Irish church has suffered dramatic fall from grace

A seemingly unending wave of sex scandals, many of them involving children, has decimated the once-proud standing of the Catholic church in Ireland and rendered its power a pale shadow of what it was.

The church was almost bound to lose influence over the last half-century, in common with a western world where the secular is generally prevailing against the religious. But in Ireland its fall from grace has been dramatic and drastic.

Church attendance is on the wane, with only a handful of people now come forward each year to train as priests or nuns - this in a country which for decades sent thousands of religious abroad.

In the archdiocese of Dublin there will soon be barely enough to have one priest for each of its 199 parishes. Clerical presence is not only contracting but ageing: in Dublin there are now ten times more priests over 70 than under 40.

The heart of the trouble lies in the mind of the flock, for even the most faithful have been shocked to the core by the relentless revelations. That shock has been all the greater because of the reverence which the church once commanded.

When what is now the Irish Republic came into being in the early 1920s, after Britain withdrew from the 26 southern counties, the new state was more than 90 per cent Catholic. From the start it depended heavily on the Catholic church to provide much of its basic infrastructure.

In many ways the church provided a service which tended to the faithful from the cradle to the grave but also at many points in-between, since it ran most of the schools and many of the hospitals and other services.

It set the tone for the entire state, since Catholic doctrine was built into many laws, including the Constitution. Abortion, divorce and contraception were banned and censorship was famously strict.

Ireland was famous for its writers but many of those frowned upon by the church, from James Joyce to Edna O'Brien, regarded the artistic atmosphere as stifling and left its shores.

For example, Elvis Presley's "most suggestive abdominal dancing" was cut out of movies while even a Cliff Richard film was thought too racy for the Irish. A scene in "On the Waterfront," in which a priest bought Marlon Brando a beer was cut since it was thought inappropriate for a priest to drink in public.

Today the irony is that some priests were in private engaging in activities which no film-maker or artist would dare depict.

In high politics few politicians ever took on the church head-on over important issues, many of them proclaiming that their first duty was to their church. Politicians, it was regularly said, feared "the belt of the crozier."

When rare clashes did occur the bishops almost invariably won the exchanges.

As late as 1969 Ireland was described as "the most Christian country in the world," but the sixties, as elsewhere, brought huge changes as education, television and travel eroded much of the old deference.

However the sex scandals, beginning in the early 1990s with the revelation that the Bishop of Galway had secretly fathered a child, have done more than anything to sap the authority of a once authoritarian church.