surveys on Irish religious belief and practice.  While these showed some decline in markers of religious practice, such as weekly Mass attendance, they also showed that there were aspects of Irish society – such as belief in God, or Mass attendance in rural areas – that belied the idea of a secularising society.  Pursuing this idea, I produced analyses of emerging theories of secularisation, looking in particular at challenges to the idea that secularisation is inevitably a linear progression.  At various points, the Council added to the emerging data by inserting questions on religious belief and practice (particularly the test indicator of weekly Mass attendance) in omnibus surveys, and thus providing a growing corpus of data on the religious lives of Irish men and women.  Adding further texture to the picture, the Council conducted research into changing attitudes to moral issues with which the Church has been involved, such as abortion and marital breakdown.  In addition, looking forward to the kinds of institutional changes that a smaller Church might have to consider, I conducted a major survey on possible roles for the Deanery as an organisational unit between the Diocese and the Parish.

In short, what is now clear in retrospect was already becoming apparent at the time through the work of the Council for Research and Development: that the 1990s were a period of significant change in the history of the Church inIreland.  If we are to understand the nature and long-term effects of that change, the Council’s analysis of vocations figures may well prove to be an important resource, for the implications of having fewer clergy and religious in Ireland extend beyond to the Church itself, to the provision of Irish education, health care and social services, to which the Church has historically contributed so much for so long.

Ann Hanley is a member of the Council for Research & Development of the Irish Bishops’ Conference