Catholic Church isn’t a force of evil when it comes to schools debate

Protestant children are not in danger of any ‘contamination’ from a Catholic school, writes Victoria White

Catholic Church isn’t a force of evil when it comes to schools debate

T’S CLEAR something has to be done about the use of baptismal certificates as tickets into over-subscribed schools. But I wish the debate weren’t framed as one between the forces for evil, namely the Catholic Church, and the forces for good, namely secularism and bizarrely, the Church of Ireland.

Minister Jan O’Sullivan stated this month that the Equal Status Act would be amended in the lifetime of the next Government to stop schools prioritising kids of their own faith except for “the small number of minority faith schools which serve dispersed populations”.

I don’t know which schools she is referring to but I will eat my hat — on live TV — if Protestant schools get to prioritise their kids and Catholic schools don’t. That would make the amendment nothing less than a targeted attack on the Catholic Church.

That would go down well with the media in which the fight for children’s rights is fought against the Catholic Church and two children in every classroom going hungry is a side issue. Nowhere is there even a nod to the fact that Catholic religious stepped into the breach and educated poor children when nobody else bothered. Much of our social mobility can be put down to the fact that organisations such as the Christian Brothers educated poor children to high academic standards for no personal gain.

And while parents should of course be able to opt their kids out of religion, I’m afraid I don’t believe a dose of Christianity ever killed anyone. Religion has been the source of some of the best moments in my children’s fairly colourless education in Catholic schools. I will never forget my autistic boy’s little arms raised above his head as he stood on the stage and sang, “Circle of friends, strong and true” at his First Communion. I will never forget my eldest’s flutey voice in the dark church at his Confirmation as he sang, “Dia i gconaí liom”. Most children have a sense of spirituality though they have different ways of expressing it. That’s why educational reformer Rudolph Steiner put spirituality centre-stage in his education system. The ethics behind Christianity are pretty much the same as the ones behind every major world religion and they are mostly good ones.

They are ethics which are mocked by the use of baptismal certificates for entry into over-subscribed schools. It’s not just that baptism is a singularly stupid way to discriminate between who should go to a particular school because it is not the choice of the child who is baptised and is easy to attain particularly if you don’t care about religion.

There’s also the fact that there is no such thing as Church of Ireland baptism or Catholic baptism. You are baptised as a Christian, not as a member of a club. This attempt on the part of the denominations to number-crunch shows their less-than-Christian side.

We had our kids baptised in different churches and saw signs of number-crunching in all of them. One Church of Ireland priest told me I’d need at least one Church of Ireland godparent — or Anglican, Episcoplian or Anglican Church of Canada, he added helpfully. I asked him did he have the number of the agency?

What has building the club got to do with the Gospel message?

You can see the club-building side of the churches more clearly in the Protestant schools because they serve a so-called minority faith and the baptismal certificate becomes a rarer and more necessary commodity. The campaign to amend the Equal Status Act to disallow discrimination on religious grounds has drawn criticism from some members of “minority faiths”. Ex-minister Martin Mansergh argued that it “could lead to the rapid takeover of most Protestant-run national schools”. So what is at stake here, the tribe or the faith? How can you call the Church of Ireland a “minority faith” when it is simply reformed Catholicism? What is there in Catholicism which is so harmful to Church of Ireland children?

I believe these are no more than tribal loyalties and we should dump them. This is underlined by the fact that the Protestant denominations throw their lot in with each other whenever the numbers get tight. Suddenly differences between Anglicans and non-Conformists which have drawn blood historically melt away against the common opponent of Catholicism.

Protestant children are not in danger of any “contamination” from a Catholic school. OK, when I was growing up a Church of Ireland child in the 1970s I would have felt out of place among the black-robed nuns who taught in the local Catholic school. The prejudice went both ways and I was only saved from developing it because of my parents’ liberal influence. It must be 40 years since a friend at school pointed at a girl wearing a cross and whispered, “She’s a Catholic” but I still feel the shock.

That’s all over, folks. Being a Protestant doesn’t constitute real difference in today’s multicultural Ireland. Back then, the benefit my parents saw in sending me to the Church of Ireland school was probably that I was with “my own kind”. The school kids never so much as stepped into the church which shared its grounds with the school. Mrs Fletcher read stories from her big Bible and that was the beginning and end of religion. Otherwise I got exactly the same hit and miss education as my Catholic peers, complete with Buntús Cainte and The Land of Saints and Scholars.

I agree that the Equal Status Act should be amended to disallow discrimination on the grounds of the child’s religion. I accept that this will lead to the attrition of some faith-based schools. Although it will not happen today or tomorrow, I support the divestment of religious-run schools because no matter how well some of them have served us, our society is changing. There are next to no priests or religious. There are fewer and fewer teachers able or willing to teach religion. The model is not sustainable.

I am open to the argument for the option of faith-based schools for secondary kids old enough to make their own decisions because they shouldn’t become the elite preserve of those who can pay fees. But I would like to see the Educational Training Boards (VECs) take responsibility for primary education.

In ETB community national schools, faith-formation is allowed during the school day but according to the different faiths — and none — represented. In last week’s poll 54% of parents preferred a Christian-run school and Muslims tend to be more determined still to maintain faith formation.

To rip faith formation out of the school day would be damaging to the fabric of this society as it is currently constituted.

Still more so because it would be to bow to the dogma that religion is a bad thing which harms children. And it would leave an ethical vacuum which would be filled by secularism as the one true faith.

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