Piety and Privilege provides a fascinating and detailed account of how the Catholic Church enabled and facilitated a strongly classed and gendered system of secondary education in Ireland from 1922 to 1967.
It explores the ways in which a symbiotic relationship operated between the church and State from 1922 onwards that consolidated the church’s power for several decades to come. For its part, the emerging State needed secondary schools to be managed and run efficiently without heavy financial investment, something the church had the capacity and skills to do. The Catholic Church, on the other hand, had an evangelical mission; it needed an avenue to promote its own beliefs and values; control over schools facilitated this, especially when the State rarely intervened in educational governance.
For those who are not historians, Piety and Privilege is a rich resource; from the outset it challenges some of the populist myths about education, including those around the Penal Laws which, it observes, were enforced “to ensure that Catholic members of the privileged classes would never again exercise political power in Ireland”. Poor Catholics were not in the political-educational frame.
The book documents throughout the many strategies religious congregations employed to instill their beliefs and practices among students, including daily prayers, regular Mass attendance, and the promotion of solidarities and devotions. Schools were also seen by religious orders as places for recruiting new members, most especially in junior seminaries, but also outside of these.
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As the State worked hand-in-glove with the church in promoting a highly patriarchal perspective on gender and sexuality, Catholic teaching about sexuality and family life was all-pervasive. While a belief in women’s so-called “natural” disposition for domesticity was part of Catholic social teaching, it was also a widespread secular cultural value. It was enshrined in law when female primary school teachers had to resign on marriage from 1932-1958.
Governance and policy
Religious-run secondary schools were not State-owned and, outside of core curriculum matters, they exercised relative autonomy in terms of governance and policy. Given this, it is surprising that the book does not examine the ways in which the strongly Catholic-espoused (albeit not solely Catholic) principle of subsidiarity (Rerum Novarum, 1891) continue to impact on Irish social and educational policy: Article 41 still upholds the family as “the primary and natural educator of the child”, while article 42.4 obliges the State “to supplement and give reasonable aid to private and corporate educational initiative”. Such provisions have deep classed and gendered implications for education.
The authors self-identify as secular historians demonstrating how their interpretations of events differ from those whom they title Catholic historians of education. They note how previous accounts of secondary education often overlooked the role religious-run schools played in perpetuating a classed system of educational provision. Both male and female religious orders, with some exceptions, were divided along class lines, not only in who they recruited, but in who they served: the education of the poor in many rural areas, and those in Irish-language speaking communities, was not a priority. Moreover, social class distinctions operated within some religious orders, of women in particular. Women with a dowry were “choir sisters” and those without were “lay sisters”; the former were teachers while the latter undertook housework and catering in a clearly class-defined system.
One of the interesting features of the book is the interview data provided by religious teaching sisters. They defined teaching as being synonymous with their vocation; they devoted their lives to it in a highly committed way. While they lived in a world that was tightly regulated, they did exercise agency and power (including as school principals) opportunities that were rarely available to “lay” women in the post-independence era.
Given what we know about the classed and gendered divisions (and racial, ethnic and disability inequality) in education, one cannot but wonder at the end of the book if social class and gender inequalities would be much different in Ireland if schools were not under church control for so long. Yes, it is likely that students would have attended coeducational schools, and that their gender and sexuality identities would not have been constructed in such a Catholic-defined manner. However, evidence from other European countries shows that secular control and coeducation would not have undermined patriarchal power given its embeddedness in wider political culture, locally and globally. Equally, class inequalities would have persisted, albeit mediated through different power mechanisms. Regardless of who controls the running of schools, a capitalocentric model of education is ascendant for many decades, and the middle classes define and control the terms on which it is offered to their own class advantage.
Kathleen Lynch is UCD professor of equality studies emerita based in the UCD school of education. Her new book, Care and Capitalism (2022), is published by Polity Press: Cambridge