The Brandsma Review

Pro Vita, pro Ecclesia Dei et pro Hibernia – A journal of conservative Catholic opinion from Ireland

Issue 118, January-February 2012


HAVE PUBLICLY-FUNDED, or even privately funded, Catholic schools no place in Ireland?1  Are they illegal? Are they a relic of the past that needs to be thrown out now? Are they unjustly discriminatory? Are they anti-educational? Are they unsafe for children? Many people have answered these questions, or some of them, and questions like them, with a resounding yes.

Take Aodhán Ó Riordáin, for example. He is a Labour TD and the vice-chair of the Oireachtas education committee, and, according to a recent report, he claimed that “religious ethos has no place in the educational system of a modern republic”.2  He criticised Catholic primary schools for giving preference to Catholic pupils over others where a school is oversubscribed, and thus, according to him, breaking the law of the land. (More recently he has questioned the public funding of chaplains in some second-level schools. Clearly he has an anti-Catholic agenda. I wonder how representative of the Labour Party, and the government more widely, is his attitude?) To claim that Catholic schools cannot give any priority to Catholic applicants to the school is to say that there should be no Catholic schools, that such schools have no place in Irish society.3

Such criticisms are unsound. Catholic schools need not apologise for their existence in Ireland. There are very good reasons why they have a right to exist, both those that are privately funded and those publicly funded too. Parents have a right to educate their own children; in fact they have a responsibility to do this precisely because they are parents. This is recognised by Irish law and international law.4 It is a principle of the natural law and it is also a principle of Catholic Social Doctrine.

Primary Educators

Parents are the primary educators of their children; the state is not. The state has a role to play, but it is a subsidiary role, supportive of parents, not a substitute for them (except in very exceptional cases of parental neglect or failure). Parents are entitled, therefore, to expect the state, operating on behalf of society, to fund and coordinate schooling that respects their role as parents, their children’s rights and needs, as well as the common good of all.5 In Ireland, with our large Catholic population, this has led naturally to a large number of Catholic schools, most of which are publicly funded.

It is agreed by the Church and others that, in light of the decreased demand for them, there are too many Catholic schools. And so there is a need to divest some of them of their Catholic patronage. How many schools this should involve and how it should be done are matters of some debate and difficulty. This is a situation to be acknowledged with sadness, not a situation to celebrate. There is far too much mindless talk these days of ‘celebrating diversity’, including religious diversity, as if it were a good thing in itself always (which it is not), and which ignores the negative side of some kinds of diversity.

It is a great pity and shame that so many people in Ireland do not want Catholic schools for their children, for various reasons, including no doubt the failure of the Church to effectively witness to the joy and truth of the Gospel consistently and universally. Those of us who think of Catholic schools as really good schools, in so many ways, want all people to freely choose to be Catholics and to send their children to Catholic schools.6 But this would have to be freely chosen, of course, and we have to recognise the sad reality that a number of parents now would like to freely choose non-Catholic schools. Recognising their natural rights as parents, Catholics should accept that such people should not be forced to send their children to Catholic schools. Ideally, parents should have a choice of the type of school for their children.  Furthermore, parents should be allowed to withdraw their children from Catholic religious education classes if these classes conflict with their own beliefs and values, and schools should accommodate this where possible.

But it is not always practically possible to make an adequate choice of school types available. Resources are limited, especially at the present time of recession. Would a system of entirely non-denominational schools solve the problem? Would a system of entirely multi-denominational schools do so?7   Surely not. In a pluralistic society, only a matching plurality of school types can hope to offer a fair and acceptable solution. A system of only one type of school would necessarily be exclusive. This means that in Ireland today, this “modern republic”, where there remains a substantial number of Catholic parents and pupils, a substantial number of schools should remain Catholic, and new Catholic schools should be built in areas where this is appropriate. It is not necessary or fair to expect in present circumstances that all schools should be Catholic; but it is not fair to expect or require Catholic schools to ‘dumb down’ their Catholicism, to turn themselves into vaguely ‘religious’ schools that are really agnostic, or to disappear totally.

