Religious control of schools promotes inequality, prejudice, division – and worse. It is also against the founding spirit of the Republic. It must be challenged now.
Fr. Paul Connell is the President of the Joint Managerial Body and the Association of Management of Catholic Schools in Ireland.
I will make no judgement as to whether he is an intelligent man – or not. But reading details of the speech he made in Killarney recently, it is hard to credit its extraordinary blindness to what the word ‘equality’ actually means.
Let us recall the words of the Proclamation of 1916.
“The Republic guarantees religious and civil liberty, equal rights and equal opportunities to all its citizens,” the revolutionary document stated, “and declares its resolve to pursue the happiness and prosperity of the whole nation and of all its parts, cherishing all the children of the nation equally, and oblivious of the differences carefully fostered by an alien government, which have divided a minority in the past.”
The key principle in this section of the document, which set out to define our conception of what a republic means, is that it guarantees religious and civil liberty, equal rights and equal opportunities (including educational opportunities) to all its citizen. All religions – and none – must be treated equally by the State.
That didn’t happen when the 26 counties achieved independence, because the Roman Catholic Church exerted its power, to insidiously take control of critical aspects of the machinery of the new State, including education, and to establish a “special position” (since removed by Referendum) in the 1937 Constitution of Ireland. But all of that was a grotesque betrayal of the ideals set out in the Proclamation itself.
Religious and civil liberty in its purest and most far-reaching sense is a core ideal of the republic. That is to say, we are all entitled to believe in whatever we like, and those beliefs will – or should – be accorded equal respect, as long as they do not involve threatening or intimidating others or engaging in acts of violence, discrimination or hatred of one kind or another.
I am an atheist. I happen to believe that Roman Catholics, members of the Church of Ireland, Presbyterians, Methodists, Muslims, Orthodox Christians, Hindus, Jews, Moonies, Seventh Day Adventists, Scientologists and Jehovah’s Witnesses – among others – are all more or less equally wrong. But I will defend, without prejudice, the right of any individual member of any of these churches or faiths – and similarly the right of atheists and agnostics – to believe what they do, and to pursue those beliefs without making themselves the target of discrimination, whether by the State or any branch of its machinery.
That is what being an equal citizen means.
Of course, there is an irony here. In all of these hugely diverse religions – or, rather, cults, for in essence they are all cults in different stages of their evolution – there is a fundamental presumption of the innate superiority of initiates and believers, over everyone else. Where religion is concerned, the starting point is that everyone isn’t equal until they join up – and to suggest otherwise is, honestly, a badly misguided exercise in self-delusion. What is the point of being a Catholic or a Moonie – rather than, say, a Methodist or a Mormon – except the conviction: (a) that the others have it wrong; and (b) that being part of the religion of your choice is more likely to lead you to the eternal reward of an afterlife spent in paradise?
That is the essential promise of pretty much all sects, cults and religions: join here and you are in closer touch with God – and more likely to find a welcoming committee in attendance when you arrive at the pearly gates and knock. People in the west generally are inclined to laugh ruefully at the news that Islamist suicide bombers go about their grisly business in the belief that a host of virgins will be waiting, to attend to their sexual needs, once they trigger the explosion and kill themselves (along with their intended targets). Isn’t that mad, eh?
It is, I have to agree, a far-fetched and rather juvenile proposition. But how much more far-fetched is it than the story that the Son of God was born of a virgin birth; that he was crucified, died and then came back to life again after three days; and that he ascended into heaven, sailing upwards and ever upwards into the ether, defying gravity and the inevitable incineration that awaited him up there?
Stop and reflect for a minute, and none of these stories make any sense. At this stage, we know that homo sapiens has been traversing the planet for 100,000 years or so, mostly without the help of Ryanair. So why the big delay before the saviour came down to earth? Fine, the words that are attributed to Jesus have a certain force (though I can never understand how or why the son of an all-powerful God, of which he himself was, or is, a constituent part, didn’t have the foresight to have someone making notes on the spot, so that what he had to say would have been made immediately and accurately available for circulation, rather than being published from hearsay about 100 years later. But anyhow).
Some of his ideas were sound, radical even for the place and time. But Muslims feel precisely the same thing about Mohammed. And, in fairness, scientologists are equally impressed by L. Ron Hubbard, as is their entitlement. My view? As John Lennon put it: “Whatever gets you through the night/ Is alright/ Is alright.” Each to their own...
