‘Our schools need the freedom to be truly Catholic’

‘Our schools need the freedom to be truly Catholic’
Education Conference
A key address at last week’s The Irish Catholic Education Conference held in Dublin


Much of the debate in relation to faith in our schools has resembled a cry for the return of Cromwell and the policy of the dissolution of the monasteries, says Bishop Tom Deenihan


The purpose of a Catholic school is to prepare its students for this world and the next. A Catholic school, like any other, must prepare its students for this world. It does that by providing an education but also through socialisation, resilience, recreation and the various other pursuits that happen in any school. I think that our Catholic schools have done a good job there.

A Catholic school must also recognise that we are not born for this world only but that when this world passes, we have an eternal life with Christ. A Catholic school must also prepare its students for eternal life. It does that through faith formation and instruction, faith celebration and through an ethos or a world view that it not centred on the here and now, on self or on material success.

Not everyone agrees with this vision of what a Catholic school must be and, in that context, given the lack of a ‘shared vision’ and a multiplicity of other expectations, it becomes more difficult for the Catholic school to be the Catholic school.

The issue of Catholic education and schooling has occupied many column inches of our newspapers for some time now, has been the subject of television debates and a significant amount of activity on social media. Some politicians say that it is not such an important topic on doorsteps but, I suspect, that may well depend on where you live and whether or not your local Catholic school is oversubscribed.

The reality is that there are those who would say that faith has no place in what is, essentially, a secular education system. Equally, there are those who would say that these schools are not State schools and both the schools and the parents who send their children to them have rights too.

In fact, one would have to say that the debate has focused not so much on faith but on Catholic schools and their enrolment policies, policies that only come into being when they are oversubscribed. The fact that some Catholic schools are over-subscribed has been a major ingredient in this debate.


Some feel that Catholic schools should not exist and others feel that they should be open to all and not be able to give priority to Catholics.

I believe that a Catholic school has a twin duty to prepare its students as best it can for this world and the next. I remember at a Conference in America two years ago when I took issue with a lecturer who said that the purpose of the Catholic school was to prepare its students for university and for Heaven!

The reality is that not all students can, wish to or can afford to go to university. Catholic schools value those students too and I want to acknowledge the tremendous contribution that our Catholic schools and the teachers who work in them make in terms of inclusion, be it religion, nationality, economic background, ethnicity, or ability. The Catholic school must value all students equally. Various reports, including one by the ESRI some years ago, indicated that Catholic schools were the most inclusive. That is important because an opposing viewpoint could be arrived at from much public debate.


A viewpoint could also be arrived at that would give the impression that our Catholic schools are dark and grim places of indoctrination. That is also false. I wonder how many of our commentators have visited a Catholic school.

They are bright, happy and warm places, served by teachers who are committed and supportive. In some areas, the Catholic school and the teachers who work in them have breakfast clubs and are committed not just to the educational and spiritual needs of their students but also to their health and wellbeing and nutritional needs also. Let us give thanks where it is due. How many of these teachers and schools are recognised, much less acknowledged, in the public debate on Catholic schools?

The Catholic school also has a duty to prepare its students for the life to come. Prof. John Haldane once commented that the Catholic school is a place where Jesus is made known and loved. I am conscious that the heavy expectations on Catholic schools can make that duty difficult.

Anyone who knows anything about Catholic education in Ireland, its historical origins, the cultural context in which it operates, the political context in which it is situated and, dare I say it, the sometimes contradictory views that Irish Catholics have towards Catholicism, differentiating between institutionalism and the local context, would appreciate that defining or predicting Catholic education in Ireland is almost impossible.

Diverse population

You will note that I have not mentioned a diverse population, a growth in the numbers who declare in census figures as being ‘atheist’ and a form of secularism that sometimes seems to want to divest itself of any historical, cultural or social connection to religion, faith and, certainly, Catholicism. Indeed, much of the debate in relation to faith in our schools, much less, the issue of faith schools, has resembled a cry for the return of Cromwell and the policy of the dissolution of the monasteries!

In that regard, one would also have to say that the incidences of clerical and religious abuse within the Church in Ireland has damaged faith and wrecked confidence in Church entities.

It is also responsible for a reticence amongst some clergy in supporting Catholic schools and faith in Catholic schools at a parochial level. In that regard, a declining number of clergy has resulted in a diminished involvement in the local parish school, be it in terms of management or in terms of supporting sacramental preparation. That is a problem. Parish must support our schools.

