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This week, the Humanist Association of Ireland (HAI) will meet Taoiseach Enda Kenny to discuss the absence of choice in our schools and the painfully slow progress being made on what was to have been one of the defining projects for this Government — changes to school patronage.
That the meeting will take place in what has been decreed Catholic Schools Week, “an all-Ireland annual event which invites Catholic schools to give expression in a special way to the ethos of Catholic education”, sets this meeting in a deeply ironic context, a context that reflects the growing dishonesty and hypocrisy surrounding religious control of schools, especially admission to schools for those who might not support the controlling ethos of an institution.
This has, for decades, promoted behaviour that, in far too many instances, makes a mockery of personal or social integrity.
About 90% of national schools remain under Catholic Church control and, as former education minister Ruairi Quinn conceded, anyone unable to promote Catholicism will not be employed by any of them. Sign up or ship out is the principle that prevails in our State-funded national schools.
In a Republic where there has been a four-fold increase in the number of people with no religious affiliation or beliefs between 1991 and 2011 — up to 277,237 — this is wrong. It is not unrealistic to speculate that if we matched depth of commitment with honesty of declaration that this figure would be much higher.
One statistic shows how sweeping the changing position of religion is — last year, the HAI married more than 900 couples, more than twice the number of marriages conducted through the Church of Ireland.
This spring, as has been the case for decades, many parents will usher their children through their school-organised First Communion even though they have no real commitment to what the sacrament represents.
Of course it is easier to go along but compromising personal integrity in this way is wrong, dispiriting, a dreadful example to children. Most of all, it puts craven dishonesty at the very centre of Irish life.
This charade has reached a farcical point where parents trying to get a child into a State-funded school may be asked to produce a Catholic baptismal certificate if they are to have any chance of getting a place.
Basically, some parents, a growing number, are being offered a choice of lying or not getting a school place for their child. That the Catholic Church is knowingly complicit in such a shaming charade also demeans it significantly.
Two weeks ago, Mr Kenny marched in Paris with Europe’s leaders to show our commitment to free speech yet he is the political leader in a county with an education system that does not reflect those values, indeed it rejects them.
This week’s meeting gives him an opportunity to celebrate free speech and pluralism — after all, he once declared himself a “Catholic but not a Catholic Taoiseach”.
It is important for the Catholic Church to have the confidence to accept this change because if it does not, then its position is even weaker than it or its opponents imagine.
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