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Response to Forum on Patronage and Pluralism


In this contribution I would like first to question some of the key presuppositions of the proposals of the Forum on Patronage and Pluralism, and also make some modest practical suggestions.

a)    Transfer of schools: where are the data?

I have no issue with divesting the patronage of the Bishops from a limited number of Catholic schools. I do wonder, however, what the sociological data are to back up the usual mantra for a “changed, more pluralist” Ireland. There was no reference to solid data in the presentation by Professor Coolahan. Undoubtedly during the last three decades, there has been strong immigration into Ireland.  Most of the new immigrants, however, hail from countries in which traditional Christian values are still strong (from Poland, the Baltic States, Russia, Nigeria,...), and they have effectively reinforced the values of the “traditional Ireland.” In comparison to other countries the percentage of Muslims in Ireland is tiny indeed. Ireland does not have a particularly strong Humanist or atheist tradition either (as the census reveals).  In the latest census almost 3.9 mln people called themselves Christian. Only 175,000 indicated they had no religion. Even if the number of “Non-religious” were to double in the new census conducted in the Spring of 2011, there would still be a proportion of 10 Christians to 1 “non-religious”. (Moreover, not all “non-religious” are effectively secular or Humanist – for the large Chinese population in Ireland probably ticks this box).  In short, in sociological and demographic terms, Irish society in general is not half as “pluralist” and “diverse” as we would like to think. Arguments for plurality on the basis of immigration are simply unconvincing.

b)    The issue of Catholic religion in “Stand-Alone Schools”

Especially in relation to the “Stand-Alone schools” the secularist presuppositions of the advisory group become painfully evident, and the proposals they put forward are simply unacceptable from a religious point of view. These proposals, if implemented, will have a devastating effect on the Catholic identity of primary schools throughout Ireland:

 (a) Religious education is to be held at either the very beginning or at the end of the school day, and is obviously not obligatory: it is just an optional appendix to the school day;

 (b) The ideal of the integrated curriculum should be abandoned – here Prof. Coolahan and his colleagues give away their key secularist presupposition, namely that they effectively consider religious views a private matter that have no bearing on the school as a whole;

(c) Catholic schools should devote 3 classes to non-denominational education about World Religions and Ethics, and “the remainder” of religious classes will be allocated to faith formation. While I agree that every Christian should know about other religions, it is clear that the classes on Word Religions and Ethics will be conducted from a non-religious perspective, i.e., a secularist perspective, and that is not a neutral perspective, but a deeply anti-religious one (see below);

(d) Sacramental preparation (including First Holy Communion) should ideally be moved out of Catholic schools altogether, and should certainly “not encroach on the time allocated to the general curriculum”;

(e) The Boards of Management’s policy on display of religious artefacts should be “inclusive of all belief systems in the school.” The Forum also recommends the practice of “celebrating festivals of different religious beliefs” in the schools, and wishes this to become “established practice.”

Professor Coolahan makes the astonishing claim he has no evidence that Catholic schools are, at present, inclusive. In my view, Prof. Coolahan has not given proper thought to the nature of “inclusivity.” He effectively operates with a secularist paradigm, which considers itself “neutral”.  For instance, his main argument for the expulsion (or at least marginalisation) of sacramental preparation from Catholic schools is that it is not part of the “general curriculum, which is the State curriculum.”  But surely religious education is an integral part of the curriculum of our schools? What are the grounds and presuppositions of this distinction between “State” and “non-State” curricula? Is it the highly dubious notion that the State is somehow “neutral”?  Or again, when discussing Teacher Education Prof. Coolahan advocates the introduction of a compulsory course on Ethics and ERB, while the course on Religious Education should not be obligatory. His reasons for making the first obligatory, and the second merely optional, are revealing: in his words: the course on ERB is “not a religious-conscientious issue. It is an education issue.” He continues: “The course on RE is not obligatory because there can be conscientious objections to it.”