So, in relation to education, how might the State deal with the challenge of treating people of any religion and none completely equally? It is obvious: the Educate Together model promotes equality for all, irrespective of religious or ethnic background. The only real obstacle to this model is the collective vested interests of religious denominations, and most particularly of the Catholic Church.
To ensure that there is genuine equality, the State should offer no precedence whatsoever to any particular religion. Nor indeed to Atheism. Rather, the education provided, and funded, by the State should be free of any assumptions or prejudices about the beliefs of individuals or their families. If religion is to be included on the curriculum, then it can be framed in the context of the history of comparative religions: this is what these various religions claim; this is the sequence in which they were founded; now it is up to you to decide which, if any, of these claims makes sense.
Separately, if people want to set up schools that are based around particular religions, they should be free to do so. But they should not be in receipt of funding from the State for that purpose. The State’s position should be: if you are for religious segregation, then you can pay for it yourself, whether you are Catholic, Protestant, Muslim, Jew, Atheist or whatever. To be clear about it, an atheist college should have to pay its own way.
I accept that it would be wrong to deny parents the right to have their children attend the so-called ‘faith’ schools of their choice. I am libertarian by instinct. The State shouldn’t mess with people’s freedom of thought or expression any more than is absolutely necessary. If there are enough like-minded spirits, who also want to participate in faith schools, then good for you and your rreligious mates. But no one has a right to expect the State to fund that prejudice.
Which brings us back to the position of religions, and Roman Catholicism in particular, in Irish education. Currently, the vast majority of primary schools are controlled by the Catholic church. As a result, (a) Irish citizens who are not Catholics or who do not subscribe to any religion are being actively discriminated against all over the country, every day of the school year; and (b) because people are increasingly being asked to show their baptismal certificate before being admitted to Catholic schools, parents are being forced to have their children baptised, against their better instincts, if they want them to go to the nearest school or the one that suits best geographically.
Which brings us back to Fr. Paul Connell. He has no problem whatsoever with this kind of institutionalised discrimination. On the contrary, he insists that discrimination in favour of Catholic schools is better. In what way? “The alternative,” he said in his speech, “is a vacuum that can express itself in nihilism and the growing phenomenon in our schools of self-harm.”
Now, as I said at the outset, I really do not know if Fr. Paul Connell is an intelligent man. But he certainly seems to have an extremely short memory. Over the past two decades, countless examples have been revealed of the appalling harm inflicted directly on school pupils in Ireland by members of the Roman Catholic Clergy and by members of the Christian Brothers, among other religious orders. There was appalling physical violence. And there was covert and often sustained sexual abuse. All of which was systematically covered up by the hierarchy of the Church here – that is, by the predecessors of Fr. Paul Connell, and others involved at the highest level of the Irish church.
Fr. Connell wants to talk about self-harm. How many children who were victims of this appalling abuse committed suicide? How many wrestled all their lives with depression, anxiety and self-loathing? How many engaged in violent, fractious relationships as a result of the trauma they suffered and the pain they had to deal with? How many ended up in jail? Or lived alone and abandoned, victims of the appalling arrogance and dishonesty of a morally bankrupt Catholic leadership in Ireland?
There is no reason whatsoever to believe, on the basis of the evidence, that a Catholic education gives people a better moral grounding than the education provided in Educate Together schools. In fact in one vital respect, the sectarian education which has been the norm here – and still is in Northern Ireland too – is clearly morally defective.
It teaches children that those of a different faith are less worthy of eternal life than those of the religious ethos that is dominant in the school.
Sectarian schools – for that is what religious-run schools are – promote division. They promote suspicion. They promote inequality. And in extreme cases they promote hostility and hatred. Their ‘ethos’ may even actively promote brutal physical violence against teenagers from Afghanistan, who have arrived in Ireland as refugees.
There is a simple question – or set of questions – for Fr. Paul Connell. Are Catholics better than Muslims? Are they better than Protestants? Are they better than Jews? Are they more right? Are they more likely to go to heaven?
If not, then what is the problem with all going to school together as equals, and letting parents teach their kids about their own religious beliefs – or send them to ‘faith’ classes if that is what they elect to do?
In the end, it is all about vested interests. It is all about power. It is about the old Jesuit line: “Give me the child for his first seven years and I will give you the man.”
The Catholic church – and they are not alone in this; other religions know how to play this game too – desperately want to hold onto the power that they currently have to indoctrinate people.
Well the new Minister for Education, Richard Bruton, will have to act. Because what is happening in Ireland now cements inequality of access and of choice. It is deeply, demonstrably and unequivocally wrong...
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