School patronage: The reality of society today is denied

The Communion season is in full swing. Happy seven-year-olds, as they always were, are swept up in a process they can hardly understand but embrace enthusiastically. 

Catholic churches are full of smiling families participating in a process that does not always reflect personal beliefs or practice. 

Many parents — like our beleaguered health service — practice a version of “moral reservation” so their child might not feel excluded from a communal rite of passage and the celebrations that follow. 

This, in a society so reliant on convenient fictions, seems understandable if not entirely admirable.

That Irish Catholicism seems so comfortable with this institutionalised pretence suggests that the ninth commandment — Thou shall not bear false witness — is another casualty of à la carte religious practice. 

The irony is deepened by the fact that some children receiving First Communion may have been baptised for no reason other than to secure a national school place. 

If this was purely a religious matter it would easy, and probably wise, just to look away but it is not.

It puts dishonesty, and the open, wilful practice of dishonesty, centre stage in the formation of many young Irish citizens. 

If you imagine that unimportant consider even for a moment the cervical smear test scandal; the loss of credibility undermining our gardaí; our manmade housing crisis; the banking collapse and even the unsustainable Food Harvest 2025. 

Consider the low regard in which we hold our politicians and the dangerous consequences of that failing trust. 

It is hard to imagine that these implosions would be such a toxic threat in a society where public honesty — civic morality — was routine.

As ever, one lie leads to another; small harmless ones eventually become larger corruptions.

It may be a stretch to describe our system of school patronage as a lie but it is certainly dishonest. 

Minister Richard Bruton

Department of Education figures show that 96% of primary schools are under religious patronage the majority of which are under Catholic patronage. 

This near absolutism contrasts sharply with recent figures show that only 51% of marriages are conducted through religious ceremonies.

Census returns show that Ireland remains a predominantly Catholic county by declaration if maybe not in practice. 

The percentage who identified as Catholic has fallen from 84.2% in 2011 to 78.3% in 2016.

This change is reflected in the expectation that Pope Francis will attract a crowd of up to 600,000 people when he visits Phoenix Park on August 26 — fewer than half the number who went to see Pope John Paul II in 1979.

Efforts to reflect this shift in how our schools are managed have failed. 

Only 10 schools transferred to multi-denominational patronage since Ruairi Quinn began the process in 2012. 

Status quo stonewalling has worked. 

Efforts to improve that figure are ongoing and Education Minister Richard Bruton has reiterated the commitment to reach 400 multi-denominational or non-denominational schools by 2030.

This level of ambition may explain why the principle of moral reservation flourishs at all levels of this society. Could do, as the school report card might say, much better.

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