Behind these comments and proposals lurks a naive and out-dated Enlightenment perspective, which considers the non-denominational perspective “neutral” and not contentious, while religious views are considered biased and problematic. It would never occur to Prof. Coolahan that no worldview, be it religious or non-denominational, is “neutral”. Worldviews are like languages: each has its own distinctive character, and there is no meta-language which all people speak. Similarly, there is no such thing as a “neutral stance” when it comes to worldviews. Every perspective is biased – be it Catholic, Anglican, Chinese, Muslim, Humanist or non-denominational (in order of relevance in an Irish context). The secularist perspective – a small minority view in Ireland – is therefore not a neutral meta-perspective; it is just as biased as any of the denominational perspectives.  Moreover, unlike what Prof. Coolahan appears to think, a non-denominational perspective on religious issues can cause major offense to religious people (cf. Islamic opposition to non-denominational approaches), and can be legitimately objected to on conscientious and religious grounds.  The limitations of the secularist paradigm, adopted by Professor Coolahan, are especially evident when it comes to celebrating major religious festivals.

True inclusivity and pluralism does not mean: standing for everything (and thus, ultimately: nothing).  Rather, true inclusivity is, from the perspective of being steeped into your own tradition, you engage in respectful and tolerant dialogue with people of different traditions. This obviously presupposes that you first have a good knowledge of your own tradition. It is like learning a language: it is important to learn other languages, but you will never learn any languages unless you master your own mother tongue first.  The same applies to worldviews: children can only be meaningfully exposed to other worldviews if they have a clear understanding of their own.

Again, just as there is no such thing as a private language, you cannot allocate worldviews to the private sphere. The fundamental values of each perspective (religious or secularist) will permeate the whole school – and it is significant that Coolahan rejects this view, abandoning the integrated curriculum, and treating religion as a “discrete subject.”  In short, Coolahan’s view of “inclusivity” is effectively secularist and one-dimensional. In my view, genuine pluralism can only consist in the respectful encounter and dialogue of different denominations, religious and non-religious, not in an allegedly neutral, denominational-free zone. Prof. Coolahan and his colleagues may appear, at first sight, to be inclusive and attractive by celebrating the differences of an allegedly more pluralist Ireland. But this kind of celebration of difference makes all religions, in the end, a matter of indifference.  Indeed, a case can be made that his espousal of pluralism simply masks a secularist agenda.

Through a mixture of DES guide-lines and changes in the Education Act it will be made very difficult for Catholic schools to emphasise Christianity in what is taught and in the visual displays throughout the school.  If these proposals are implemented, a legitimate concern to safeguard the rights of a small minority will effectively negate the rights of the majority of people in this country to enjoy a genuinely Christian (Catholic/Church of Ireland) education.

In practical terms, I suggest that the Forum should abandon its proposals (from Sections 6-7) and instead look for ways to:

a)     Encourage the development of non-Catholic schools (Humanist, Muslim,...) where there is a documented demographic and sociological need to do so;


b)     Make suggestions on making available resources for a meaningful alternative – religious or non-denominational – to Catholic RE for those children (Chinese, Muslims, Humanists,...)  who want “to opt out”;


c)      Acknowledge that the ethos of a school (religious or secularist) is not a private matter, and should not be marginalised;


d)     Retain the sacramental preparation as an integral part of the school curriculum in Catholic schools, including in “Stand-Alone” schools;


e)     Allow Catholic schools to retain their religious symbols in an authentic manner;


f)       Retain Catholic RE as an integral dimension of the curriculum of Catholic schools; There is no need to introduce a non-denominational ERB module because Catholic RE will include engagement with other worldviews (both religious and non-religious) from a Catholic perspective; this can also involve knowledge of, and occasional exposure to, the practices and symbols of other religions. But it should not end up in an indifferent, relativist “super-market style” display throughout the school of the religious symbols of all denominations, as if they are all equally valid from a Catholic point of view.



Dr Rik Van Nieuwenhove,

Mary Immaculate College, Limerick.


Mary Immaculate College, South Circular Road, Limerick, Tel: +35361 204300