The Association of Catholic Priests has described Minister for Education Ruairí Quinn’s suggestion to reduce teaching time for religious studies as “unhelpful, unwarranted and unacceptable”.
“It seems at best a hapless effort to devise educational policy ‘on the hoof’ and, at worst, an indication of an intention to undermine religious education in the vast majority of our schools,” the organisation said in a statement. “Populist opinions – expressed as ‘suggestions’ – do little to further educational change, even when everyone agrees that it is necessary”.
The association claims that such opinions will be interpreted as threats, will fail to reassure those in discussion with the Minister or Catholic parents. It added that the comments could also damage advanced negotiations to provide “a wider choice for parents”.
Last year the Minister for Education initiated a consultation process on religious and cultural inclusion in primary schools. In 2011 religious institutions and the State also commenced discussions to address how existing primary schools could come under a more diverse range of faiths and no faith at all.
However, the association has questioned the Labour TD's motives. "Is the debate on patronage and the process that attends it really meant to facilitate the hand-over of a minority of schools to facilitate a more diverse form of patronage," it asked, "or is it part of a more ambitious attempt to remove religion from the public square?"
The organisation said that it would be "generally supportive of the shift from school to parish for sacramental preparation and explicit faith formation" but maintained religious education should still form part of a school curriculum.
Problem with religion
Fianna Fáil leader Micheál Martin also strongly criticised the Minister for making the comments. Speaking on RTÉ Radio 1, he said: "It seems to me that Ruairí Quinn has a particular problem with religion and a problem with religion in our schools. I think he has to accept that parental choice is key here and should be respected.
“I think he’s insensitive to people of particular religions: many people of the Catholic religion, for example, feel that he’s anti Catholic education. His attitude to small rural schools for example has been insensitive too and oblivious to the impact that that policy can have on Presbyterian schools and Protestant schools in the Border areas for example and I think he just doesn’t have a broader compass in relation to schools with a religious ethos and I think he should lay off somewhat.”
Last week Mr Quinn suggested reducing the time allocated to teaching religion in schools. The Labour Minister told an audience at the Irish Primary Prinicipal’s Network annual conference that 30 minutes of discretionary time for teaching religion could be reallocated to core subjects.
The controversy comes at the beginning of Catholic Schools week and yesterday Coadjutor Archbishop Eamon Martin claimed that Catholic schools play a beneficial role in the lives of Ireland's youth.