Not long ago, Ireland was considered one of the most devout nations in the world. Catholicism was synonymous with the Irish identity, and for most of the 20th century, the Catholic Church in Ireland was an immovable, unparalleled force in Irish society. The institution had its hand in education, in hospitals and in private life.
But in the latter part of the century, Ireland shifted its course.
At the hands of the "Celtic Tiger" — Ireland’s 1995 economic boom — the country moved toward a modern European republic, and away from a monotheistic state. In the 1970s, more than 90 percent of Irish Catholics said they regularly attended Mass. That number is now just under one third.
Why have Irish Catholics lost their reverence for the once almighty Roman Catholic Church? A slew of factors come into play, but the slow erosion of faith is due mostly to damning revelations of clergy sex abuse scandals and the church's intolerance in the face of changing social mores.
Women's rights and gay marriage are chief among the concerns listed by those whose faith dwindles. Irish LGBT life has radically changed in the last decade — homosexuality was decriminalized in 1993, more gay people are "out" in society, and with the advent of civil partnerships there has been a growing push for marriage equality.
Despite such strides, the LGBT community still faces discrimination at the hands of the church. Homosexual acts are considered a sin, and the Vatican remains a staunch critic of the gay rights movement.
Brian Finnegan is deputy editor of GCN, the longest-running LGBT magazine in Ireland. The former Catholic says despite the church’s teachings, it’s only a matter of time until gay marriage becomes a reality.
Q: How does faith shape your identity?
A: I went to a Catholic school and was brought up going to religious services, but I’m not religious now. The majority of my friends are not religious. Of my six siblings, only one subscribes to the Catholic faith. Ireland may be known abroad for its devout Catholic faith, but in terms of real people, this is changing hugely.
Q: Are gay affirming churches becoming more accepted in Ireland or is that at odds with the general Catholic view of homosexuality there?
A: The Unitarian Church in Dublin conducts same-sex unions, and it is seen as the only religious organization in Ireland that is fully accepting of LGBT people. Now and then a priest will try to embrace his LGBT parishioners.
Q: The pope has described the LGBT community as people eschewing their God-given gender identities, claiming they are destroying the very "essence of the human creature" in the process. What was your reaction?
A: Gay people don't take the pope seriously anymore here…they realize that the impact he is making is on a much older generation. Most people in Ireland do not listen to what the pope has to say about homosexuality. In my opinion statements like these only serve to distance the Catholic Church more from the real lives of ordinary people. My mother, who is 78 and devout, says she and her friends have no time for this pope—that he does not speak for her or her faith.
Q: How do politicians in Ireland use religion when it comes to LGBT rights?
A: On the issue of abortion most clearly, there is still a connection between the church and the state, and politicians are afraid to legislate for it. The vast majority of people in Ireland no longer want religion involved with politics.
Q: How likely do you think gay marriage is in Ireland, especially because such large strides in LGBT rights have been made recently?
A: The church opposes gay marriage, but with civil partnerships already introduced in Ireland, despite vigorous anti-marriage campaigning from the church, it is only a matter of time before gay marriage is introduced. There are some legal loopholes to get through first and there may have to be a vote from the Irish people on it. If this is to happen the conservative forces, financed largely by American religious organizations, will be out in force and it will be a difficult fight. I can only put my trust in the Irish people to do what is right.
Sarah Parvini is a journalist living in Los Angeles. She is currently a Master's candidate in digital journalism at the Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism.