We can hold only one national conversation at a time, at least to the point that will incur change. This is what occurred with the marriage referendum, and again with the referendum to repeal the Eighth Amendment. The push was forceful enough, the climate temperate enough (though only relatively speaking) and the appetite large enough to realise that form of change which is most difficult of all – collectively undoing a previous collective decision. The national dialogue became saturated with one topic of concern, and the consequence was change.
The Monday following the referendum result – a result which was a resounding yes, the sort of yes that burst forth as though through eager lips long pinched shut from without – I listened to Seán O'Rourke's programme on RTÉ Radio One which featured Bishop Kevin Doran suggesting Yes voters who were Catholic go to confession. I left the radio on as I went about my business, and at noon, as always, there were the Angelus bells, reminding us all of an Ireland that no longer exists in anything but theory, but that we are still paying for. The friction was palpable.
There has been much conjecture about what the next national debate will be, and there are plenty of worthy candidates – the housing crisis, direct provision, and others. However, there is a strong case for the next logical step being divestment; the removal of Catholic influence and power from what are, in actuality, our State schools.
The School Admissions Bill will, from next year, remove the baptism barrier which stipulates baptism as an entry criterion of the 90 per cent of Irish primary schools that are Catholic. The Bill will prevent Catholic primary schools from giving priority to baptised children in instances where those schools are oversubscribed. This accounts for about 20 per cent of Catholic schools.
State schools should respond to the beliefs and desires of the people paying for them
The barrier has artificially inflated baptism numbers within Ireland for years; for many parents, baptism is a necessity in order to ensure a school place for their child, since there are few to no other options in their locality. The removal of the barrier is one incremental step in the secularisation of our education system.
Education informs everything – there is no sane person who would discount how imperative it is to leading an engaged life and being a good citizen. There is a performative contradiction in schools funded by tax payers placing demands on the citizens of this country rather than the other way around. The demand for non-Catholic schools is there, but the church is understandably reluctant to relinquish its influence on the most intellectually malleable in our society.
Removing the Catholic theological “ethos” (as the philosophical reference point for our morality) from schools is the last important step in liberalisation, creating a learning environment where individuals can learn to self-determine.
The teaching of philosophy rather than theology would help immensely in encouraging children in the open-ended questioning that comes naturally to them. The former presents potential theories of what, why and how, encouraging questioning and critical thinking. The latter provides narratives of origin and meaning which are rigidly pre-constructed, contain inherent claims to the one truth, and prescribe the particular tenets of a moral life. This approach does not reflect current Irish values.
The referendums on marriage equality and the Eighth Amendment were, among other things, about the friction between the State as a body of governance and collective rulemaking, and the church, which provides a form of alternative governance. Almost all of us passed through the Catholic education system on our route to adulthood, and that will, for the most part, include the voting majorities who pushed for change. It is about time that the values that we actually live by inform our education system.
Schoolchildren cannot advocate for themselves, and we cease to think about the nuance of our educational experience once we leave school ourselves. It occurs to us to think carefully again only when we have children, and then our main interest is in keeping them safe and happy, which might entail minimising rocking the boat. There should of course be religious schools for those who want them. However, State schools should respond to the beliefs and desires of the people paying for them. Our children are, apparently, card-carrying Catholics. The rest of us? Not so much.