Faith in Irish schools

Archbishop Diarmuid Martin explains why he supports the divestment movement, and where he thinks the resistance to it is coming from.


Divestment. Patronage. Ethos. Faith formation. These are some of the words at the centre of what has become an increasingly heated debate in recent months about the divestment of religion from Irish schools – but start trying to explain what they mean, and you might quickly find yourself in a state of considerable bewilderment. And you won’t be alone.

Abstract role

These are words that Archbishop Diarmuid Martin struggled to define when I spoke to him last week about divestment and the role of faith in Irish society. Divestment is the process of removing Irish national schools from the patronage of the Catholic Church, but what does the patron of a school do? “It’s somewhat vague,” the Archbishop admits, adding wryly, “if you wanted to put it down in real terms, if something goes wrong in the school you’ll be sued. There is legal responsibility, and therefore some authority.” The more contentious part of patronage, however, is the responsibility of the patron for maintaining what Martin calls “This very strange word: ‘ethos.’ I find ethos a very hard word to grasp because it’s ethereal. What is a ‘Catholic ethos,’ for instance? In many cases, these words aren’t defined.”

Colm Keher, principal of the Loreto secondary school in Kilkenny, spoke to me about how this Catholic ethos translates to tangible school policy. “The ethos is very important to us,” he said. “Most lessons will begin with a prayer, Christian symbols are evident in the school and there are three school Masses in the year. We have a school oratory and promote the development of faith and the practice of the same. We also have a strong emphasis on social justice, promoting a care for those in need and for the environment.”

In this school, then, at least, the phrase Catholic ethos is translated into a wide range of activities and programmes, at least by aspiration. Yet, as the Archbishop pointed out, in some cases it might end up being nothing more than “a nice mission statement over the door of the school.”

It’s more than a curious quibble with jargon. The way these terms are interpreted has real implications for attempts to change the system, such as divestment. Perhaps more importantly, the fact that we don’t instinctively know any more, what a Catholic ethos means, points, Archbishop Martin says, to significant changes in our society.

“A lot of this was formulated when Ireland was different. The vast majority of the population was regularly Mass-going and clearly religious. Nobody attempted to say what Catholic ethos was or wasn’t, it was presumed.”

It is obvious that something in this model needs to change, the Archbishop stressed to me. Mass attendance among Catholics now stands at around 45% according to the most favourable statistics, and as low as 14% in Dublin. And yet 95 out of 100 schools in Ireland are still run according to a “Catholic ethos,” whatever the particular school may take that to mean.

Reflecting society

In this context, transferring Catholic schools to other patrons certainly seems at a basic level, a sensible idea, in the face of growing demand for non-Catholic school places, recorded particularly by organisations such as Educate Together. And yet when it comes to the practicalities of changing a school, few people seem willing to actually undertake the task. Certainly the process is not happening as quickly as Archbishop Martin would wish. “The big problem that I find,” he says resignedly, “is that if you talk about divestment everybody would agree, but if you talk about divesting your school, nobody will agree!” He believes that the problem is “fundamentally a resistance to change.”

However, it may be more complicated than this, as Keher testifies. In some cases where a school is at the heart of a community, its identity as Catholic defines a kind of spirit of the school, and this can have more importance than people who urge the practical advantages of divestment will admit. Confronted with the idea of the Loreto becoming non-denominational, Keher shifts from using the word “ethos” to the stronger “identity”: “If this school were to lose its Catholic identity it would no longer be ‘Loreto’. I have no sense from our parent or student body that there is a demand to change the ethos of the school. I cannot see it happening for at least 30 years, if ever.”

The Archbishop, however, argues that clinging so strongly to institutions of faith may, paradoxically, weaken the religion they represent. He draws parallels between Irish society at the moment and the community of Quebec, which at one time was “extremely Catholic. Perhaps even more so than Ireland. What began to happen there,” he explained to me, “is that the structures no longer represented the reality, and people drifted away from faith. Yet people still continued to think and act as though the world that built these structures existed, until something happened, and they collapsed.”

Are we are at the stage where the Catholic-run structures underpinning our lives are no longer representing our reality? Indeed, Catholic teaching, the Archbishop suggested to me, is becoming in many ways a kind of ceremony without substance. “In primary school every child in the class makes their communion and their confirmation, with very few exceptions. Confirmation is becoming like a school party, where everyone participates and feels left out if they don’t. I had a letter from the HSE asking me why a Muslim child wasn’t allowed to do her confirmation.”

Reclaiming and reinforcing

For him, divestment is about reclaiming the Catholic spirit and reinforcing it, where it still exists. “I’m not interested in being patron of an alleged Catholic school, just to be patron. I am interested, if there are parents who want to send their children to a school with a clear Catholic ethos, that they should get that.”

