Studying irreligion in Ireland

Unholy Catholic Ireland. Religious Hypocrisy, Secular Morality and Irish Irreligion
By Hugh Turpin. Stanford University Press. 2022. 325 pages.

One has to brace oneself before plunging into yet another account of the troubled history of Irish Catholicism, and particularly of its abuse scandals, repressive institutions, religious hypocrisy and dramatic recent decline. Nor is one’s mood helped by provocatively catchy titles like The Moral Monopoly, The Best Catholics in the World, or Unholy Catholic Ireland – the book under review here from an Oxford-based researcher. It sometimes seems as if a thriving new industry has grown up around the depiction of Irish Catholic decline!

These remarks are intended neither to disregard grave scandals nor to deny the process of decline, but to express some discomfort about the endless re-telling of the downfall of Irish Catholicism (or at least about its re-telling without much acknowledgement of the good that the Church has done and continues to do).

Turpin’s account of the decline in Chapter One follows a well-worn path of describing “centralised control, Roman devotions, regular practice, sexual abstinence and intense clerical supervision.” The nineteenth-century cardinal, Paul Cullen, gets special mention:

Cullen’s mission from the Vatican was to bring popular Irish Catholicism in line with Roman best practice under one of the Church’s most conservative pontificates.

Some sociologists have highlighted the persistence of religious faith in Ireland, even in a context of decline. This book focuses on the important topic of the views of the nonreligious or ex-Catholics (sometimes called the “nones”) during the time period 2017 to 2021. It also includes a chapter on the views of committed Catholics. The book is extensively researched, drawing on survey data, an “ethnographic vignette” on the Papal visit of 2018, fieldwork for a year in two Dublin Catholic parishes, and over forty in-depth interviews.

Outright rejection

Chapter Two reports on a survey of baptised Catholics, and sets out three categories of respondents: orthodox believers, “liminal” Catholics, who reject the institution while retaining Catholic affiliation, and ex-Catholics, the disaffiliated who no longer think of themselves as Catholic. Turpin’s survey results, he argues, suggest that this latter group is underrepresented in current measures.

He maintains that ex-Catholics share a stance of deep moral opposition to the Church, based on the two issues of abuse and “conservatism”, and that the impact of the abuse scandals in normalising an antireligious worldview has been underestimated. This development is related to “desacralisation” of the Church – the replacement of a previous moral high ground or spiritual status by perspectives ascribing to the Church “immorality or moral unpalatability.”

Turpin examines the causes of disaffiliation and the worldviews of the disaffiliated, and points to a battle between orthodox Catholics and ex-Catholics for the hearts and minds of “cultural Catholics”. There is some substance to this analysis. Turpin’s book itself is arguably part of the battle in that it presents such an unremittingly negative narrative about the Church’s recent past.

The author maintains that many ex-Catholics “show sharp contempt for those who remain affiliated to keep granny and grandpa happy.” In the view of some respondents, “connection to Catholicism is a form of complicity because it keeps an evil institution responsible for harm – past and present – in power.” At times, the sub-text of the book itself seems to be that the ex-Catholics are to be admired because they reject the bad old Catholic Church and all it stands for, while the cultural Catholics are weak because they can’t take that final, courageous step.


Chapter Five presents secularisation, in the view of ex-Catholics, as a second struggle for “Irish freedom.” In this context, Turpin analyses the pro-choice and pro-life campaigns during the 2018 abortion referendum. In his highly partisan presentation, the “secularist” narrative “seeks to expand the freedoms available to the individual and focuses on self-determination and individual conscience” and “looks towards the future with impatient optimism.” By contrast, the “neo-conservative” narrative appeals “to a large aging bloc of traditional Catholics, […] projects backward in time and sees Church influence as a guarantor of moral order.”

The book examines cultural Catholicism in a Dublin working-class parish. The Church was viewed “as a cynical institution focused on its own gain at the expense of ordinary people.” Unbelief was a personal achievement, but there was no imperative to promote such unbelief, and the need for social harmony led to pressure to maintain Catholic traditions such as baptism.


