Editorial

Published in Issue 3 (Autumn 2000), Letters, News, Volume 8

The Catholic Church through the Ages

Religion in its spiritual, sectarian and devotional aspects has been of huge importance in Ireland’s history. In recent centuries the Catholic church has been one of the most dynamic and yet also one of the most conservative institutions in the country, wielding immense influence over not only its own flock but also over its non-adherents. It restructured in the seventeenth century to meet the challenge of the penal laws and again in the nineteenth to take advantage of liberal democracy. Catholicism influenced the development of Irish nationalism and became as a result an active prop to the emergent Southern state and an oppositional force in Northern Ireland. The devotional revolution of  the nineteenth century also saw Catholicism gain a decisive influence over the hearts and minds of the majority of the Irish people. Sexual life, educational opportunities and many aspects of social behaviour were all guided from the pulpit. The 1932 Eucharistic Congress was perhaps the high-point of Ireland’s identification with Catholicism. By the time of Pope John Paul II’s visit in 1979 secularisation was already well underway. The many priests and nuns who had been defiant in an age of state persecution and who became so numerous and conspicuous over the following two centuries, are today an ageing, dwindling and even disrespected profession. This special issue of History Ireland is therefore set before the public at a time when the Catholic church is taking stock of its changed role in a modern pluralist society.

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