It is unclear how much Catholic-owned property could be available for housing. There is no centralized entity that owns Catholic Church property. Local bishops have significant influence over some property owned by their diocese, and religious orders and other Catholic organizations can have their own property holdings.
O’Brien’s letter acknowledged Church independence in managing its properties and said that it is primarily the state’s duty to address the housing crisis. In remarks last week, he said the government plans to place a “massive emphasis” on affordable housing, promising a program for Ireland “on a scale never seen before.”
In his letter to Archbishop Martin, O’Brien cited the archbishop’s previous remarks on the housing crisis as well as the remarks of Archbishop Dermot Farrell of Dublin. He said the Church is aware of the “need for strong action” given homelessness, a crisis facing renters, and young families who need housing.
In recent years Catholic entities in Ireland have been selling some property in multi-million dollar deals, in part to support aging religious communities. Before the pandemic, Catholic church attendance and vocations to the priesthood and religious life had declined significantly over previous decades, when Ireland was among the most devout countries in the world. According to a European Social Survey conducted in 2016, only about 36% of Irish adults said they attended a religious service once a week.
Many religious congregations have gifted property for social housing, Sister Liz Murphy, then-secretary general of the Association of Leaders of Missionaries and Religious of Ireland, told the Financial Times in 2019. Sister Murphy said the religious “are more than playing their part in that area.”
O’Brien said the government would work with the Church and other organizations to help address the housing crisis. Its Housing for All program aims to provide over 33,000 homes by 2025. Other expected measures are property taxes on vacant properties, incentives for people who want to move to smaller homes, and grants to renovate town properties around Ireland.