‘The Role of the Churches in Education’ by Bishop Donal McKeown

26 Oct 2010

22 October 2010
  • ‘The Role of the Churches in Education’ by Bishop Donal McKeown

This is very propitious time for a serious conference on the topic – or perhaps, on the topics – which come under the role of the Churches in education, both North and South. So I greatly welcome the fact that we have been brought together under the broad and welcoming umbrella of the Irish Inter-Church meeting to look not merely at where we are today, but at where we see our role into the future.  After all, as someone said, the problem for churches in the future will not be religious difference but religious indifference. And that has major implications specifically for church communities and how they see their roles in education. We can never assume that a response to one situation in the past is necessarily the right one for the future. That means being able to key our eyes on the core objectives and not be excessively attached to particular models from the past.
The programme for today helpfully treats two topics, which are distinct though they cannot be easily separated. There is the broad role of the Churches in the provision of formal education, and then there is the much more specific one of the role played by religious education in Christian formation, both in school and outside it.  The former has to do with whether there is such a thing as a Christian or Catholic school in terms of it ethos, philosophy and ideals. The latter has to do with the specific topic of religious education, whether that be in an explicitly faith-based school or in what is an increasingly secular state-run school.

I propose beginning with some reflections – from a Catholic perspective – on what we see as the justification for, and the intended outcomes of Church involvement in school-based education.  I will then look at the specific situation in Northern Ireland and seek to look at the opportunities and challenges presented by the current and forthcoming developments.

A: Catholic Education – a global perspective

Catholic schools are not a peculiarly NI phenomenon, not is there much sign around the world that it is viewed as a dying relic of the past. There are about 200,000 Catholic schools worldwide with nearly 52 million students. They exist in all sorts of relationships with civic society – and the forms of Catholic schooling in Ireland are specific to these jurisdictions and history. But they exist because of a particular vision of how church and state should interact. So what is that perspective that motivates such energy?

All education is focussed, not merely on passing on useful information, nor just on training people for employment but on the formation of the whole person. Parents want to help their children grow, not just prepare them for work. The most important task that any of us will do is to be a human person as a social being. The Catholic Church has long established ….her own schools, because she considers them as a privileged means of promoting the formation of the whole person, since the school is acentre in which a specific concept of the world, of the human person, and of history is developed and conveyed.”

Our faith-based education is thus not just a way to hand on Christian teaching about God. It explicitly involves “….the formation of the whole person, so that all may attain their eternal destiny and at the same time promote the common good of society.”

Now I appreciate that there are other Christian perspectives on how the Church should interact with the state. There are those who believe that faith communities can better preserve their integrity by keeping faith formation internal to themselves. There are those who believe that they should not even vote in elections. However, the Catholic worldview tends to emphasise the development of “…a true humanism, which acknowledges that we are made in the image of God, and wants to help us live in a way consonant with that dignity.”

Elsewhere, a number of recent Popes have referred to the creation of the ‘civilisation of love’. Catholic education has always seen itself as being in the service, not primarily of itself but of integral human development and the common good. Thus Catholic education might be said to aim as communicating, not so much dogma as what one principal described ‘a lens through which to view the world’. That means engaging in the public forum with the other ideologies that would seek to offer an interpretative key to life.

So Catholic schools, wherever they exist, would claim to be offering Catholic education and not just an educational separateness for ethnic Catholics. They are encouraged to do that by being “not only a place where one is given a choice of intellectual values, but a place where one has presented an array of values which are actively lived”

The focus is therefore on creating communities of people where the Gospel view of the world can be communicated to the head and the heart. Pope John Paul II was consistently very clear about this integrated vision for a Christianity that penetrates to the heart of our society. That has been made abundantly clear in his 2003 document  Ecclesia in Europa (EiE) He was committed to the Church being actively involved in creating a Europe that is not just a market that knows about prices, but a community that has values, one that is aware of its past and that has retained a commitment to beauty and to truth. The role of education in the creation of this new European humanism is vital. Christianity has to be incarnated in various ways in different cultures, imbuing each with a Gospel perspective, taking the best from each and enriching it with the vision of the Creator. Thus a 1988 document from the Vatican is clear that “One of the characteristics of a Catholic school is that it interpret and give order to human culture in the light of faith.”

