The Catholic Church has long been one of the most powerful and influential organisations in Ireland. Its influence has been
- on people
- on policy makers
- on institutions
- on the law
- on culture
The extent of the power has not always been as strong as presumed - despite its opposition to Parnell, many Irish people remained Parnellites. Cardinal Cullen's attempt to establish a Catholic party in the 1870s was an embarrassing failure. Large numbers of Irish people ignored it on the civil war, and on the Spanish Civil War, where de Valera openly rejected Catholic Church pressure that he back Franco. Attempts by Catholics to have the constitution declare Catholicism the state religion failed, and Church horror at the constitution recognising the Church of Ireland, various Protestant Churches and the Jewish Community didn't stop de Valera including such recognition in the constitution. More recently, the public have voted in ways that contradicted the advice of Catholic bishops on referenda, and the state ignored Catholic pressure when choosing to allow contraception and decriminalise homosexuality. But the Church still possessed an extraordinary degree of power and influence, getting its way at least 70% of the time.
While Churchmen talk a lot about "faith" and the faith of people, in reality faith is a product of trust. People trusted the Church sufficiently to enable it to influence their beliefs and perspectives, and to shape their faith. The problem for the Church is that more than anything else the crisis today has shattered people's trust in it and its ordained ministers. Most people's faith may survive, but will not be passed on or constructed as Church control in all aspects of their lives is weakened dramatically. From schools to lifestyles, Church influence is set to plummet, and with that its ability to control and infleunce the belief systems of the next generation.
Without a popular base of support, in practice Catholicism is likely to be marginalised increasingly as the institution finds itself appealing onto to a smaller minority of the population. That in turn will fatally undermine its political clout, as less of the next generation of politicians will be members of its faithful. In the past even non-religious politicians were willing to pretend to be "good Catholics" and take seriously Catholic Church demands in case they were attacked and undermined by the majority of Irish people who were not merely born Catholic but active Catholics.
Ultimately I suspect that the Catholic Church will find itself in Ireland relegated to the powerless of the Church of England in England or the Catholic Church in France. Like them it will find itself, as the once all-powerful influencer of opinions, now relegated to the fringes, ministering to a dwindling minority of believers who carry little clout or public impact.
It is arguable that modern Catholicism and its power originated in the Cullenite reforms of the mid to late 19th century. It is arguable also that that power, and that era, died with the publication of the details of clerical abuse in Dublin in 2009. Catholicism, I suspect, will continue to exist but as a fringe group ministering to a relatively small proportion of Irish people, with the vast majority of people, and the vast majority of their leaders, having moved into a post-Catholic age.