Non-Catholic in a Catholic school
A child at a Limerick school was this week allowed to opt out of religious instruction. But across the country many parents, teachers and pupils feel uneasy in Catholic schools
Atheist: John Hamill. Photograph: Eric Luke
Illustration: Alex Belomlinsky/Getty
What happens if you’re a parent who can’t get your unbaptised children into the local Catholic school? The vast majority of parents outside Dublin have little difficulty securing primary-school places, but even if the admissions issue is resolved 90 per cent of primary schools are still under the patronage of the church, which means that children sit in a Catholic religion class every day and are regularly exposed to beliefs that their parents may not subscribe to.
The issue was highlighted this week when the principal of Castletroy College, a secondary school in Limerick, refused to allow a first-year student to opt out of religious education.
Unusually, the girl’s father, Paul Drury, who is from the UK, spoke out publicly. After a meeting of its board of management the school backed down – but still insisted that the girl must remain in the classroom while the subject is being taught.
Drury has declined to comment further. Minister for Education Jan O’Sullivan points out that parents have a legal right to decide whether their children attend religious-education classes – as guaranteed in article 44.4 of the Constitution.
The Irish Times has spoken to parents, teachers and students about their experiences of being non-Catholic in Catholic schools. Most have chosen to stay anonymous, to avoid repercussions.
The parent: ‘Religion permeates the day. Opting out isn’t an option’
John Hamill is a committee member of Atheist Ireland. He and his wife have four children, all of whom are baptised Catholics and participate in religion class
“We live in Co Monaghan. The only primary schools in the area are all Catholic. We discussed the idea of opting the children out of religion but soon realised it would make no difference at all. The children still walk past the Marian shrine and the Sacred Heart statue, and there’s a crucifix in the classroom.
“My wife isn’t an atheist but would have some discomfort with certain aspects of Catholicism, such as getting children to confess their sins.
“Opting out isn’t really an option when religion, as required by law, permeates the school day. There’s reference to ‘our Saviour’ in the spelling book and religious references – ‘how many snakes does St Patrick have now?’ – in the maths book. So you can’t opt out of religion without opting out of spelling.
“Our twin girls had their communion recently, and we were expected to go to Mass and assist in the preparations. When the priest said it is great to see young people with so much faith we couldn’t help but smile: these are kids who also believe in Santa and the tooth fairy.
“In fairness to the school, there hasn’t been pressure. I strongly suspect we’re not the only ones with no faith.
“What does concern me is the very religious and conservative views given in sex education [in some Irish schools], and I want to opt them out of that.
“The last thing I want is to get in the way of a Catholic parent seeking a Catholic upbringing for their children, but why does it have to be integrated through the school day? If Jesus was here would he really be standing at the school with a clipboard, asking to see a baptismal cert?”
The teacher: ‘On our staff, two out of 20 teachers are Mass-goers’
Cian is a primary-school teacher in Dublin who describes himself as “100 per cent atheist”. He prepares children for their confirmation every year
“I bring the sixth-class boys to Mass for an hour once a week. The reason for that is pretty straightforward: most of them don’t go to Mass on Sunday at all, so they need to be familiar with it for confirmation. Parents love communions and confirmation and the sense of occasion.
“Occasionally I do the evening prayer, but I wouldn’t bother with a morning prayer. I might do one religion class a week, or I might not; I do the bare minimum, but a bit more around Catholic Schools Week, Christmas and Easter.
“I’m lucky in that we have board-of-management chair who is good with the kids and somewhat modern in his understanding of how not everyone is religious. We also have a great pastoral worker who does fantastic work with the kids. But other schools are a lot more religious and have teachers who are atheist.
“The sex education in this school is very conservative. It’s all about marriage, and the external speaker has blanked questions about gay people. It’s insulting to the kids, as they’re more world-wise than I would have been at that age.
“The untold story, for me, is the teachers. We have a very young teacher population. Any analysis will show them as less religious than their parents, or not religious at all, so you have 90 per cent of schools as Catholic and teachers like me who are merely presumed to be Catholic and comfortable teaching religion.
“On our staff, I believe that about two out of 20 teachers are Mass-goers and about four or five are not religious at all. This is common in schools across Ireland; there are hundreds, if not thousands, of teachers like me.
“It’s unreasonable to expect teachers like me simply to go to Educate Together. One of the reasons I wanted to teach was to work in schools within areas of disadvantage; these are almost all Catholic. I love teaching. But nobody’s gaining from this.”