In an educational world, which increasingly focuses on discreet subjects and accumulated qualifications, the school aims at this integrated perspective on learning and tries to overcome some of the problems of a fragmented and insufficient curriculum.

2. Northern Ireland

The future of faith-based schools in NI was raised by last weekend’s speech by First Minister Peter Robinson. It certainly caused some lively reaction. From my perspective, much of his commentary on the future of church schools was based, not on a neutral assumption but on two specific premises. Firstly he comes with his own theological understanding of church-state relationships. And secondly he seems to be assuming that Catholic education was a NI invention, based mainly on an outmoded desire to separate ethnic Catholics from the state system and educate them in an environment where they can also teach Catholic RE.  However, the starting point for those of us who have been involved with Catholic education over the decades is that faith-based schools are based on a distinct philosophy of education – and one which is consistently both very successful and very popular across the world. So the question is whether there is room for Catholic education in the new NI, and not whether we move to remove educational apartheid for Catholics.  

Now I certainly appreciate that Catholic schools in NI were not just like Catholic schools in many other jurisdictions. They were part of the very divided society in which we live and lived. But in seeking to create a more cohesive society, there are two things which might usefully be remembered.

1.    The ideal for all citizens – and especially for Christians – has to be that we create a society at peace with itself, where harmony reigns within. Indeed, in NI people of faith have been in the forefront of the moves that led to a cessation of shootings and bombings. Furthermore, many church people were holding the middle ground while many in the current political leadership hurled abuse and worse at each other. However, experience across 21st century Europe suggests that all states have struggled to find ways of living with difference, especially as societies cease to be mono-cultural. Both integration under the national banner and multiculturalism seems to have run into serious difficulties. Thus, most countries have now come to realise that the efforts to live with difference are not just a passing phase, requiring temporary exceptional measures, but part of being a modern pluralist society. I would suggest that, while we all recognise the violent divisions from which NI has suffered – and work to overcome the huge gaps, both sectarian and social, that have scarred many places – some people seem to be working from a questionable understanding of society if they imagine that getting all young people into state schools within a decade or two will make NI a haven of tranquillity and harmony. All 21st century multi-cultural societies have to live with differences and with the tendency of vested interest to accentuate those differences, often for electoral purposes. The question is not ‘how do we homogenise’ bur rather, ‘how do we prepare people to live with difference and celebrate rather than fear it?’

2.      While Catholic education will continue to claim to have a right to exist in the public forum, we have to be acutely aware of the need to serve the common good in our divided society. That means ensuring that we actually don’t play the part of the divisive, separatist defenders of vested interests that some see us as being, but actually work to heal our hurting society. We may very well note that we are taxpayers like everybody else and thus claim to have rights which are guaranteed under the various international and UN conventions. However, all rights have associated responsibilities.

It was for that reason that Catholic Trustees published a number of documents over the last decade. In 2001, the Northern Bishops brought our two publications which were the fruit of input from many stakeholders, namely:

·         Proclaiming the Mission. A new philosophy for Catholic education.

·         Building Peace, Shaping the Future.

The former sought to identify the core philosophy, which give Catholic education its sense of direction. Unless it offers a product that is distinctly different from state education, then it is merely separatist and has no right to public subvention. The latter document tried to clarify that Catholic schools welcomed people from all faith backgrounds and none. Thus, Professor Sir George Bain recognised in his 2006 report that all school sectors – and not just those with the word ‘integrated’ in their name – were committed to being places where people could mix across cultural and denominational divides.

