Mass appeal: Jennifer Sleeman is organising a boycott in anger at church's treatment of women

Last week, Jennifer Sleeman, an 80-year-old Clonakilty woman, announced she was organising a boycott of mass on 26 September in anger at the Ryan and Murphy reports into clerical abuse, and in protest at the church's treatment of women (a Vatican document recently likened the ordination of women priests to paedophilia). "That's my cue!" said the pope, and announced he was retaining two auxiliary bishops mentioned unfavourably in the Murphy report, against the wishes of abuse victims, and to the general disgust of the Irish people.

In the face of such institutional insanity, you'd expect a revolt from the faithful. That it took an 80-year-old woman to do so was surprising, however, given how many young Catholics there are. "Are there young Catholics?" you ask. Well, baptism rates have held steady in this country and according to the last census, the number of Catholics had risen by 218,840 in four years (although it dropped proportionally from 88.4% to a still not inconsiderable 86.8% of the population). Those figures suggest that the old religion is still doing a roaring trade.

Now, a realist might observe that this is an artificial number that's representative of those baptised (even if you've lapsed, your official membership hasn't), but not of mass-attendance. However, the church authorities have recently used such statistics to justify seeking new church-run primary schools. This is a self-fulfilling prophesy. Because those authorities are in turn allowed to use faith as a basis for admitting entry to these schools, non-practising Catholics baptise their children, their figures go up again, and the church orders more schools (leaving a very difficult situation for people who do not want a Catholic education for their kids).

The Catholic Church has never been particularly picky about its entry criteria for membership. It really is a broad church. They'll take anyone. The Roman Empire was converted according to the whims of one guy (Constantine) and in colonial times whole tribes were Catholicised with a random sprinkle of holy water (like mortgage brokers, missionaries had quotas). It's unsurprising that the church has no problem treating all the self-professed atheists and agnostics still logged onto the system as though they can all be found flagellating themselves beneath a picture of Padre Pio.

The Irish people collaborate in this process and the church knows it. So as well as leveraging the coercive power of its educational infrastructure, it proffers its buildings for family functions (communions, weddings, bar mitzvahs if they could get away with it). This helps keep the non-practising Catholics sweet. And in the same way that banks in Ireland ignored basic banking principles to get into the more lucrative property business, the church forsakes the interests of genuine spirituality in order to become a glorified party planner. (End result: a country filled with ghost estates, zombie banks and, what I'm going to call, for the sake of consistent metaphor, werewolf churches).

This would all be fine, except that when the hierarchy stands behind blatant misogyny, homophobia and the cover-up of abuse it does so in the name of everyone a priest ever sprinkled water on or who chooses a Catholic marriage.

Now in the past, when Irish people allowed church figures drive policy, they had a pretty good excuse: they believed in God. Between then and now a lot has changed. There was the liberalising era of Vatican II, followed by the reactionary papacy of John Paul II, and the emergence of a new breed of educated church-goer– the à la carte Catholic – who selected the elements of doctrine that suited them (going to heaven) and rejected others (the ban on contraception). Because these personal rebellions went conveniently unnoticed, the gulf between what was preached and what was practised widened substantially (in his book Luck and the Irish, Roy Foster refers to this process as 'How the Catholics became Protestant'). It's little wonder then, that nowadays many of the church's official congregation aren't really Catholics at all.

Acknowledging that gulf is the first step to reform. And the church could be reformed. There are lots of good people there, from activists like Fr Peter McVerry to feisty dissidents like Mrs Sleeman. I also know there are complex and legitimate reasons why non-practising Catholics have their children baptised, get married in Catholic churches and remain on the registers of the faithful. If those people do choose to stay with the church, and disagree with wider church policy, they should make themselves heard (they're certainly being counted). They could start by occasionally informing the hierarchy of how à la carte their Catholicism is. Tell them what you actually believe: "I don't believe in transubstantiation" or "I think we should have woman priests" or "I believe gay people should be allowed to marry" or "I like Catholicism but only the bits that involve family events in lovely buildings". Force the church to face up to its own cynicism.

Or you could consider apostasy. You can leave. You can start by going to (and in case I'm sounding too judgmental, I'm only getting around to doing this now... after years of griping). Maybe you could do this and keep your children Catholic if you're worried about their schooling prospects ("I'm not a believer myself, Father, but don't get the toddler started on the glorious mysteries!"). But if we choose to remain part of the church, then as Mrs Sleeman recognised, we have a responsibility to help reform it, and not pretend that it's got nothing to do with us when the pope comes out with his next medieval clanger.

Michael Clifford is away