Parents must stand up for religious education, writes Rik Van Nieuwenhove
The proposals of the Forum on Patronage and Pluralism, set up by the Minister for Education, if implemented, will have a devastating effect on the Catholic identity of primary schools throughout Ireland.
An advisory group, headed by Professor Coolahan, is preparing a report for the Minister for Education.
In order to establish ”more diversity and pluralism” in Irish society, 258 schools will, in a first phase, lose their Catholic patronage. It is envisaged that in later phases many more schools will follow.
The advisory group hopes to achieve this with ”as little trauma for (current) children as possible”.
As we know, the Minister of Education has stated that in future half of schools should be transferred from Catholic patronage.
This occurs, allegedly, for the sake of greater plurality — yet according to the census more than 3.9 million people in the Republic of Ireland call themselves Christian (Catholic/Church of Ireland).
Even if we are to agree with the divesting of some Catholic schools the really sinister development is the assault on the Catholic ethos of the remainder of schools which will not be officially divested.
In areas where there are not sufficient schools to divest (the ‘stand-alone school’), the forum and the Department of Education proposes the following:
(a) religious education is to be held at either the very beginning or at the end of the school day, and is obviously not obligatory: it is just an optional appendix to the school day;
(b) The ideal of the integrated curriculum should be abandoned [here Coolahan and his colleagues give away their key secularist presupposition, namely that they effectively consider religious views a private matter that have no bearing on the school as a whole];
(c) Catholic schools should devote three classes to non-denominational education about world religions and ethics, and ”the remainder” of religious classes will be allocated to faith formation.
While I agree that every Christian should know about other religions, it is clear that the classes on world religions and ethics will be conducted from a non-religious perspective, i.e., a secularist perspective, and that is not a neutral perspective, but a deeply anti-religious one;
(d) Sacramental preparation (including First Holy Communion) should ideally be moved out of Catholic schools altogether, and should certainly ”not encroach on the time allocated to the general curriculum”;
(e) the boards of management’s policy on display of religious artefacts should be ”inclusive of all belief systems in the school”. The forum also recommends the practice of ”celebrating festivals of different religious beliefs” in the schools, and wishes this to become ”established practice”.
Thus, while Coolahan rejects as ”sensationalist nonsense” the suggestion that crucifixes would have to be removed from classrooms he is effectively implying that we would have a picture of Shiva Nataraja (Hindu deity), Avolokiteshvara (a Buddhist deity), an Islamic prayer mat, and a star of David, beside the crucifix.
And of course, children will be asked to celebrate Id al-Fitr, the Feast of Tabernacles, Shakyamuni’s descent from Heaven, etc. Remember, we are talking here about schools that allegedly remain Catholic, not about the schools that will be transferred out of Catholic patronage.
Professor Coolahan claims he has no evidence that Catholic schools are, at present, inclusive.
In my view, Coolahan has not given proper thought to the nature of ”inclusivity”. He effectively operates with a secularist paradigm, which considers itself ”neutral”.
However, no worldview, be it religious or atheist, is ”neutral”. Coolahan and his colleagues appear, at first sight, to be inclusive by celebrating the differences of an allegedly more pluralist Ireland.
But this kind of celebration of difference makes all religions, in the end, a matter of indifference.
True inclusivity and pluralism is not standing for everything (and thus, ultimately: nothing).
Rather, true inclusivity is while being steeped into your own tradition, you engage in respectful dialogue with people of different traditions.
This obviously presupposes that you first have a good knowledge of your own tradition.
It is like learning a language: it is important to learn other languages, but you will never learn any languages unless you master your own mother tongue first.
What Coolahan proposes is, in educational and religious terms, a Babel confusion of tongues.
Through a mixture of Dept. of Education guide-lines and changes in the Education Act, it will be made very difficult for Catholic schools to emphasise Christianity in what is taught and in the visual displays throughout the school.
Given the fact that transmission of faith no longer occurs in families but mainly in schools, this is a programme for utter secularisation of Ireland.
Undoubtedly, Coolahan’s report will be enthusiastically welcomed by Minister Ruairi Quinn, given his own atheist leanings.
If you do not want your children or grandchildren to grow up in the spiritual desert of an atheist Ireland, you better make your views known to your local TD and representatives. Do it now!
Dr Rik Van Nieuwenhove is Lecturer in Theology at Mary Immaculate College, Limerick.