For that reason, we welcome the commitment of many political parties to promote children from different backgrounds learning together. We just point out that – as in other jurisdictions – Catholic schools are also capable of providing that integration and should not be portrayed as barriers to building a more integrated society.

Indeed, I would take the risk of going further. When you talk to people involved in community work across the world, it is clear that the real and increasingly dangerous divide is not within Christianity, not between Muslims and western society – but between the haves and the have-nots. There is no great merit in boasting about the integration of children from reasonably advantaged backgrounds if the educational structures contribute to exacerbating social divides. I appreciate that opinions in the North on the subject of academic selection at the age of 11 may be more coloured by theological assumptions than we have recognised or care to admit. But the Catholic trustees are quite clear that it is impossible to divide children into two clearly distinguishable categories at 10 on the basis of one or two tests. Thus we believe that one cannot base a 21st century public education system on false premise that you can measure intelligence with any degree of accuracy at the age of 10.  In practice it tends merely to distinguish between those who are better and less well prepared for the tests. And it also seems to advantage the already advantaged and discourage the already struggling. It is no surprise that in NI we have among the highest gaps in developed countries between high and low achievers. There is a danger that those who insist on the desirability of maintaining rigid selection at 11 in order to promote success for the minority of high-fliers will actually unwittingly undergird a form of social apartheid that does not augur well for the construction of a shared future across all the many divides in NI.

So where are the churches in education in NI? There are challenges for all the main churches which have played a role in schools.

A.    Catholic schools face a number of major hurdles into the near and medium future.

a.       There are not a few who have seen Catholic schools in NI as wonderful places for protecting Gaelic culture. Faith will play a range of roles for many, but for some if it came to the choice between faith and culture, the latter might be seen as more important. Some people have indicated that they would like to transform some Catholic schools into community schools, not always free from political influence. There is a huge job to be done if Catholic schools are to discover their specific identity. However, the creation of a Christian society will not be served by the promotion of merely social or cultural Christianity.

b.      The promotion of a more reconciled society in NI is a priority. It is not sufficient to say that we are open to people from all faith backgrounds and none – and merely trot out the comparatively few examples where that happens on any appreciable scale. However, we have also to encourage all schools in already clearly segregated areas to believe that they can make a contribution to developing citizens who can celebrate diversity and not feel threatened by it. The surprising thing is that some of those schools in highly segregated and underprivileged areas have done great work in raising expectations and self-confidence for many young people, sometimes without much support from selective schools in what would be classified as the same part of the community. But the creation of a more integrated and harmonious society will take a huge amount of work. Churches and political leadership have a major role to play in modelling new ways forward.

Catholic schools have to wrestle with the task of communicating a religious worldview in a world with increasingly secular assumptions. To use terms that Briege Gadd used recently, it is very hard to promote ‘a good life’ when everyone seems to be chasing ‘the good life’. Ideals and vision are easy to talk about at the top levels. It can be difficult to hand on that inspirational ideology so that it is realised on the ground. Furthermore, the first generations of lay principals have done wonderful work. But it must be remembered that many of that generation were pickled in a Catholic habitus. Unless we can find some way of inculcating that vision into the hearts of future generations of leaders, it will become increasingly unrealistic to expect schools to communicate that to children. Nemo dat quod non habet.

In the Republic, there is a wide agreement that parish communities should no longer have to create and manage most schools and that the state should increasingly provide and not just provide for educational facilities.  Similarly in NI, we are seeking to rationalise school provision, and we may well find that there is not the same demand for Catholic schools as there is at present. Being the owners of the schools that are attended by 44% of pupils is perhaps not tenable into the future. Catholic schools will continue to exist only where there is parental support. And I’d be among the first to point out that the most under-served community in NI education is those who want an essentially secular model of education as is available in most countries and growing in the Republic.

e.       A further danger for Catholic schools arises from its very size and comparative success. What was essentially seen as an outreach of faith communities always risks becoming too professionalised, too large, too proud and can risk losing its pastoral touch. I am not saying that this happened – but it remains a risk that what was a system co-ordinated mainly on a voluntary or poorly paid basis, could slowly become a profession rather than a vocation.