One would have to say too that a growing polarisation within the Church, as mentioned recently by Diarmuid Martin, the Archbishop of Dublin, and noticed by all of us, is also an issue. I would have received much communication in recent months regarding the Relationships and Sexual Education (RSE) curriculum which many Catholic parents feel has no place in a Catholic school. I also receive much other communication in relation to schools. Most is from outside my diocese and some is from outside the country. While I agree with the sentiments, many of the communications were hostile, bordering on the aggressive.

Polarisation is becoming an issue. There are those who are vehemently against Church involvement in education and any form of religious education or, in their words, indoctrination. On the other hand, most bishops, as patrons of Catholic primary schools, are also coming under pressure from a body of parents who believe that our schools are not Catholic enough, in terms of curriculum, enrolment, recruitment and the religious education syllabus. Many of these latter parents, have now opted for ‘home schooling’, withdrawing their children from schools and opting to teach their own children with some State support. It would be most interesting to obtain statistics in relation to home schooling and the growth or otherwise of this option, much less the additional cost to the State. I know that many good parents in my own diocese have opted for home schooling despite the risks in relation to a pupil’s socialisation and extra-curricular education.

It could be argued that the fact that bishops, as patrons, are being criticised by both sides is testimony of the polarisation that has and is taking place in relation to Catholic schools. Much of that polarisation, as always, is played out on social media.

More than 90% of primary schools in Ireland are Catholic. That essentially means that the local parish or diocese owns the land that the school is built on and that the local bishop is patron of the school. In more recent times, some of the newer schools are built on State land and the selected patron is given a lease, usually for 40 years, on the land. However, the vast majority of Catholic schools are built on land owned by the local diocese or parish, which is, of course, a charity. That is worth noting.

The children attending our schools must be taught relationships and sexual education”

In some cases, historically, the local parish made a small contribution to the building cost, but, essentially, unlike the American model, the State built the school, pays the teacher’s salaries, pays the running costs of the school through the capitation grant and sets the curriculum through the National Council for Curriculum and Assessment (NCCA).

This curriculum applies to areas such as the aforementioned RSE curriculum that can impinge on ethos and Church teaching, despite Catholic patronage.

Let me also reiterate a point already well made by the Archbishop of Armagh Eamon Martin. The children attending our schools must be taught relationships and sexual education. In the world that we are living in, anything else would be to put our pupils at risk on so many fronts. However, the wishes of their parents and the ethos of the school must be taken into consideration also.

It is more important today than ever before that our pupils are taught about respectful, values-based relationship education and about what to do when that does not happen. In many ways, the court pages of our newspapers bears testimony to that argument.

In recent times, the Minister for Education and Skills has also introduced legislation governing admission policies in Catholic schools – this legislation makes it impossible for a Catholic school to discriminate in favour of a Catholic when there are more applicants than places available.

A Catholic school would have to enrol children of a non-Catholic background, who do not wish for a Catholic religious education and refuse Catholic children from the parish who would wish to participate in religious education.

That policy produces the strange situation that our Catholic schools are providing religious education to pupils who do not want religious education and subsequently withdraw from it while children who do want a religious and sacramental education are obliged to go to schools who do not offer a religious education and are obliged to attend such classes after school or at weekends. I think it could be called an Irish solution to an Irish problem!

Of course, this piece of legislation was introduced not to curtail religious education but to address school enrolment. The more astute will realise that the legislation did not produce any additional school spaces so children will still not be able to enrol at their school of choice. In reality, Catholic schools are popular and, in places, are over-subscribed, even where there is a plurality of school patronages. Little reference has been made to the reasons for that in public debate.

Undoubtedly, this piece of legislation has the potential to impinge on faith in our schools. A Catholic school cannot give priority to a child who may wish for a Catholic and Sacramental education and may have to give a place instead to a child whose parents might wish him to have a secular education.

This is hard to understand and many voices have been saying that this legislation, which applies only to Catholic schools and not to schools of other denominations, is eminently judicially reviewable.


The key issue at this time is really quite simple. How does the Government cater for what has become a diverse society when over 90% of the country’s primary schools are Catholic?

In terms of political debate, this key issue is one that has moved to the issue of ‘divesting’, a process initiated by a former minister that seeks to have the Church divest itself of its interest in many of its Catholic schools so as to provide a plurality of school patronage types when and where there is demand for same.

While this process may seem reasonable, it is also true that it has caused much debate locally where local communities have defended their Catholic school when it was feared that it would transfer to another patronage.

