Some Reflections on Membership of the Council for Research and Development, Irish Bishops’ Conference

05 Nov 2010

Some Reflections on Membership of the Council for Research and Development, Irish Bishops’ Conference

My involvement in the work of the Council for Research and Development goes back to 2006. As a result of my research interests in the sociology of religion and my training as a sociologist at the University of Notre Dame, I felt that I could be of some service to the church’s research body. I wrote to the Archbishop of Cashel and Emly, Dr. Dermot Clifford, expressing an interest in doing some work for the council and shortly afterwards received a phone call from the archbishop inviting me to join.
I had already been familiar with the council’s previous research through the work of Fr. Liam Ryan, Fr. Conor Ward, Fr. Micheál MacGréil, Fr. James Lennon and Monsignor Jeremiah Newman, its lay researchers Máire Nic Ghiolla Phádraig, Tom Inglis, John Weafer and Ann Breslin, and its lay members such as Tony Fahey. Some of these people – Inglis, Nic Ghiolla Phádraig and MacGréil – taught me as an undergraduate sociology student at UCD. Apart from Fr. Lennon and Monsignor Newman, I have met each of these people associated with the council over the years.

In my own mind I identified the council most closely with its studies of patterns and regularities in church attendance. These were important ‘baseline’ sociological studies of Catholicism inIreland. One wonders sometimes why the church didn’t carry out this kind of research earlier. Funding is probably part of the explanation. An assumption – or confidence, maybe – that Mass attendance levels would hold up was likely part of the story as well. Of greater significance, however, was Vatican II – this event provided an impetus for its establishment in the late 1960s and early 1970s and not earlier. Had it done so we would have a better understanding of the impact of this important global church event on various indicators of Irish Catholic identity. What knowledge we do have of these things and how they changed after Vatican II owes much to the pioneering work of the council’s early researchers.

To associate the council solely with these social surveys, however, would be to miss the important other aspects of its work that I’ve become more acquainted with since becoming a member of the council. One of the surprises of my council membership has been learning about the sheer reach of the church. One good example of this was a relatively recent council meeting at which, among other things, we discussed the possibility of carrying out research for the church’s apostolate for seafarers! Looking back at the range of research carried out under the aegis of the council, it has encompassed research on vocations, schooling, and religious life, and has been of service to parishes, dioceses, religious communities, and a wide range of Catholic institutions. If this research had a deficiency it was that the council did not disseminate its findings as much as it could have – many of its early reports carried a ‘confidential’ warning, remained unpublished, and rarely made it beyond the walls of the seminary and presbytery. To be sure, some of its reports were not easy going either with page after page of statistical tables, sometimes with little interpretation. Though denominational in origin they still held themselves to high standards of rigour and objectivity. Today, the audience for the council’s work is as much external as internal and its reports are routinely published and to a professional standard of visual presentation. Most report the findings of small-scale research carried out on behalf of others rather than the findings of big national surveys.

Another notable feature of the council’s work – and the Irish Catholic Church more generally – is the rather benign view it has taken of sociology. Looking at the global church, this has not always been the case. In the US, for example, research on or about the church by sociologists, even priest sociologists, in the 1940s and 1950s was treated with a considerable amount of suspicion. Sociological reports typically met the charge that they told us what we already knew or produced interesting but not relevant information! In some cases, episcopal approval was declined. By contrast, the Irish church’s support of sociological research in the service of the church has been enthusiastic. The establishment of sociology in Ireland in Maynooth in the 1930s, thanks to endowment support from the Knights of Columbanus who funded a chair in the discipline filled in 1937 by Fr. Peter McKevitt, is evidence of that. Harnessing sociological knowledge in the service of the church’s pastoral needs was one of the earliest examples of the discipline’s public engagement in Ireland. At the same time, the Irish church is a good deal behind the church in other places such as America in terms of regularly collecting data about itself.

Nowadays the council is a different creature to what it was in the 1970s and 1980s. Instead of a handful of researchers – clerical and lay – it has just one social researcher. The church too has changed – there are fewer priests, nuns and brothers than before and fewer people fuelling “demand” for their services. This means that the council will need to plough new furrows to make itself relevant to the church of today and to meet its needs for informed and empirically-grounded pastoral planning. Although I have no experience of the council in its earlier days, I do know that its spatial proximity to other agencies and commissions of the church in the Columba Centre likely means that there are more day-to-day formal and informal connections to these other agencies than before when the Council was more physically removed from them.

I’m now beginning a second term in helping the council fulfil its mission. It is an honour to serve on it. The meetings I’ve attended have always been run efficiently and we seem to get through a large amount of material and items whenever we meet. Advance – and remote – preparation is increasingly necessary. But a meal before each evening we meet in the impressive and convivial environment of Pugin Hall readies us all for the task.

Brian Conway is Lecturer at the Department of Sociology, NUI Maynooth and a member of the Council for Research & Development of the Irish Bishops’ Conference