Some people are against Catholic schools because they think they are not truly educational. They regard religion as a matter of ‘faith’ alone, and they see ‘faith’ as a matter of choice alone, with perhaps an emotional or intuitive aspect, but with no role for reason or knowledge as such. Religious education is seen as mere ‘indoctrination’ in this view.8   The term indoctrination was used positively in the past for catechesis, but is now used pejoratively, referring to a teaching process that bypasses or neglects or contradicts the critical facilities of pupils.

Faith vs Reason?

It should be acknowledged that genuine Catholic religious education (and a genuine Catholic ethos too) is one that fully respects pupils as people endowed with the God-given gift of reason. Catholicism views faith and reason as fully complementary and harmonious.9 There should be no fideistic or fundamentalist approach taken to religious education in Catholic schools. Catholic religion is not a matter of faith alone, but involves reason too. No Catholic teacher should be afraid to engage in discussion and debate in religion class (and other classes) as if this was in some way a threat to Catholic faith.  Catholic schools should aim at developing the intellectual abilities of their students, including in the area of faith.

Included in this is teaching about other faiths and worldviews. There is no reason why Catholic schools should teach only Catholicism and ignore other religions.  But clearly in a Catholic school the teaching about other faiths will be different than the teaching of the Catholic faith. The teaching of the Catholic faith will be done from within our religious tradition, from within belief and practice, not from a merely historical or cultural or psychological point of view (important though these are). The Catholic religion teacher teaches the Catholic religion as something that is true (focused on a relationship with Jesus as Lord, Saviour, and Friend). Of course, there are elements of other faiths and worldviews that overlap with Catholicism, and these should be highlighted, especially as we live in a society with people who do
not fully share our faith. Also, pupils should be taught a proper understanding of tolerance and respect for others’ freedom of religion and other legitimate rights. But it is important that Catholic schools should do this in a way that fully respects the Catholic faith, that teaches from within the faith. Catholics can be good citizens, tolerant people, caring neighbours, people who respect others who are different in their
beliefs and religious practices, because they are Catholics and not in spite of their being Catholics.10 We will not help to develop a more ‘inclusive’ Ireland if we exclude people’s religious beliefs and practices from the public sphere and relegate it to the private—especially if those beliefs and practices are of the majority religion of our society.

Home, Parish & School

Some Catholics seem to be thinking that it would be better if religious education, or at least catechesis, including especially preparation for the sacraments, should be done in the parish and not the school. But why should we have to choose only one or two of the three agents of evangelisation: home, parish, school? Why not include all three? Schools play a particularrole in developing the intellectual aspect of faith and
religious practice. So it would be a great loss if we were to move all catechesis to the parish and/or home. That said, perhaps we have put too much emphasis in the past on the school and this needs to be rebalanced: but let’s not go to the other extreme and treat religious education in schools as best done in a totally non-faith-based manner. To do this would be to feed the prejudice that religious faith is nonintellectual,
out-of-date and out-of-place in a scholarly and educational setting.

Lately we’ve heard criticisms of the amount of time spent on religious education in primary schools, as if this time were taken away from the ‘real’ teaching that could be done in English or Maths. We need to stand up for Catholic education here. There is no good reason to exclude religious education from a holistic education, one that follows the guidance of the Education Act and includes not only the intellectual, but also the spiritual and moral dimensions of the person. Religious education, and especially a catechetical approach to it in a faith-based school, contributes to the education of the child; it is not a privation of education in supposedly more ‘objective’ or ‘knowledge-based’ subjects.  English or Maths havetheir rightful place in schools and are given a lot of attention. But religion deserves its place in the curriculum too.

Religious faith can contribute to the common good. Even those who do not belong to a religion are often able to recognise that religious faith can motivate acts of kindness and generosity; it can lead us to value the environment we live in; it can help us to cope with difficulties, suffering, bereavement, failure.

Common Good

It is for many a great personal and social good. Of course, we know that not all aspects of religion are always good; there is a dark side sometimes. And we know that Catholic schools have never been perfect in the past. But we should not let that make us lose sight of the many good aspects of religion, Catholicism, and Catholic schools. Many people value their Catholic education, even those who have later weakened in their faith or even lost their faith.