The Muslim family: ‘We don’t feel the school has engaged with us’
Sarah and Roshan are a Muslim couple who have lived in Ireland for four years. They have two teenage daughters and a younger child. Sarah is a native English-speaker who converted to Islam from Catholicism. Their daughters both attend a Catholic secondary school in Dublin
Sarah says: “We arrived in Ireland at the start of the school year, and we were very lucky to secure them a place in the local secondary school.
“It was hugely important for us that they could attend a local school, and as Muslims we felt better about putting them into an all-girls school.
“They don’t have to take religion, but they are forced to sit in the classroom. Apart from being a waste of time it’s not a huge problem. The girls are both older and more secure in their beliefs, so we haven’t felt too worried about them being influenced. But we would be more concerned if they were younger.
“Our biggest worry was that they would have to participate in other Catholic celebrations, such as carolling or Mass. We were right to be concerned. There are events, such as Masses, that they have to attend.
“The school have never told us what time the Masses will be on at. Because of this we have on occasion kept them at home on certain days, but if we just knew when the Mass was on they wouldn’t miss a whole day for the sake of a one-hour ceremony.
“Many of our daughters’ friends don’t have English as a first language, they don’t understand how the school system works or what their rights are, and, as a result, don’t speak up.
“When we had concerns around our girls participating in the transition-year musical we were told that it was a Catholic school. There are many posters and activities at the school that my devout Catholic mother would strongly disapprove of. There have also been issues around providing the girls with 10 minutes a day to pray, and a space to pray.
“We don’t feel the school has really engaged with us.
“Overall, we are happy with the academics at the school, but the people in power seem to be in denial that Ireland is moving away from being a Catholic country and [is becoming] more of a secular democracy. Ireland is a diverse country now, and we need to face that.”
The special-school parent: ‘It is an excellent school, but the Catholic ethos is very obvious’
Grace’s daughter, who has a rare neurological condition, attends a special school. Only one of the 140 special primary schools on the Department of Education website is listed as inter denominational; 14 are listed as multi denominational, eight as other or unknown, and the remaining 117 as Catholic
“We made a conscious decision before having a child not to raise our children in any organised religion. Our daughter has not been baptised or received into any faith.
“When it became apparent, as she got older, that she would not be able to attend mainstream school we started to consider our options for her education. We realised quickly that there was only one school in our county that would be able to provide her with the supports and education she needs. It is an excellent school. She has settled really well and loves to go in every day. She has made steady progress since starting school, and we feel that, educationally, we could not have found a better place for her.
“However, the Catholic ethos is very obvious. When you walk in the main entrance one of the first things you see is the papal flag and a picture of Pope Francis. There are Catholic statues throughout the school.
“That said, we have never had a problem with the school as regards religion. The religious-education section of her school report has been marked ‘n/a’, and although she is present in class while morning prayers are being said, she does not understand what the meaning of them is.
“She is now approaching communion age and will probably have a new teacher this coming year, so I will be reiterating our wishes to whoever the new teacher is.
“As you can see, we are having a positive experience in our school and yet the whole situation is very unsatisfactory. By their very nature special schools have to cater for children with disabilities from all religious backgrounds and none. Yet they are allowed to have a stated religious ethos.
“We have never been discriminated against by our school on the grounds of religion, but I am very unhappy that a school which has to take children of all backgrounds can be allowed to promote Catholicism so much.”
The pupil: ‘I was bullied by other students’
Aoife recently finished secondary school and is due to begin college shortly. She lives in Munster with her family. We have also spoken to Aoife’s mother and her brother to verify elements of her story
“I’m not baptised and I am an atheist. In primary school I didn’t do my communion or confirmation. I felt very different then, and there was one week there when we were almost continually in church. I was always at the back, reading. I hated when the priests and nuns would visit, because one time a priest asked me what religion I was and he said, ‘Oh, so you’re Protestant.’
“Overall, though, my primary school was quite good. I have dyslexia, and they usually arranged for me to go to the resource teacher during religion class.
“Secondary school was awful. When I started in first year we had an assembly with prayers every morning, led by a nun. When this nun found out that I wasn’t Catholic she moved me to the top of the classroom. I was in a new school and trying to make new friends; it felt awful.
“One time the nun was talking about bad influences, and she told the class that they shouldn’t be friends with people of a different religion. There were also two Muslims in the class. A lot of the bonding exercises and getting to know people was done in religion, so I felt excluded.
“Eventually, in fifth year, I was allowed to go to the library during religion class; they couldn’t argue against this as they already allowed me to do this during Irish, which I was exempt from. I was physically and verbally bullied by some other students because they found out I was writing about atheism, so I stopped it.
“It wasn’t all bad: my physics teacher was so great and supportive, but that’s because she’s an atheist. It got to me. I suffer from depression now, and I feel my experience in the school contributed to it.”