Towards a better understanding of Liberal-Catholics

Apr 22, 2015 | 4 comments

Managing Identities: Towards a better understanding of Liberal-Catholics


Volunteers required.  Read on …

UCD Logo_75Roman Catholicism has long been the dominant religion in Ireland. Despite a general decline in religious participation across Europe, Ireland has remained, for the most part, devoutly Catholic with some 84%- over 3.86 million people –identifying themselves as Roman Catholic in the latest census (CSO, 2011). However, these remarkably high levels of identification with Catholicism do not tell the whole story. There have in fact been considerable changes in the patterns of religious beliefs and practices among Catholics in Ireland (for more information see Ó Féich & O’Connell, 2015). Our preliminary research has found that levels of attendance at mass as well as levels of confidence in the Church declined dramatically between 1981 to 2010; whilst levels of identification as Catholic, belief, and prayer (a more personal form of religious practice) have, for the most part, remained stable over this period (Ó Féich & O’Connell, 2015). It has been argued that similar patterns evident in other European countries are indicative of a move away from institutional religion and towards a more personal and private form of religious belief and practice (Davie, 1994).

Our findings also suggest that a considerable and growing proportion of Catholics in Ireland have moved away from the traditional teaching, conservative values, and moral norms of the Catholic Church and have become more accepting of things traditionally frowned upon by Catholicism. In fact, our research indicates that more than 1 in 7 (14.6%) Catholics in Ireland can be defined as liberal or very liberal in their attitudes towards issues that are contrary to the traditional teachings and moral norms of Catholicism, for example divorce, homosexuality, euthanasia etc. In 1981 this figure stood at approximately 1 in 25 (3.8%; Ó Féich & O’Connell, 2015). There are many possible explanation for the emergence of this liberal ethos among Catholics, for example institutional detachment (Inglis, 2007), the development of a liberal culture (Cassidy, 2002), socio-economic development, modernisation and human/societal development (Inglehart & Welzel, 2005; Cao & Zhao, 2012), or the decline of the Catholic Church as the de facto moral conscience of Irish society (Donelly & Inglis, 2010).

The traditionally conservative approach advocated by Catholicism towards a range of different issues is potentially incompatible with the approach advocated by liberalism. Although the proportion of Catholics who also identify themselves as liberal is likely lower than 14.6%, our findings suggest that the proportion of Catholics in Ireland who would also consider themselves liberal is growing.  The present research is concerned with how those who consider and identify themselves as both a Catholic and a liberal perceive and manage the relationship between these identities or parts of themselves. In an effort to answer this question the present research draws on two theoretical perspectives of psychology; the Social Identity Approach and Acculturation research. These approaches will now be briefly introduced.

The Social Identity Approach

The Social Identity Approach is made up of Social Identity Theory (Tajfel & Turner, 1986) and Self-Categorisation Theory (Turner, Hogg, Oakes, Riecher, & Wetherell, 1987). Social Identity Theory defines social identity as that part of an individual’s self-concept which is derived from their group memberships (Tajfel & Turner, 1986). One of the key tenants of social identity theory is the existence of multiple social identities. Each person is a member of many groups, be they social, cultural, political, professional, or indeed religious. They therefore maintain multiple identities (Roccas & Brewer, 2002) and each of these identities has their own set of normative attitudes, values, beliefs, and behaviours.

Self-Categorisation Theory (Turner et al. 1987) holds that in order to simplify and structure their social world, individuals will categorise people into groups and, in the process, categories themselves into groups. Depending on the context of a social situation any one of an individual’s many group identities can become salient or dominant and as a result the attitudes, values, beliefs and behaviours of the individual in this context become guided by the normative attitudes, values, beliefs, and behaviours of the salient identity (Turner, 1999). Take, for example, a doctor who is also a supporter of a particular football team. During a football match, his or her identity as a supporter of this football team becomes salient; therefore his or her attitudes, values, and behaviours become guided by the normative attitudes, values, and behaviours of their salient identity as a football supporter.  He or she may feel an increased rivalry with a relevant outgroup (in this case, the supporters of the rival team), may sing and chant, and may even pass a derogatory remark or two about players on the opposing team.  However this behaviour would be unacceptable at work. In this professional context, his or her identity as a doctor would become salient and the normative attitudes, values, and behaviours of this salient identity would guide his or her attitudes, values and behaviours, making singing and chanting very unlikely.

Despite some researchers arguing that the study of multiple social identities represents a key area for future research (Brewer & Gaertner, 2004) until relatively recently very little research had been conducted on the nature of and relationship between multiple social identities (Roccas & Brewer, 2002). Researchers have recognized the potentially conflicting nature of some identities that can be simultaneously maintained by the same individual (Kurzban & Aktipis, 2007; Roccas & Brewer, 2002; Sirin et al., 2008) for example, Muslim-American, career-orientated parent, or religious-scientist. Others have examined the challenges of maintaining and managing these identities for example Brooks, Garcia, and Fleming (2008) found that maintaining identities that have incompatible behavioral norms can have a negative effect on psychological well-being.