Colm Keher believes there is still plenty of room for such schools: “I do think there is currently a strong demand for Catholic education and would like the State to reflect this demand.” Based on his experience as principal, he believes that there is a “significant minority” of parents who send their children to his schools because they are “practicing Catholics who actively want a Catholic school for their daughters,” and a further category  (“possibly a majority of our cohort”) who are “non practicing or occasionally practising Catholics and are happy that their daughters are receiving some knowledge of the Catholic faith.”

For such people it seems a favourable outcome that Catholic schools might become more intensely Catholic as a result of divestment. It has been pointed out, however, that this idea presents problems of its own. Labour TD Joanna Tuffy, quoted in The Irish Times last February, expressed concerns that the divestment process would lead only to more segregation, with only more well-off Irish parents exercising the greater parental choice that divestment would provide, and schools becoming less inclusive than they currently are. Archbishop Martin admits that this is a difficulty: “There is a challenge there. You would have to find ways of having inter-school connectivity – a different model.”

He worries too about the tendency, when Catholic schools are in a minority, for them to become regarded as “elite schools,” in his words. “One of the big difficulties in Britain and in the United States is that the Catholic schools do develop a reputation for being ‘good schools’ and so there’s a huge pressure for people to go to them.” This concern is born out by Colm Keher, who emphasised that “Loreto is a very good school with a very good reputation. It is probably safe to say that none of the parents would choose Loreto if it were not a ‘good’ school.”

Secular model?

Tuffy is one person advocating a “move to a state multi-denominational model bringing all stakeholders on board,” as a more long-term alternative to divestment. Both Archbishop Archbishop Martin and Colm Keher disagree with this view, warning against approaches to teaching becoming too secular.

“Are we maintaining a vision of a Catholic Ireland which no longer exists?” queries the Archbishop. “I think we are. But is Ireland becoming radically secularised – I don’t think so. We’ve got a mixed society. What’s the opposite of faith education in schools? Is it that faith becomes totally marginalised, perhaps for people for whom faith is very important? There’s no such thing as neutrality in this debate. You can’t impose faith on anybody, but that doesn’t mean that faith isn’t present in public life.”

Keher was keen to stress the importance of taking into account faith and spirituality as a fundamental part of education; inherent, he said, in its very meaning. “I don’t believe that education is merely about creating engines for industry or economic units, but has a much deeper goal which is to enable people to live fulfilled and meaningful lives. For many, faith and spiritual development are an important part of this and fundamental to the concept of education.”

While maintaining the need for the continued role of faith in society, both men are insistent that an inclusive approach is best, where, in Martin’s words, “believers and non-believers can live together in a civic space and respect the contribution that each brings.” This kind of space can flourish, Keher believes, even within a school with a strong Catholic ethos such as Loreto.

“Our RE programme is designed to be inclusive and promotes an understanding of all faiths and none,” he claims. He adds: “it is important to differentiate between Religious Education and indoctrination – which I don’t think has existed in schools for at least two generations.”

Broader questions

One question that people seem unwilling to address is the difficulty of having a society where faith is very important, yet where at the same time every approach to faith is genuinely welcomed. If we say that we are fine with everyone around us believing different things, we can no longer claim that our faith is our way into heaven. No more can we say that in a community defined by its pluralism and no longer by the faith it collectively professes, our religion is about being part of a collective religious body, whether Christian or otherwise. What, then, is faith for?

This question will become increasingly hard to ignore, as the movement towards divesting schools gathers momentum, with Minister Jan O’Sullivan last week announcing that 13 new primary and secondary schools would open in 2017 and 2018 as part of the programme, and communities in 19 areas being earmarked for Educate Together schools. At the same time, there are plans to change the religious curriculum, with less emphasis on what is called “faith formation” and more on the ability to “think critically about religion,” as one recent report led by sociologists from Trinity College recommended.

These developments do appear to acknowledge that children now are “asking questions which we only began to think about when we were 21,” as the Archbishop comments. Yet one cohort of people who have been remarkably underrepresented in the commentary around religion in schools and the issue of divestment are the students who will be arguably affected most by any changes. Asked whether he believes students care about how their school approaches religion, Mr Keher acknowledged that while he had a good idea about how parents felt about the school and its religious ethos, when it came to students, “I am not so sure. We tend to generalisee so it is very important that we do not make assumptions. I do know that many young people do want to develop their faith which is important to them.”
It has been clear from the nature of the debate around this issue that this is about more than who gets sued when things go wrong in schools. As changes in education are continually rolled out, politicians and communities will be forced to address the wider implications of these changes, the unheard voices of those whose needs they are attempting to meet, and whether these structures truly reflect who we are as a society.

Illustration by Louise Weitbrecht.