Many politicians who publicly supported divesting on a general or national level also campaigned against the divesting of their local school!

Patrons who were willing to engage in divesting have had their efforts thwarted locally. Indeed, many parents, while supporting divesting, would not necessarily avail of the option itself. All this makes planning somewhat difficult for both Church and State.

This issue of divesting and the question of enrolment policies arises from a lack of choice but also because of an over subscription in relation to some Catholic primary schools, particularly those that are seen as feeder schools to the sought after Catholic post-primary schools. This, actually, is a key issue.

In that context, it is also worth noting that non-Catholic parents often wish to send their children to Catholic schools for reasons other than faith formation. In fact, such parents, while wishing to send their children to a Catholic school even when options are available, may still object to religious education for their child within the school.


When it comes to keeping faith in our schools, divesting, surprising as it may seem, may actually be the best answer. Our schools have been lumbering under the burden of providing for the educational needs of all of society and, in so doing, run the risk of conforming to the maxim of becoming a jack of all trades and a master of none.

How can a school provide for those who want a Catholic ethos and those who do not want it, for those who want a religious education and those who do not, for those who want a sacramental education and those who do not?

There is, I believe, a clear need for a plurality of schools in terms of patronage and ethos. That means that there is a need for divesting where there are many Catholic schools, no schools of other patronages and a demand for same.

The growing number who profess no faith and those that profess a faith other than Catholic should not be compelled to attend Catholic schools. Equally, it can be argued that Catholic schools would have their job made easier if those who did not wish to attend a Catholic school could go elsewhere and the Catholic school could be Catholic with a shared vision with teachers, school and parents.

One could ask who has the responsibility of providing a range of schools with different patronages and, in areas where new schools have been established based on need, the patronage has been awarded to other entities such as Educate Together and the Education and Training Boards with their community national school model. However, this is not entirely satisfactory either as, within my own diocese, many who wish to attend the Catholic school in some parishes are obliged to attend the non-Catholic schools due to space constraints and sacramental preparation does not take place in such schools.

There are also many areas where there is no demand for extra school’s spaces and what of diversity there? This is particularly true of the stand-alone rural school which is a significant percentage of our primary schools.

In terms of recruitment, legislation prohibits a school from hiring or questioning on the basis of religion”

Faith formation and sacramental preparation is an issue as historically our parishes relied and over relied on the Catholic school and many parishes do not have the structures or resources to operate catechetics or sacramental preparation in a parish context.

That is something that will have to be addressed urgently. I have some experience of the parish catechetical programme and where it is supported actively by the parish clergy and by qualified and committed teachers, it is working exceedingly well.

Indeed, if there were the resources, the trained teachers at parish level and the structures to support it, it would, I think, be more effective. The danger of such an approach would be what would happen the Catholic schools then.

Any patron will tell you that the annual confirmation visit to parishes can give a good picture of the effectiveness of a Catholic school. This year, I conducted almost 60 confirmation ceremonies in the Diocese of Meath. The confirmation teachers have been energetic and positive, there have been little variations, but the children were well prepared and the ceremonies have, essentially, been dignified and joyful. We are well served by those teachers. I enjoyed many meals during that period and enjoyed good conversation with teachers whom any parent, Catholic or otherwise, would be delighted to entrust their child to.

However, anecdotally, many principals have difficulty in assigning teachers to the classes where First Communion, confession and confirmation are prepared for. Many teachers do not subscribe to Church teaching and many are broadly spiritual rather than specifically religious. That is a difficulty. It is, I think, a difficulty that will become greater.


Perhaps all this ‘context’ might allow me to address what I see as the biggest threat to faith in our schools. In the absence of movement from Church in relation to divesting, there has, I believe, been a movement towards policy and legislation that makes Catholic patronage, or any other patronage, irrelevant in relation to primary schools.

The curriculum is established by the National Council for Curriculum and Assessment. There is much concern in relation to proposals regarding relationship and sexual education and the interface between the curriculum, Church teaching and a school’s ethos. More than a few parents are also concerned in this regard.

The NCCA has also made inroads in relation to the time allocated for religious education and the patron’s programme in the aftermath of a previous minister removing Rule 68 of the rules for national schools which stipulated a half hour for religious education each day.

Admissions or enrolment to oversubscribed Catholic schools is now legislated for and Catholics cannot be given priority.

In terms of recruitment, legislation prohibits a school from hiring or questioning on the basis of religion.

