Until recent decades, Ireland was widely regarded as one of the jewels in the crown of the Catholic Church. While once solid bastions of Catholicism like Holland and Quebec (Canada) all but disintegrated following Vatican II, Ireland remained solid in her faith.
However, a recent survey of the beliefs and practices of Ireland's Catholics commisioned by the Association of Catholic Priests (ACP) has underlined the divide between what most Irish now believe and what their Church teaches.
One thousand Catholics took part in the survey which was conducted by Amárach Research mainly online, along with face to face interviews for people aged 55 to 64.
Among the ACP survey's findings were:
• 77pc support the ordination of women as priests.
• 46pc oppose the church's stance on homosexuality.
• 75pc believe that the church's teachings on sexuality are irrelevant to their lives.
• 87pc believe that people who are divorced or separated and in a new relationship should be allowed to take communion.
No doubt the ongoing horrendous child abuse scandal, the incessant hostility of the secular media, along with the inroads of modernisation via membership of the European Economic Community, have had their impact, especially on the urban Irish.
At the same time the Church has been experiencing a drought of vocations with its priesthood contracting and growing older while the Archbishop of Dublin, Dr Diarmuid Martin, warned recently that the Church in Ireland was in crisis and "at breaking point". During an appearance on 60 Minutes he noted that only two per cent attend Mass in some Dublin parishes.
This situation contrasts starkly with Ireland's past contributions to the Church around the world, including laying the foundations for the faith in Australia.
Celtic monks like Saint Columbanus spread the Gospel in Western Europe and established the medieval monastic culture. The ideals of holiness, charity and transcendent wisdom born of the Christian faith found expression in the building of churches and monasteries and the setting up of schools, libraries and hospitals, all of which helped to consolidate the spiritual identity of Europe. Those Irish missionaries drew their strength and inspiration from the firm faith, strong leadership and upright morals of the Church in their native land.
From the 16th century on, Catholics in Ireland endured a long period of persecution, during which they struggled to keep the flame of faith alive in dangerous and difficult circumstances. Saint Oliver Plunkett, the martyred Archbishop of Armagh, is the most famous example of a host of courageous Irish men and women prepared to die for their faith.
After Catholic Emancipation, the Church was free to grow once more and families and countless individuals who had preserved the faith in times of trial became the catalyst for a great resurgence of Irish Catholicism during the 19th century. The Church provided education, especially for the poor, and this was to make a major contribution to Irish society.
Among the fruits of the new Catholic schools, including their counterparts in Australia, was a rise in vocations with generations of missionary priests, sisters and brothers leaving their homeland to serve in every continent, especially in the English-speaking world. They were remarkable not only for their great numbers, but for the strength of their faith and their dedication to their pastoral work.
While the influence and reputation of the Church in Ireland had been declining from these high points for several decades, it has plunged more recently as disclosures of clerical child sexual abuse have kept surfacing.
The Irish Prime Minister, Enda Kenny, won widespread approval last year when he denounced the Church's response as exposing "elitism, disconnection, dysfunction and narcissism in the Vatican". Instead of putting the interests of children first, he declared, "the rape and torture of children were downplayed or managed to uphold instead the primacy of the institution, its power, standing and reputation".
Such intemperate remarks from an Irish PM would have been unthinkable a generation earlier.
The Amárach Research survey's findings came in the wake of publication of the Vatican's Apostolic Visitation to Ireland earlier this year, which noted that there was a tendency among some priests to hold theological opinions which differed from church doctrine.
The Irish Catholic Communications Office commented that the Apostolic Visitation "highlighted the need for a new focus on the dignity and role of all the faithful and for deeper formation in the faith".
It added: "The results of the [ACP] survey confirm the importance of all in the church taking up this task in a spirit of communion and sharing the good news of the Gospel in a rapidly changing social and cultural environment in Ireland today."
Fr Brendan Hoban, a member of of the ACP, said those belonging to that organisation were not dissident priests but were merely highlighting opinions from laity.
"We are reflecting what we are hearing in parishes and have heard in parishes for years," he said. "If we don't move things forward, the Irish church will be in terminal decline."
Another ACP priest, Fr Bobby Gilmore, claimed the survey was a "roadmap" for where the Church should look at going in the future based on the practices and attitudes of Catholics: "On the basis of this survey, what Irish Catholics want is compassion and tolerance rather than the defence of absolute positions, local input rather than central control, a people's Church rather than a clerical Church."
Such sentiments have been common currency among progressives in Western Europe, North America and Australia since the 1960s. Ireland it seems is finally catching up with the New Church.