Cardinal Brady statement: if the dialogue is a trojan horse for removing faith from schools, then we are destined to remain locked in tensions

 

This is an edited version of the address by Cardinal Seán Brady at the launch of Catholic Schools Week and the inauguration of the Catholic Schools Partnership yesterday.

I AM very pleased to formally launch Catholic Schools Week and to inaugurate the Catholic Schools Partnership. The partnership represents a timely and forward-looking initiative between the Conference of Religious of Ireland and the Irish Bishops’ Conference in their mutual service of Catholic education.

The vitality of the church is closely linked to the health of its Catholic schools. Catholic Schools Week coincides this year with a very public escalation in the debate about the future of the Catholic Church in the provision and management of education in this country.

What has been notable is the constructive and respectful atmosphere within which the debate has been framed. The presumption that the Catholic Church wants to control as many schools as it can, irrespective of parental demands, is increasingly seen to be unfounded.

Equally, the idea that the only way to accommodate religious and cultural diversity in society is to remove the church completely from State-funded schools is increasingly seen as unjust, unhelpful and contrary to the principle of pluralism.

This more realistic and respectful atmosphere clears the ground for what could be the most creative and constructive dialogue about the future of education in this country since partition. If it is a dialogue based on mutual respect and a genuine concern for the rights of parents and children, then there is scope for a wide range of creative and exciting possibilities. If, on the other hand, the dialogue is simply a Trojan horse for removing faith from schools – whether Catholic, Protestant, Jewish or Muslim – then we are destined to remain locked in unnecessary tensions about the future of education, to the detriment of children and society.

Such dialogue should include an acceptance that all those engaged in education provision have a shared commitment to the wellbeing and complete development of every child in their care, irrespective of their religious, ethnic or cultural background. To suggest or imply that Catholic schools are unable to be overtly Catholic and at the same time accommodate a degree of religious, cultural or ethnic diversity is unfair and not borne out by experience.

Critical to this dialogue is the clear recognition that parents have a right to have their children educated in accordance with their philosophical and religious convictions. Consequently, the State has a duty to support this right with public funds. It is important to point out that Catholic parents are taxpayers.

It would be helpful if the idea that the church has no right to be involved in schools which are paid for out of public funds was acknowledged as a complete red herring and blatantly unjust!

Those parents who choose and value the Catholic education provided for their children are taxpayers in exactly the same way as parents who send their children to other types of schools. To disadvantage any group of parents because of their faith is completely contrary to the principle of equality and pluralism.

There is no such thing as a value-free school. If parents want the government of the day to define and manage the ethos of their schools, it is important to ask what philosophy of life, of the human person, of the child would the government of the day promote? What system of values would it seek to promote? That of the particular party in power? Would it change from government to government?

Just as it is right to question the over-provision of Catholic schools relative to perceived demand, it is also right to ask why, of all the newly built schools in areas of population growth in Ireland in recent years, very few are Catholic. There has to be an effective way of establishing parental choice when a new school is being built as a result of population growth.

One of the curious things about the recent Ipsos/MRBI poll in The Irish Times was that in suggesting that a majority of the public wants the Catholic Church to give up its role in the management of primary schools there was no clear indication as to their preferred alternative.

If the editorial comment on the poll is right, then a key factor in the result was the completely justified anger with bishops and religious orders over the findings of the Ryan and Murphy reports. But what, then, of the implications of the less publicised but very significant criticisms of State-run organisations in the same reports?

It is possible that many people are assessing their support for Catholic Church involvement in education on an outdated and stereotypical view of a Catholic school.

It was interesting that in the Ipsos/MRBI poll, younger people tended to have a more positive attitude to the involvement of the church than those in middle age.

One possible reason for this may be that most young people attending Catholic schools today have a very positive experience of the Catholic ethos and atmosphere of their school. The cold and disturbing images of Catholic education evoked by the Ryan report could not be in more stark contrast to the supportive and positive atmosphere of Catholic schools today.

Stronger systems of inspection and accountability by the State for patrons, boards of management and principals in the application of best practice in safeguarding children would be welcome. It would be a more just and appropriate response to the lack of confidence in patrons than dismissing the rights of parents to a faith-based education and impugning the superb work of whole school communities.

Catholic schools today are well placed to win the support and confidence of parents who want a values-based education for their children.

We should not apologise for who we are. In an increasingly diverse culture, the future lies in ensuring that our schools become more authentically Catholic, both in terms of the authentic Catholic doctrine they teach and the Christian environment which they create.

Read the full speech online at irishtimes.com