The patrons ceded the majority voice in relation to boards of management in 1998. The famous or infamous Deed of Variation, safeguarding the Catholic school was to be the quid pro quo but has never been signed. That episode has contributed to distrust between Catholic educationalists and department officials which, sadly, endures.


There is an element of a gradual and sustained negation of Catholic patronage in our schools.

Many of us in the recent past have come to the view that there needs to be some serious conversations between Church and State in regard to what makes our Catholic schools Catholic.

I believe that the State needs, from both a practical and political viewpoint, movement from the Church in relation to divesting.

However, the Church also needs reassurance from the State in relation to the remaining schools. If both departmental and Governmental legislation and policy were to continue at the current relentless rate, then our Catholic schools will be even less Catholic and would, in effect, cease to be Catholic.

There is merit in some form of concordat between Church and State in relation to what might go and what might remain. That was hinted at by Leo Varadkar, the Taoiseach, when he welcomed Pope Francis to Ireland in August 2018.

That process will not be easy, either at national or local level, but it must happen. A solution to the issues of divesting, plurality and parental choice will, of necessity, require political intervention and compromise.

The polarisation and social media frenzy that I mentioned earlier make that intervention and compromise more difficult and may well make politicians nervous of being seen engage with what might be seen as a ‘deal’ with the Catholic Church.

This is even more true in the current political climate where there is, effectively, a minority government, albeit with the support of the largest opposition party.

A coalition arrangement seems also to be the likely outcome of the next general election which will be announced within six months.

I was present at the meetings between Church and State on the topic of divesting in my current role and in my previous role as secretary to the council for education of the Irish Episcopal Conference with four ministers for Education and Skills now.

There has never been a real answer to the question as to what benefit the Church receives from divesting schools. Granted there has been a proposal for a modest rent for the premises which might go some way towards funding a parish catechist and after school religious education for the Catholic children who attend such divested schools.

There has been no discussion on facilitating the remaining post-divesting schools becoming de facto as well as de jure Catholic. You could say, if you were brave enough, to say we are looking for a backstop.

I think that all bishops, in their role as patrons of Catholic Primary schools, would welcome clarity on this issue.


We do need a joint approach between Church and State and one that would consolidate the role of the remaining schools in the parish.

I believe passionately in Catholic schools and Catholic education. In the current context, too much is expected of the Catholic school. Given its numerical dominance, the Catholic school is filling a gap in terms of providing for children who wish to attend schools of other patronages.

In that context, the Catholic school has fallen into the unfortunate position of being seen as too Catholic by some and not Catholic by others. That can damage the confidence of the Catholic school in doing what it should.

What is really needed is a process through which both the department and the Church would work together at local level to establish if there is, in fact, a desire for a sustainable school of another patronage in a particular area. If there is, there will need to be a joint approach by both the department and the existing patron in terms of a public consultation, the identification of a school to be divested and the arrangements for the teachers and pupils therein who may wish to continue in a Catholic school. It may be that a timespan will need to be identified.

However, there must be a quid pro quo. Local faith communities will, instinctively, rebel against a takeover. There is no point in divesting if the Catholic school is no different from the community national school or the Educate Together school.


So, in the context of divesting, what of the remaining schools? The remaining schools must be allowed to give priority to those who wish for a Catholic education. The teachers therein must be respectful of the schools ethos and promote that ethos within the school.

The remaining school’s ethos must be protected in terms of curriculum and the teaching of religious education and sacramental preparation.

Such schools would, of course, have an open enrolment policy but, in the event of oversubscription and where a school of another patronage existed nearby, could give priority to those who wish to avail of the religious education that the school offers.

Divesting, as painful as it may be, might be comparable to sacrificing the limb to save the body”

Such a proposal is, I believe, the best chance there is for divesting and safeguarding the Catholic school. I see both topics as being intrinsically linked and you cannot really have one without the other. It must also be borne in mind that Catholic schools are popular and, in many cases, are the victims of their own success.

Catholic schools can only prepare their students for this world and the next in the context of a shared vision between pupils, teachers and school. Without a choice of patronage, that is simply not possible.

Divesting, as painful as it may be, might be comparable to sacrificing the limb to save the body. At this stage, we need the minister, to reassure us that the painful operation of divesting will actually save what remains.

That is necessary for informed consent but radical intervention, brave decisions and new treatment is needed, otherwise, I fear, all will be lost.


Dr Tom Deenihan is Bishop of Meath. This is an abridges version of a talk he gave at The Irish Catholic national education conference in Dublin on October 24.