Church has ‘stubborn reluctance’ on school divestment, Martin says

Maintaining ethos in Catholic schools will become more difficult, archbishop says

The Catholic Church in Ireland has been too slow to hand over schools to the State and is fixated on questions of ownership, Archbishop of Dublin Diarmuid Martin has said.

Saying that there is “a stubborn reluctance within the church” about divestment, Dr Martin said the Irish religious education establishment had concentrated “too little on the purpose of the Catholic school”.

Speaking in Germany at the weekend, Dr Martin said it was true to argue that “Catholic schools are most welcoming of people of different faiths and of social background and of educational disability”.

However, he told the Wurzburg conference that this was not “a reason for maintaining patronage of most of the primary schools in the country, when more and more people want something else”.


Under a plan earlier this year, Minister for Education Richard Bruton sought to encourage the church to hand over the patronage of more than 200 schools to other bodies, including the State.

At present, more than 90 per cent of the State’s 3,200 primary schools are under Catholic patronage. Efforts to provide greater choice for parents have proven slow and divisive.

Social changes

Warning that population and social changes would make it “more and more difficult to maintain a true Catholic ethos in Catholic schools”, Dr Martin said many parents “look on their local Catholic schools primarily as State schools”.

Stricter enrolment rules that bar the exclusion of any child will be used to challenge any exclusive denominational character in the ethos of a State school, except where necessary to protect the rights of minorities.

“The risk now looms large that effectively it will become more and more difficult to maintain a true Catholic ethos in Catholic schools,” the archbishop said.

While Ireland remains a “predominantly Catholic country” the percentage of those who identified as Catholic has fallen sharply from 84.2 per cent in the 2011 census to 78.3 per cent in 2016.

“Regular religious practice in Ireland has dramatically decreased in recent years but, by European standards, religious practice in Ireland is still high,” Dr Martin said.

“Secularisation is well advanced in Irish society and yet there are many residual elements of faith and religiosity present in daily life. Irish national radio and television both transmit the Angelus bells twice a day.”

Dr Martin also referred to the 2015 marriage equality referendum, saying: “Many in Ireland and overseas were surprised by the result of the referendum.

“What is worthy of note is that every single political party in Ireland supported the change of status. The vote was not about doctrine.

“It was, however, not just about personal sympathy with gay and lesbian people and their families but about a conviction that gay and lesbian people should be permitted in civil law to have their stable, loving relationships recognised in marriage.”

Sarah Burns

Sarah Burns

Sarah Burns is a reporter for The Irish Times