The Irish commitment to the Catholic religion is fast draining away, according to a new poll which points to a dramatic plunge in those who regard themselves as religious.
Worldwide, only Vietnam experienced a greater drop in those describing themselves as religious in a poll which extended to 57 countries, covering three-quarters of the world's population.
The survey confirms that Ireland, once regarded as particularly devout, has been almost transformed from the days when the Catholic church exercised both political power and strong social influence.
The church's standing has taken a series of severe blows over the last decade, in particular suffering damage from a series of devastating sex abuse scandals. The sense is widespread that it has reacted sluggishly to the revelations and has been more concerned with defending itself rather than with the interests of victims.
The survey showed that those Irish who considered themselves religious had fallen from 69 per cent in 2011 to less than half today. Ireland was ranked seventh in the 57 countries for those describing themselves as convinced atheists.
Archbishop of Dublin Dr Diarmuid Martin, who has previously warned that the Irish church is in crisis, responded: “The Catholic church cannot simply presume that the faith will automatically be passed from one generation to the next or be lived to the full by its own members.”
David Quinn, a staunch defender of the faith who heads the Iona Institute, said the findings indicated a significant amount of hostility towards institutional religion. He said this and other polls had found that a quarter of those surveyed “would be happy if the church vanished from Ireland completely.”
In addition to the sex abuse revelations Ireland has become a much more secular country as the church has lost the religious and political authority it once wielded.
This was most strikingly demonstrated last year when, in an unprecedented attack, Irish prime minister Enda Kenny shrugged off decades of political deference.
He declared: “The rape and torture of children were downplayed or `managed` to uphold instead the primacy of the institution, its power, standing and reputation.” He denounced “elitism, disconnection, dysfunction and narcissism in the Vatican.”
Previous polling has indicated that a majority of Irish Catholics are strikingly out of line with the Vatican's attitude on issues such as priestly celibacy and the introduction of women priests. Almost 90 per cent believe that priests should be free to marry, with over 70 per cent saying they believe married men should be ordained.
Rome's reaction to criticism from Irish priests has been authoritarian. One priest with liberal views was ordered to a monastery to “pray and reflect” while another was prohibited from writing on such issues.