Why must agnostics be obliged to teach faith?

Tue, Feb 2, 2010, 00:00

IMAGINE A country in which entry to a major profession is subject to a test of one’s private beliefs. A Soviet satellite in the old eastern bloc? Iran? Saudi Arabia? How about Ireland?

Welcome to the Republic.

Last week’s Irish Timespoll brought the welcome news that 61 per cent of people no longer support the control of our primary education system by the Catholic Church. One thing that has been left out of the debate, however, is the stark reality that no one can train to be a primary teacher in Ireland unless he or she is either a believing Christian or is prepared to pretend to be so.

In December, a graduate wrote to the registrar of St Patrick’s College, Dublin, asking about applying for the State-funded postgraduate course in primary teaching. The qualification is from a public institution, Dublin City University. She wrote: “I am . . . of no particular faith and am concerned about the religious requirements for entry into a Catholic college. I am unsure if the college accepts applications from non-Catholics and would be very grateful for clarification on this issue. If this is the case, I would also be grateful for clarification on whether it is obligatory for non-faith students to complete the diploma in religious education and teach religion as part of their teaching practice.”

She received a very nice letter assuring her that non-Catholics could indeed apply, but stressing that “students on the course are required to take all the programme modules and these include modules on religious education in primary schools”.

The solution, you might think, would be to apply to another teacher-training course. The fact is, though, that every single course in Ireland is run by a Christian college, and obliges every single student to both learn and teach Christian doctrine.

There are seven teacher training colleges, all of them funded by the State. St Patrick’s defines itself as a “community of learning in which Catholic religious values and equity are promoted”. It adds that “the college recognises its duty in preparing teachers to teach the Catholic faith in Catholic schools”. Mary Immaculate College in Limerick declares itself on its website to be “Ireland’s largest Catholic college”. Froebel College in Dublin defines itself as a “Catholic College, under the trusteeship of the Congregation of Dominican Sisters”.

St Angela’s in Sligo declares itself “a Catholic college”. The Marino Institute in Dublin is run by the Christian Brothers and declares itself committed to the tradition of that order’s founder, Edmund Rice. And the Church of Ireland College of Education is explicitly dedicated to providing “a supply of teachers for primary schools under the management of the Church of Ireland and other Protestant denominations”.

These colleges are not private institutions – each is connected to a public university. Yet, in all of them, students have no choice but to learn (and pass exams in) Christian doctrine. (Some, like St Patrick’s, offer optional courses for those who wish to teach in Educate Together schools, but these are in addition to, rather than instead of, the compulsory Catholic courses.)

The religious education part of the course is specifically designed to enable the teaching of the “textbooks currently in use in Irish Catholic schools”. Students are required to “explore some of the theoretical foundations of contemporary faith formation processes” – in other words, to learn how to indoctrinate children in the Catholic faith.

When it comes to teaching practice, the curriculum in St Patrick’s stipulates that “it is expected that all students would prepare religion lessons”. (These aspects of the course are separate from the more specific Certificate in Religious Studies, which is required for those wanting to teach in Catholic schools but is otherwise optional.)

Leave aside the utter inappropriateness of a republic funding the “faith formation processes” of any religion. Just think instead of the hypocrisy that’s involved here. The church is quite prepared to have Muslim, Jewish, Buddhist, atheist or agnostic students learning how to teach the Catholic faith, so long as they keep their heads down and their mouths shut. In the 19th century, Catholics were forced to pay tithes to support a church they did not believe in. Now, non-Christian would-be teachers must pay an intellectual tithe of silence and submission.

And where is the Republican Party in all of this? Cringing in the corner, of course.

Batt O’Keeffe, asked for a statement on the provision of teacher training for non-Christians, told the Dáil recently that “responses received from some colleges in relation to the question of provision being made for student teachers who belong to a denomination which is not Christian have indicated that this has not arisen to date”.

The logic is impeccable: you have to pretend to be a Christian to train as a teacher – therefore all trainee teachers are assumed to be Christians.

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