The Catholic Church is Ireland has been accused by an Irish academic of spreading misinformation about the ‘dangers’ posed by non-Catholic schools in order to maintain a stranglehold on education in the country.
In an op-ed published in the Guardian, Emer O’Toole, above, Associate Professor of Irish Performance Studies at Concordia University in Canada, pointed out that 90 percent of primary schools in Ireland are Catholic.
This religious domination of public education is anomalous in a developed nation. It does not meet the needs of Ireland’s increasingly diverse population, or of the many citizens – religious or otherwise – who would rather that Catholicism was not afforded a privileged place in public life.
In 2012, a government report recognised the need for change and recommended that some schools divest their religious patronage. Though the Church agreed that some divestment was necessary, at local level it is reluctant to cede power.
After a survey of parents of pre-school children in an area of Dublin apparently indicated that more than a quarter wanted multi-denominational education for their children, it was decided that one of the eight local Catholic primary schools should divest. O’Toole pointed out:
In response, three Catholic schools circulated leaflets containing misinformation: that the loss of religious patronage would mean an end to the schools marking Christmas, Easter and even Halloween; the axing of healthy eating programmes and book clubs; the devaluing of grandparents; censorship of the Irish language; lack of safety on school tours; a drop in the standard of education; the imperilment of teachers’ jobs – in short, to ‘a Brexit-type disaster’.
Joe McHugh, above, the Minister of Education and skills, has condemned this “inaccurate information” and took the unusual step of publicly asking the Catholic schools:
Not to issue claims that have no basis in fact. Pancake Tuesday won’t be banned. Nor will holidays or celebrations associated with the ancient Celtic/pagan festival of Halloween.
Incomprehensibly, the state all but handed over administration of the divestment process to the church. The result? Catholic schools denied parents any objective information on alternative patrons, then warned them that if they voted for divestment there would be no opportunity to reconsider once they learned details of the proposed replacement.Who in their right mind would vote for change under those circumstances? A parent writing to the Irish Times opined that the process seemed to be ‘cynically engineered to obtain a particular result for the diocese’.
When parents in this situation inevitably vote to maintain the status quo, the church can say: ‘We tried, but there was no appetite for it. People want their children to have a Catholic education.’ This is certainly how Fr Gerry O’Connor, involved in the failed divestment of a Catholic school, explained the fact that no schools voted for change in the Dublin suburb of Ballyfermot.
O’Toole went on to argue:
Not only would divestment protect the rights of Ireland’s non-Catholic children, who are currently excluded during religious instruction, and of non-Catholic teachers, who can be discriminated against in the hiring process, it would also help to complete the separation of church and state. While over 90 percent of children undergo near mandatory Catholic faith formation in state schools, the church simply has too much power in the Irish Republic.
Why do state schools continue to teach Irish children to respect the moral authority of the Catholic church, when most Irish adults, aware of the lessons of the Ryan report, the Ferns report, the Cloyne report and too many others, know that such respect is dangerous and misplaced? Why do we continue to show children that it is normal for the church to play a privileged part in public life, when generations have lived the tragic effects of such indoctrination?
If we continue to keep children ignorant of any religious belief but Catholicism, and teach them that children of other faiths are deviations from the norm, will we act surprised when these seeds grow into intolerance and division in our newly diverse Ireland? And will we continue to ignore the misogyny and homophobia of the Catholic church, and to pretend that this has no effect on the children in its schools?
Imagine an Ireland in which children were taught that moral authority is to be earned and can be revoked; that Catholicism is one faith among many; that boys and girls can play equal roles in any institution; that families come in all shapes and sizes. This can happen. There is a chance right now to make it happen. But it will never happen while the Catholic church is running the show.
Earlier this year, in a letter to The Irish Times, Anthony O’Leary wrote:
Tens of thousands of parents are … denied their rights. A Department of Education report shows that one-quarter of parents whose children are in Catholic schools would move their children to a school with a non-religious patron, if possible. Educate Together was the overwhelming choice.
Currently Church and State are denying over 140,000 children their constitutional right to a non-religious education. The present, piecemeal divestment programme has failed. It is time now for church and State to get together to agree a major, national divestment programme which will match up the needs of parents, teachers and patrons.