00:00 Saturday 03 November 2007  Written by Archon

Catholic Churchs seismic shift on educational role

Not so long ago, the Catholic Church in common with other religions stoutly defended its patronage of education in this country. Education, particularly primary education, was deeply integrated in the framework of the parish and the Catholic Church considered it her duty to watch over the spiritual life of the child. Indeed under Canon Law it was the responsibility of the parish priest to ensure nothing was done or taught in public or private schools that was contrary to faith and morals.

Attempts at introducing a secular or state run system in the primary sector were resisted and this scribe remembers the Bishop of Kildare and Loughlin, Most Rev. Patrick Lennon, denouncing those who argued for what he sarcastically termed 'an atmosphere of clinical protection from any and every religious infection'.

Whether a good or bad thing, that position of strength is now in decline - due to recent mass immigration into the State, the growth in population, less relevance of the Church in people's lives, and materialism.

Needless to say, the Church response was not long in coming. In a speech to the Irish Primary Principals Network in Kilkenny in 2005, Archbishop Diarmuid Martin of Dublin declared Catholic schools were to remain Catholic and that the parents of Catholic children had 'first claim' on admission to Catholic schools. (And, indeed, there's nothing wrong with that. Protestant parents demand the same for their schools and if parents want a certain type of school then, within reason, the Department of Education should make it available.)

He also expressed a preference for 'a plurality of schools' rather than a 'plurality within schools'. In other words he sought a variety of different types of schools so that parents could choose which school ethos suited their needs, rather than the promotion of different religions in existing schools under a Catholic management.

Such an approach, however, ran into choppy water in parts of Dublin in September when immigrant families were unable to enroll their children in Catholic schools because a priority was given to Catholic children. About 50 immigrant children had no school place. The result was that the Church found itself open to the charge of practising segregation - a charge it vehemently rejected.

CATHOLICS FIRST

The Equality Authority was not at all pleased and in an extraordinary fashion accused the Church of breaking anti-discrimination laws, suggesting even that the Church might be guilty of racism on the grounds that preferential access was given to some children - generally if they could produce the right sort of baptismal certificate. The Catholic Principals and School Managers Association immediately sought legal advice and the legal opinion was that schools operating a 'Catholics First' enrolment policy were not breaking the law.

The controversy led to an important document from the bishops - 'The Catholic Primary School: A Policy for Provision into the Future' - in which it was stated the Catholic Church had no desire to be the sole provider of education in individual communities in Ireland. Nevertheless, while acknowledging the need for greater diversity in the primary school system, it insisted Catholic parents had 'first claim' on admission to Catholic schools.

The Church, which manages 3,000 of the 3,280 primary schools in the State, said the enrolment policy of the school was important as a means of implementing a Catholic ethos. But, it went on: 'where possible, in keeping with their ethos, and provided they have places and resources, Catholic schools should welcome children of other faiths or none'. It also pointed out that where there was an inflow of new residents, an unfair financial and administrative burden was placed on local Catholic schools and that in new centres of population it was incumbent on the State to plan for the provision of school sites to ensure a plurality of school provision.

The question is, of course, if a 'plurality of schools' (i.e. alternative schools) is achievable in the short term and whether or not the bishops meant it only as an aspirational goal. Some critics also argue that the 'Catholic First' approach is not in operation in other dioceses in the country, nor do any of the religious orders implement it.

ILLIBERAL ARGUMENTS

On the other hand, blaming the Catholic Church for the failure of other groups, or the Department of Education, to provide schools is illiberal, as is the tactic of the trendies in Fine Gael to use the present immigration/school crisis to get at the Catholic Church. The party's education spokesperson, Brian Hayes, for instance claimed that segregated education was becoming the norm in North Dublin. There is no evidence that such is the case.

The fact is that those with little or no interest in the Catholic religion, and whose commitment to a Catholic education is cultural rather than confessional, usually want their children to go to Catholic schools - and this puts extra pressure on the schools. Parents of different religions or none have few qualms about sending their children to Catholic schools because they know the schools make every effort to respect the religious background of the child, or lack of it.

Interestingly, last month the bishops said it may be necessary to reduce the Church's involvement in the running of the country's primary schools. Some critics see this as a massive shift in educational strategy and a recognition that in some areas, including rural areas, the Catholic ethos of the school is undermined by the immigrant influx of non-Catholics and by an increasing number of Irish people with no religion.

Retrenchment, however, in the field of education will come at a price. The Hierarchy said it would have to get some form of compensation in return for giving up control and patronage of some its primary schools. They also said it would demand the right of transport for children to a Catholic school within a reasonable distance if there was no Catholic school in their parish and that the right to religious instruction for Catholic children would have to be safeguarded.

SEISMIC SHIFT

It's a seismic shift away from the parish priest deciding if a parish needed a primary school or not to the present situation of the Church having 'no desire to be the sole provider of education for whole communities'.

In the meantime, the Church's reduced role in primary education is highlighted in the number of applications to open new schools. It is involved in fewer than 20% of the 38 schools for which recognition is sought. Significantly there are almost as many applications for Islamic schools as Catholic, while multi-denominational schools are by far the biggest single category.

For instance an outfit called 'Educate Together' has submitted formal notification to the Department of Education of its intention to apply to open new schools in twenty areas in 2008. The schools are multi-denominational, do not teach any particular faith or creed, and encourage parents to organise religious instruction for their children outside the school timetable. 'Educate Together' says that instead of religious instruction, they teach an 'ethical educational programme' - whatever that is. Such schools are planned for Carrigaline, Midleton and Rochestown.

It seems the day of the 'Godless school' has arrived.

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