Finally, it needs to be said that Catholic schools are usually very welcoming places. It is very rare that a Catholic school would turn away an applicant. If that were to happen, this would hardly be the fault of the school, which simply has no space left, but the fault of bad social planning that failed to provide sufficient schools. A Catholic school would favour a Catholic applicant over a non-Catholic one, only if there was simply no way to accept both applicants.11 But it stands to reason that, if Catholic schools are to exist in Ireland—and they have every right to do so—then they should be allowed to be Catholic, and that includes prioritising the service of the Catholic community, albeit in a way that is always welcoming to others who value the Catholic model of education, and is always in service of the common good of society too.

Dr John Murray lectures in moral theology at Mater Dei Institute of Education, Dublin and is the chairperson of the Board of Directors of the Iona Institute, Dublin.  He is the author of Issues of Justice and Peace (Veritas, 2005).

1. I’m focusing here on Catholic schools, as I am a Catholic, this is a Catholic publication, and the vast majority of schools in Ireland are Catholic; but much of what I’m saying is supportive of publically funded denominational schools in general, as their legitimacy too is based on parents’ rights to educate their children, and have them educated, in harmony with their own worldview, beliefs and values, within due limits.
2. See The Irish Catholic (19 Jan 2012), p. 1.
3. Ó Riordáin’s criticisms seem to apply not only to publically-funded Catholic schools, but to privately funded ones too. His approach would have all Catholic schools, and all denominational schools, banned as discriminatory.
4. For more on the legal aspects of this, see Iona Institute, Religion, education, and human rights, 2nd edition (2011), online at: [accessed 31 Jan 2012]. Also to be found on the Iona website is a paper by me that provides a more detailed and extended treatment of much of the argument presented
in this present article. See [accessed 31st Jan 2012].
5. Obviously, the state should not fund a faith-based school that, for example, taught its pupils to be violent or hateful or unpatriotic or deceptive, and so on. Religious freedom and parental rights are not absolutes; they are moderated by the moral law, by justice and
human rights.
6. Some Catholics criticise Catholic schools as not Catholic enough, but that is a topic for another day!
7. What exactly is meant by these terms is a matter of some confusion at the moment. We need proper definitions.
8. See, for example, the language used in Dialogue Ireland, ‘Some comments on the recent Irish Catholic article’ (23rd Jan 2012), online at [accessed 31 Jan 2012], part 1, quoting from the ‘Clontarf Report’.
9. See, for example, John Paul II, Fides et Ratio (1998), online at the website of the Holy See: [accessed 31st Jan 2012].
10. There is a difference in respecting other people and respecting their beliefs. One may respect the sincerity of people that one thinks are misguided or wrong, but one cannot really respect the content of their beliefs if one thinks that they are untrue or unwise or harmful. We need a more precise understanding of what is meant by respecting others.
11. This is assuming that the non-Catholic applicant is broadly in support of the ethos of the school, or at least is not opposed to it. It is the experience in Ireland, but also elsewhere, that Catholic schools are often highly valued by people who are not Catholic. It should also be
remembered that in some countries, the UK for example, a substantial number of faith-based schools are publicly funded; this is not exclusively an Irish phenomenon. There is no compelling reason why we in Ireland should have to follow the French or US model of schooling, where public funding of faith-based schools is prohibited.

Also in this issue:



Under New But Similar Management

On Pope Benedict’s Choice of New Cardinals


Dr John Murray

Charles J. Lowry

Iarfhlaith Manny

Professor James R. Lothian

David Manly

Rev Patrick Lombard

Straws for the Camel’s Back includes ‘Gaudium Magnum Indeed!’, ‘This Really Takes the Biscuit’, ‘Defect of Intention’, ‘Noxious Self-Regard’, ‘Confusing and Impertinent’, ‘That Word Goddam’, ‘Patrolling the Border’, ‘Eerie Orthodoxy’, ‘Knights and Feral Nuns’; plus a new column Hurling Shots from the Ditch, and another list from Francis Book Sales.


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