Irish Catholic Church Attendance down

By Shawn Pogatchnik [Ireland]
September 25, 2003

DUBLIN, Ireland - Only half of Roman Catholics attend weekly Mass in predominantly Catholic Ireland, and 75 percent believe priests should be allowed to marry, according to an opinion poll published Thursday.

The poll for Ireland's state broadcasters RTE found that about 50 percent of people aged 18 or older attend weekly Mass, down 10 percentage points from a similar poll taken in 1998. The margin of error of both polls was 3 percentage points.

Weekly Mass attendance in rural areas was 60 percent, down 17 percentage points from 1998, while in urban areas it was 43 percent, down 5 percentage points.

Until the 1970s, such polls rated weekly Mass attendance nationwide above 90 percent.

Bishop Dermot Clifford said the poll findings were still "very respectable" in comparison with much lower levels of Mass attendance in other predominantly Roman Catholic parts of Western Europe.

Ireland was no longer a society where the entire community was expected to go to church together, Clifford said.

"In the '50s, if you didn't go to Mass, pressure would come from your family, neighbors or the priest," he said.

Of those polled, three-quarters said they did not believe priests should have to remain celibate and two-thirds want the church to admit women as priests.

On other key church teachings, 38 percent do not believe Pope John Paul II is infallible, 13 percent do not believe Mary retained her virginity, 10 percent do not believe bread and wine are transformed during Mass into the body and blood of Jesus Christ, and 5 percent do not believe Jesus was the son of God.

For the poll last Saturday, 1,000 adults were questioned in face-to-face interviews.

"I think there is a greater freedom now amongst people to question beliefs and teaching of the church," said Bishop Willie Walsh, the most liberal and outspoken of the church's leaders in Ireland.

"I think that, of course, one would like that everybody would believe every detail of church teaching. But that would be to live in an unreal world," Walsh told RTE.

Ireland has been hit particularly hard by the sexual abuse scandals in the Roman Catholic Church. One government collapsed over its mishandling of the issue in 1994.

Today, victims' groups, the government and church leaders continue to clash over how to deliver justice and financial compensation to people abused by priests and other church employees.

Thursday's survey indicated that most Roman Catholics placed equal blame on the government and the church for allowing child abuse to go unchecked in Ireland's church-run schools, workhouses and orphanages until the 1980s.

But the survey also highlighted substantial support for maintaining the Catholic church's prominent position in Irish life. About 87 percent said they wanted their children raised as Catholics, and 49 percent said priests played an important role in society - compared with 35 percent for lawyers, 22 percent for politicians and 20 percent for journalists.


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