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The book sets out some complexities and contradictions in the lives of cultural Catholics. One male interviewee has a humanist wedding, but then has a child baptised. Another is not practising his faith, but opts for Holy Communion for his child because he doesn’t want him to feel left out. The minor place of the Church in the lives of many cultural Catholics is summarised thus:

You get your broadband from Vodafone, your Corolla from Toyota, and your kids’ rites of passage from a national service provider called the Catholic Church.

Turpin teases out the sociological concepts of CREDS and CRUDS. CREDs are “credibility-enhancing displays” – the idea that religious worldviews are transmitted most effectively when people witness those close to them, for example, parents, “behaving as though they very much believe in what they say they do.”

The author reports that he encountered almost no devout Catholics with CRED-poor Catholic upbringings. By contrast, CRUDS are “credibility-undermining displays,” such as religious hypocrisy, which harm the transmission of religious worldviews and even their sustenance in the individual believer.


Chapter Seven explores the views of religious Catholics who “feel on the back foot and in the position of having to justify themselves”, and reflects on their “strategies” for remaining Catholic in spite of the scandals. If individuals are “hanging on,” however, “there is no longer a clear, public defence of why Ireland as a nation ought to remain Catholic.”

Various arguments are presented by Turpin as if they are established fact and not subject to possible contestation or nuance – for example, that Ireland was a virtual “theocracy’; or that the Magdalene laundries were designed by vengeful nuns as prisons for errant girls and that there is no need for historical contextualisation about such establishments; or that the nineteenth-century Cardinal Cullen had a very negative long-term impact on the Church in Ireland. On this last point, Ciaran O’Carroll’s fine biography of Cullen might be a useful corrective as it sets out in a nuanced way the huge challenges Cullen faced in re-building the Church in post-Famine Ireland.

Turpin is a sociologist who does not lack confidence in his pronouncements on Irish history and even theology. One elderly female interviewee is struggling with her faith but is hanging on to her belief in transubstantiation. She is described as “fetishizing an early-thirteenth-century theological standardization edict”! There are dismissive presentations of Catholic piety:

And then there were the saints, approachable and modest demigods with special domains of interest; pious individuals could turn to them for any number of life’s problems and could cultivate a particular ‘devotion’ to them.

Turpin’s book has a legitimate focus on Ireland, but is somewhat lacking in potentially illuminating comparisons with other countries. There are brief references to Poland, Spain and Quebec, but some consideration of the experience of our near neighbour, France, might have been helpful.

The religious historian Guillaume Cuchet has studied the evolution of Catholic practice in France in depth and has drawn attention, for example, to the intensity of the collective emotion felt in that country – well beyond the ranks of orthodox Catholic believers – at the time of the Notre Dame fire in 2019. He suggests that cultural Catholics represent a pastoral opportunity for the Church in France, but that the window of opportunity will not last indefinitely if re-engagement fails to occur with this group.

Sociological analysis of the Church sometimes seems to hollow out the mystery of faith and to underestimate the desire for the infinite in the human heart – a desire which transcends reductive academic jargon and can lead to new and unexpected buds on old trees of faith. There certainly are strong secularising trends and pressures in Ireland, and many Irish Catholics do turn up for important “rites of passage” and then disappear from view.

On the other hand, although he interviews committed Catholics, Turpin does not engage in any developed way with sources and seeds of Catholic renewal in Ireland (for example, pilgrimages to Marian shrines or ancient Christian sites, Scripture study, involvement in Church movements, renewed commitment to the Mass, adoration and the Rosary, or to social engagement etc) and therefore arguably over-emphasises the phenomenon of “desacralization.”

Finally, there is a surprising note of hope for Catholics on the last page. Although the thrust of the argument here is that rejection of Catholicism is a dynamic and virtually unstoppable force in Ireland, the author hedges his bets somewhat at the end:

Catholic affiliation remains closely linked to ideas of the nation and the group… and nothing can be known for certain about future trends in Irish irreligion.

Tim O’Sullivan taught healthcare policy at third level in Ireland, and has degrees in history and French and a PhD in social policy from University College Dublin.

Image: Pexels


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