By John McCarthy
Irish Minister for Education Ruairí Quinn has asked that the Catholic Church be divested of half of the 3,000 national schools in Ireland over which it currently has patronage.
These "Catholic" schools make up about 90 percent of the state provided national schools in the country. The others are under the patronage of either other religious denominations or are non-denominational in character.
He has launched a Forum on Patronage and Pluralism in the Public Sector, chaired by UCD Professor Emeritus of Education John Coolahan, to hear views of concerned groups as well as the general public, as a prelude to issuing specific recommendations to the minister by the end of the year.
Archbishop Diarmuid Martin acknowledged that the increasing portion of students in the Dublin Archdiocese who are either not Catholic and/or not religiously affiliated would justify a substantial reduction in the percentage of schools under the Church's patronage.
The Catholic Council of Bishops, reflecting views more typical of rural Ireland, would accept some reduction, but much smaller than what Martin would accept, never mind Quinn's more ambitious suggestion.
One can better understand the practice of church patronage by examining the origins of the Irish national school system in the 1830s by the British government, decades before doing so in England. The original aim was for non-denominational schools, with the students attending separate classes along denominational lines for religious instruction.
At first the Irish Catholic hierarchy was generally supportive, with most of the opposition coming from the then established Church of Ireland. However, within a decade the goal had generally fallen by the wayside, as less than 5 percent of the more than four thousands schools were non-denominational.
That original aim was doomed from the start. Since many of the schools were run religious orders, they were de facto denominational. Also, public opinion, which intertwined religion with political sentiment, whether nationalist or unionist, opposed non-denominational schools.
It must be remembered, also, that the original scheme, did not call for secular education. It had the same character as a current program in Northern Ireland, where, admittedly in only a small minority of schools, there is separate religious instruction and sacramental preparation, while students attend all other classes, including ones in religious history and comparative religion, together.
One suspects that Quinn's ultimate agenda is much greater than promoting interdenominational education. He, as becomes his own atheistic philosophical perspective, would prefer entirely secular schooling and to leave religious instruction to parents or denominational "Sunday Schools."
Quinn is correct in calling for a root and branch re-examination of Irish education that will ask questions other than giving more money to schools and teachers. His anxiety is appropriate in view of recent international studies that lowered Irish ranking from former "world class" to average or below average in literacy, science and math, and which found one quarter of Irish teenagers to be functionally illiterate.
This stands in stark contrast to the fact that the portion of the Irish population in 30-to-34 age bracket with college education is the highest in the European Union.
However, to imply that academic competence is weakened by the time spent in the school day studying religion is unwarranted, especially since the amount of time spent on religion has remained the same as it was when Irish educational standards were being internationally acclaimed.
Former Taoiseach John Bruton has argued that Quinn's claim that too much school time is wasted on religion could as easily be made about the even greater amount of time spent teaching the national language that very few ultimately use in their lives, or about the fewer schools days per year in Ireland than elsewhere in Europe.
Quinn also doesn't seem to have any objection to school time being spent on other matters, even less academic than religion, such as sports, health education, and civics.
As for the practicality of teaching religious instruction in the home or on weekends, Bruton effectively demonstrates that such would work very much against, in most cases, thorough religious formation. Parents inculcate religious values more by example than formal instruction, and generally are unprepared and unready to give formal religious classes to their children.
No doubt religious belief has declined significantly among the Irish, and immigration has brought thousands into the country who are not Christians, never mind Catholics. Obviously the state-supported education to which they are entitled should not require their taking Catholic religious classes or being immersed in a Catholic atmosphere.
On the other hand, the majority, who are still Catholic, should be as equally entitled to state support for the Catholic education they desire.
While Catholic schools in a diverse school system should receive comparable support as any other school, the Church should be wary of a number of things.
For instance, religious identity must not used as a means of social exclusivity without any real interest in religion itself.
Secondly, the Church must make sure that the schools remaining under its patronage not be staffed by faculty who are either lukewarm or are non-believers.
Thirdly, the existing light-weight and superficial religion curriculum must be strengthened. The necessity of such is demonstrated by the results of a survey of young Irish people, aged 15 to 24. Only one in 20 of whom could quote the First Commandment, about a third of whom knew where Jesus was born or what Easter celebrated, and about a sixth knew what transubstantiation was.
For the church to act as patron in national schools where faculty are lukewarm and religious curriculum is superficial will only intensify the growing pattern in Ireland of infrequent Mass attendance. It would also make youth cynical and indifferent rather than religious.