Irish citizens are at the polls today for a historic vote that could make the country the first in the world to legalize gay marriage through referendum. The referendum has been heavily favored to pass in opinion polls, though the gap has been narrowing in the days leading up to the vote. The votes won’t be counted until tomorrow, but even if the polls are wrong and the measure doesn’t pass, the fact that the referendum is even taking place—and that all of the country’s major political parties are supporting legalization—shows a remarkable social change in a famously Catholic country that legalized divorce only 20 years ago.
The archbishop who would later become Pope Paul VI described Ireland as “the most Catholic country” in 1946. Church attendance was once nearly universal in the Republic, and the church controlled almost all the schools and hospitals, as well as exerted substantial influence over the government. John Paul II visited Ireland on one of his first foreign trips in 1979 and drew some of the largest crowds in Irish history. But around that time, Catholicism in Ireland began a long, slow decline.
Eighty-four percent of the Republic’s citizens still describe themselves as Catholic, but that’s becoming more of a cultural than a religious identity. According to the country’s archbishop, weekly church attendance has declined from 90 percent in 1984 to 18 percent in 2011. Less than half of Irish now consider themselves religious, and surveys show religiosity is declining faster in Ireland than almost every other country in the world. Ireland now ranks seventh in the world for atheism. And Ireland’s Catholics are decidedly non-orthodox about their faith: Ninety percent believe priests should be allowed to marry, for instance. Ireland once supplied priests to churches throughout the world, but the country now has so few that the church fears there may soon not be enough for weddings and funerals.
So what accounts for Ireland’s dramatic retreat from the pews? For one thing, it’s part of an international trend: Church attendance has been declining in nearly every European country. Globalization likely played a part: Ireland joined the EU (then known as the European Economic Community) in 1973, increasing its exposure to the region’s larger social trends. Immigration also transformed Irish society, with 17 percent of the country’s population now foreign-born. Free secondary education and mass broadcast media, neither of which was universal in Ireland until the 1960s, also likely played a role, as did the “Celtic tiger,” the country’s late-1990s economic boom, which transformed what was formerly one of Europe’s poorest countries into one of its wealthiest.
It’s also hard to overstate the impact of wave after wave of abuse scandals that rocked the country in the 2000s, revealing an endemic culture of sexual abuse within the church stretching back to the founding of the Republic, as well as massive cover-ups by both clergy and the police. The abuse revelations implicated the Irish state as well: In 2013 the Irish government finally apologized for its role in sending thousands of women to the church-run laundries where they were detained, sometimes for decades against their will, for crimes like being unwed mothers.
The church hasn’t retreated from society completely. It still controls over 90 percent of the country’s schools, though the government is working to transfer hundreds of them to secular control. And in contrast to the support for gay marriage, abortion still remains illegal in the vast majority of circumstances. But even that might be changing. After a horrendous case in 2012, in which an Indian dentist died after being denied an abortion as she miscarried 17 weeks into her pregnancy, caused international outrage, Ireland finally legalized abortion for cases when the mother’s life is at risk.
Irish voters have consistently rejected legalizing abortion in any circumstances, but the question hasn’t been put to the public since 2002, a lifetime ago given how fast public opinion has been shifting in the country on social issues. If gay marriage is legalized tomorrow, proponents may be emboldened to push for another vote.