I know from my attendance at the monthly meetings of the Transferors Representative Council that there are at least as many hurdles to cross.

a.  The proposed Education and Skills Authority was opposed by many unionist politicians on the basis that its enactment would have entailed the loss of specific rights which had been guaranteed to the three largest Protestant denominations in the running of what is essentially the state sector of education. These schools had traditionally been seen as Protestant in character. It will not be easy to defend those rights into the future if government insists on increasingly treating those schools as secular establishments. It is not surprising that many of us in Catholic education have been told how wise we were to have kept our own schools – though I do suspect that there was at least an element of stubborness, or ‘thran-ness’ as we say in the North, in the decision not to hand over our schools to state control!

b.    The four main Christian churches were heavily involved in drawing up the Core Curriculum for RE in all grant-aided schools in NI. It is becoming more difficult for many schools to either deliver that core curriculum, or to supplement it in a way that responds to the growing cultural and religious diversity of its pupils. There are pressures to move away from religious education to religious studies. That has huge implications for how faith communities will seek to catechise their members on a parish and congregation level, recognising that schools can no longer be sub-contracted to be the primary educators of children in the ways of faith.  

So what might the future hold for the Churches in education, especially in the North?

1.      Coming from our particular theological assumptions, Catholic authorities will continue to insist on the right of the perhaps shrinking faith communities to have access to faith-based education. Experience in many other countries shows that that form of education remains very successful and popular. We will play our part in counteracting the dangers of being divisive – but will resist simplistic claims that faith-based education has no role to play nor right to claim its place in a 21st century pluralist society.

2.   Northern Ireland may offer the possibility of developing explicitly inter-church schools, as are found in parts of Great Britain. While the Transferors are not school owners – and thus not in a position to make the decisions that Catholic Trustees can – there is a great willingness to seek specific NI solutions to NI problems. A lot would depend on whether the civil authorities would wish to facilitate that sort of development. But I believe that there is great openness on the part of all of our larger churches not to retreat from education but to seek new ways in which a rounded education can be accessible to all young people who desire it.


Despite tragic and shameful stories of children being abused sexually, physically or psychologically in Church establishments across the world, Irish churches will continue to seek what new roles they might play in mainstream educational provision and in how they try to proclaim Christian faith – for as Pope John Paul II said in Ireland 31 years ago, “every new generation is a new continent to be conquered for Christ.” However, those roles will have to be sought with both humility and openness to what the Spirit is saying to the Churches. It is a ministry in the service of the Gospel and not of institutional power, in the service of the world and not of ourselves.

Our different church traditions will continue to approach this challenge, aware that we often come with often unacknowledged but very real diversity in theological perspectives on the relationships between church and state. However, it would be a real tragedy if the voice of faith allowed itself to be seen as an intruder in the public forum. It will in some circumstances have to play the part of the prophet, the voice crying in the wilderness. However, the scriptures show that this is not necessarily a bad place to be. If education is what remains after you have forgotten all that you were ever taught, then I remain excited by the prospect of finding new ways together so that faith in Christ will continue to change hearts and to purify reason. And it is an enthusiasm for which I do not apologise!


This address was delivered by Bishop Donal McKeown at the Irish Inter-Church Meeting entitled ‘The Churches and Ediucation – Context, Vision and Values’ in the Emmaus Centre, Swords, Co Dublin on 21 October 2010.  Bishop McKeown is Auxiliary Bishop of Down and Connor and Chair of the Northern Ireland Commission for Catholic Education.  NICCE represents the Trustees of all primary and secondary Catholic schools in Northern Ireland.

Further information:

Martin Long, Director of Communications, Catholic Communciations Office, Maynooth, 00 353 86 172 7678