Bishop Leo O’Reilly opinion article for the ‘Irish Mail on Sunday’: “Faith based schools have crucial role to play in contemporary Ireland”

04 Mar 2007


4TH MARCH 2007

Faith based schools have crucial role to play in contemporary Ireland

Last week’s Irish Mail on Sunday carried an article and feature on the current and future role of the teaching of religion in our schools. In a nutshell it was suggesting that rising immigrant numbers in Ireland will mean – at least in the Catholic context – that the teaching of the sacraments – and of religious education generally – will get squeezed out of the core teaching hours and so, in time, it will only be delivered, for example, after school.

While headlines such as “Schools face ban on religion classes as immigrants flock in” are there to catch our eye, I think that when it comes to the education of society’s children sensationalizing this important and emotive topic should be avoided. However, this coverage does allow us an opportunity to publicly debate issues such as the type of education system for our future generations.

The Catholic Church in Ireland has undertaken the teaching of Catholic children for generations and will continue to do so as long as this is the desire of parents. While the Church insists that its schools have a Catholic ethos, this in no way excludes those of different faiths. In fact as your article confirms, Catholic schools are welcoming and inclusive of pupils of all faiths and none. The ethos of the Catholic school is rooted in respect for every person as a child of God and so the Catholic school will endeavor, as far as its resources allow and its parents wish, to cater for the religious needs of all its pupils.

Ireland is now a pluralist society, and this richness of diversity is to the benefit of the common good. Reflecting these changing times that we live in, last Monday in Dublin Castle the Taoiseach Bertie Ahern inaugurated a “process of structured dialogue between the Government and the Churches, Philosophical and Non-Confessional Organisations of Ireland”. It is a sign of our maturity as a society that this process has now been initiated between the Government and faith communities.

In his address the Taoiseach specifically focused on the different interpretations that commentators may have on the role of religion in society, and importantly on its value to our people. Mr Ahern said, “There are some who feel that the modern era is one with a shrinking role for religion, religious belief and religious identity … There is a form of aggressive secularism which would have the State and State institutions ignore the importance of this religious dimension. They argue that the State and public policy should become intolerant of religious belief and preference, and confine it, at best, to the purely private and personal, without rights or a role within the public domain. Such illiberal voices would diminish our democracy. They would deny a crucial dimension of the dignity of every person and their rights to live out their spiritual code within a framework of lawful practice, which is respectful of the dignity and rights of all citizens.”

The Taoiseach remarks are reflected in the Irish Constitution, the 1998 Education Act and European law which give parents the right to have their children educated in schools of their choice and in accordance with their faith convictions.

The Catholic Church urges the provision of schools under diverse patronage so as to allow parents to exercise a choice in schooling. The removal of faith teaching from the schools would, therefore, deny parents of Catholic children, and also parents of children of other faith traditions, their guaranteed right to educate their children according to their religious convictions.

The inclusive philosophy of Catholic education means that Catholic schools are managed by Catholics but not exclusively for Catholics. There is no doubting the challenges faced by schools where there are children from diverse cultures and faith traditions. Some schools are seriously stretched in their efforts to cope with an ever changing and developing situation. The increasing numbers of non-Catholics in primary schools represents serious demands on the staff of such schools.

Nonetheless for various reasons non-Catholic parents choose to send their children to Catholic schools. In these circumstances the Catholic school is open and welcoming in accordance with its ethos and provides an education that is respectful of diversity while remaining faithful to the Catholic vision and mission of the school.

Withdrawing children from religious instruction may cause problems for the school and for the parents and as suggested in last week’s article: “It’s not good enough that non-Catholic children are effectively forced to stay in class while other pupils learn about the Catholic sacraments.” Where numbers allow it may be possible to provide supervision for pupils in another location or teaching in their own religion or in the English language. It is necessary that the Department of Education and Science recognise the resources implications for schools in responding to this new situation

Preparation for the reception of the sacraments is part of the formation of children in Catholic faith. It is crucial that the home, the school and the parish work in partnership in preparing children for the sacraments. Teachers have done sterling work in this area. They cannot continue without the support of the family and the Catholic community. The development of the programme “Do this in Memory” is a significant step in ensuring that the home, school and parish are fully involved in preparing young people for the reception of the sacraments.

Perhaps the last word on this important issue – at least for today! – should be left with the Archbishop of Armagh, Archbishop Seán Brady. This week Archbishop Brady launched “Catholic Education Week 2007” in the North, and it aims to engage the entire Catholic education community, namely the family, the school and the parish in celebrating and supporting this vision of the Catholic school. However, while identifying what was worthy of debate, namely attaining the best education system for our children, Archbishop Brady also suggested that ‘side show’ issues should be seen for what they really are. Archbishop Brady said, “It is time to end the facile argument that Church-based schools are divisive. Commitment to tolerance, justice and the common good is at the very heart of the Catholic vision of education.”

Bishop Leo O’Reilly is Bishop of Kilmore and chair of the Catholic Bishops’ Commission for Education