Acculturation Research

Acculturation research focuses on the changes or psychological adaptation of the individual post immigration. There are two broad traditions in the study of psychological acculturation; the study of acculturation attitudes and the study of cultural identity (Phinney, Berry, Vedder & Liebkind, 2006). The former refers to the way individuals prefer to live in intercultural contact situations, whereas the latter refers to the individual’s subjective sense of self post immigration. The study of cultural identity refers specifically to the extent to which immigrants subjectively identify with their ethnic group and larger society as well as their sense of attachment to either or both cultural groups (Phinney et al., 2006). In essence, it aims to better understand how people maintain their old ethic and new national identities, how they perceive the relation between these identities, and how they manage the potentially incompatible demands of these identities. Given that the study of cultural identity deals specifically with the individual’s subjective sense of self and their dual-identification with two cultural identities, it may therefore be possible to adapt and apply the methods used in this research to the investigation of dual-identification with two social identities-Catholic and Liberal.

The present research

As noted above, the proportion of Catholics in Ireland who would also identify themselves as a liberal has in all likelihood grown considerably since the 1980s.The challenge of maintaining these potentially incompatible identities is therefore an issue for a considerable and growing number of Catholics in Ireland and warrants further study. The goal of our research is to adapt and apply acculturation research methods in an effort to gain an insight into how those who consider themselves both a Catholic and a liberal perceive and manage the relationship between these parts of themselves and how they manage the potentially incompatible demands of their Catholic and liberal identities.

In order to achieve these goals we need volunteers who identify themselves as both a Catholic and a liberal to take part in our research. To this end we would like to request and strongly encourage any readers of this article who would identify as both a Catholic and a liberal to consider volunteering. If any readers are interested in volunteering PLEASE READ INFORMATION SHEET FOR POTENTIAL PARTICIPANTS (pdf file), which outlines all the relevant information about the study needed to make an informed decision, and contact the principal researcher, Mr. Pádraig Ó Féich, using the contact information provided in the information sheet. Please note that it is important that both identities are relevant and applicable to all volunteers. If these identities are not relevant for you personally but you would still like to help, please feel free to forward the link to this article to anyone who may be interested. One of the biggest challenges of large scale research such as this is finding people willing to take part so we would very much appreciate any and all volunteers, and hope that by working together we can better understand what it is to be a Liberal-Catholic in Ireland.

Pádraig Ó Féich & Dr. Michael ‘O Connell

Corresponding Author: Pádraig Ó Féich. Email:


Click here to read Information Sheet for Potential Participants (pdf file)
Click here to download the above Article 
(pdf file)



Brewer, M.B., & Gaertner, S.L., (2004). Towards a reduction in Prejudice: Intergroup contact and social categorization. In M.B. Brewer, & M. Hewstone (Eds.), Self and Social Identity. Perspectives in social psychology  (298-318). Malden: Blackwell Publishing.

Brook, A.T., Garcia, A., & Fleming, M. (2008). The Effects of Multiple Identities on Psychological Well-Being. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 34, 1588-1600.

Cao, L. & Zhao, R. (2012). The Impact of Culture on Acceptance of Soft Drugs across Europe. Journal of Criminal Justice, 40, 296-305.

Cassidy, E.G. (2002). Modernity and Religion in Ireland: 1980-2000. In E.G. Cassidy (Eds.), Measuring Ireland: Discerning Beliefs and Values (17-45). Dublin: Veritas, 2002.

Central Statistics Office (2012). This is Ireland-Highlights from census 2011, part 1.Dublin: Stationary Office.

Davie, G. (1994). Religion in Britain since 1945: Believing without Belonging. Oxford: Blackwell.

Donnelly, S., & Inglis, T. (2010). The Media and the Catholic Church in Ireland: Reporting Clerical Child Sex Abuse.  Journal of Contemporary Religion, 25, 1-19.

Inglehart, R. & Welzel, C. (2005). Modernization, Cultural Change, and Democracy: The Human Development Sequence. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Inglis, T. (2007). Catholic Identity in Contemporary Ireland: Belief and Belonging to Tradition. Journal of Contemporary Religion, 22, 205-220.

Kurzban, R., & Aktipis, C.A. (2007). Modularity and the social mind: are psychologists too self-ish? Personality and Social Psychology Review, 11, 131-149.

Ó Féich, P. & O’Connell, M. (2015). Changes in Roman Catholic Beliefs and Practices in Ireland between 1981 and 2008 and the Emergence of the Liberal-Catholic. Journal of Contemporary Religion, 30, 38-54.

Phinney, J. S., Berry, J.W., Vedder, P., & Liebkind, K. (2006). The acculturation experience: Attitudes, identities, and behaviors of immigrant youth. In: J. W. Berry, J. S. Phinney, D. L. Sam, & P. Vedder (Eds.), Immigrant youth in cultural transition: Acculturation, identity and adaptation across national contexts (71–116). New Jersey: LEA Inc.

