That idea, and the near absolute control of our education system, and the enthusiastic participation of the vast majority of citizens, meant that Ireland was something close to a Catholic caliphate.
That, as Pope Francis will discover if he visits Ireland in two years’ time, is no longer the case. This has become a much kinder, a much more inclusive, a far more diverse, and possibly a more loving and honest society. Just this weekend we marked the first anniversary of the marriage equality amendment and, even if that advance is balanced by the situation where many religiously à la carte — at best — parents see their child’s first Communion as a social event or a passport to a local school and, even if they are more worried about the catering than the commitment made, change is afoot.
President Michael D Higgins at the weekend, in another one of his welcome bellwether speeches, was critical of the slow pace of change. Speaking at the 2016 Educate Together AGM in Dublin, the president said that the lack of cross- cultural education was “depressing”, and that he believed that the imposition of a “single, imposed certainty” in education had killed the notion of a republic “stone dead”.
At this point in the last Government’s life, then Education Minister Ruairí Quinn announced a programme intended to change patronage arrangements around a good proportion of national schools. That policy fell because of a mixture of indifference and the eternal opposition to change from conservative Catholicism. There is nothing in today’s Education Minister Richard Bruton’s record to suggest that he might re-energise that campaign.
However, he may not have to. Earlier this month, when he spoke to the Association of Trustees of Catholic Schools, the secretary general of the Department of Education, Seán Ó Foghlú, suggested that community and comprehensive schools under Catholic patronage need to prepare for a time when religious instruction or worship may not be required by students. Mr Ó Foghlú pointed out that the 150 or so community and comprehensive secondary schools under religious patronage are legally obliged to serve the entire community even if many people once considered community schools as Catholic schools. “There is an obligation to enrol regardless of faith tradition or none. Furthermore, the religious education or worship to be provided is not determined by the ... patron but the obligation in the deed to provide for the religious needs of those who actually attend the school,” he said. Suggestions that 10% of school places be ringfenced for non-Catholics feed into this narrative too.
This is but one thread in what seems inevitable social evolution, and it would be wiser and far more constructive to embrace it rather than try to sustain the religious authoritarianism that Francis Xavier felt so comfortable with when he founded the Jesuits in the first half of the 15th century.