Roccas, S., & Brewer, M.B. (2002). Social Identity Complexity. Personality and Social Psychology Review, 6, 88-106.

Sirin, R.S., Bikmen, N., Mir, M., Fine, M., Zaal, M., & Katsiaficas, D. (2008). Exploring Dual Identification among Muslim-American emerging adults: A mixed methods study. Journal of Adolescents, 31, 259-279.

Tajfel, H., & Turner, J.C. (1986). The social identity theory of intergroup behaviour. In Worchel, S., &

Austin, W. (Eds.), Psychology of Intergroup Relations (7-24). Nelson Hall: Chicago.

Turner, J.C. (1999). Some current issues in research on social identity and self categorisation theories. In Ellemers, N., Spears, R., & Doosje, B. (Eds.), Social Identity (6-34). Blackwell: Oxford.

Turner, J. C., Hogg, M. A., Oakes, P. J., Reicher, S. D., & Wetherell, M. (1987). Rediscovering the social group: A self-categorization theory. Oxford, UK: Blackwell Publishers.



  1. Sean O'Conaill

    Despite the very liberal academic name-dropping in this article it still seems to me to be extremely imprecise on what it means by LIBERAL and CATHOLIC and CONSERVATIVE. Does anyone else find this odd?

    Effectively it proposes an antithesis of ‘liberal’ and ‘conservative’, so what will these authors make of someone like me me who sees himself as both liberal (deeply oriented towards freedom) AND conservative (deeply oriented towards the basic statement of faith we know as the Creed)?

    Are they not familiar with Richard Rohr’s critique of ALL dualistic thinking – i.e. all thinking that seeks to proceed to understanding by dividing the field? That is by stating an antithesis as though it was axiomatic and irrefutable and necessary?

    If not, what do they really know of Catholicism?

    And don’t they know that the issue of freedom is deeply problematic, and that therefore ‘liberalism’ must be deeply problematic also?

    I very strongly feel that the issue of definition of terms has been fudged here, and that this is not a promising start.

    Could these researchers perhaps familiarise themselves with Richard Rohr’s work and then tell us whether they think that their antithesis of liberal and conservative is still valid – and, if so, why? I feel sure that Richard would also resist this kind of facile ‘boxing’ as misconceived.

  2. MartinM

    The terms in this article seem to be used to suggest that to be a Catholic (noun) is to be conservative (adjective). It’s a fairly understandable assumption given recent church history and accompanying hierarchical expectations. For me, one of the reasons the ACI and other reform groups came into existence was to highlight the fact that there is and always was more than one way of being a Catholic other than being rigidly conservative and conformative (acknowledging many conservative Catholics also want reform). But without getting too hung up on the terms, it seems to me the researchers recognise there is a dualism (as I believe would Rohr) and are interested in how we overcome it in our continuing religious practice (as opposed to overcoming it by leaving Catholicism behind and remaining Catholic only in a cultural sense). By signing up it may be an opportunity to introduce the researchers to the teachings of Rohr and the mystical/contemplative tradition, as you have already begun to do Sean.

  3. Pádraig Ó Féich

    Thank you for your interest in my research. Unfortunately I am a PhD student and cannot claim to be an expert in Catholicism. For this reason I appreciate the interesting points being raised and will be sure to read the work of Richard Rohr in the near future. I would also like to attempt to address the concerns raised.
    Referencing other’s work is considered best practice when writing in my field as it serves to show that the research is based on previous empirical work and helps avoid plagiarism.
    Regarding the definition of terms, as it is self-identification, not technical qualification, as Catholic and liberal which is key to my research, I chose not to provide operational definitions of these terms. Volunteers must consider the terms liberal and Catholic to be relevant and applicable to them without external influence. If I were to define these terms, those who may not have identified as liberal prior to reading a definition may suddenly do so or vice versa. Similarly defining Catholic may lead ‘lapse or non-practicing’ Catholics who still identify as Catholic to think they don’t meet the criteria. Therefore providing definitions could skew the sample. In my research how I or others define liberal or Catholic is far less relevant than self-identification and what self-identification means to each individual.
    My goal is to understand how those who identify as both Catholic and liberal balance, manage, & maintain the traditionally conservative values of Catholicism with their liberal views. I also recognise that many people are liberal in some regards and conservative in others. It is also possible to identify as solely conservative or solely liberal. If any readers have misgivings about the terms or are unsure whether they identify as Catholic and liberal they can and should abstain. However if any readers consider themselves both Catholic and liberal I hope they consider volunteering as it would be a huge help to the successful completion of my studies.
    Thank you

  4. soconaill

    Thanks to Pádraig for this clarification. As I do indeed self-identify as a liberal Catholic – committed to the goals of liberty, equality and fraternity and completely unenthusiastic about Christendom and any kind of aristocracy – I can contribute to this research.


Submit a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

20 − 16 =

Pin It on Pinterest

Share This