How the Catholic Church could solve the school patronage problem

‘The church has it within its power to voluntarily cede some control so its schools are inclusive in both word and deed’

The winds of change that former minister for education Ruairí Quinn heralded in school patronage four years ago have now evaporated. The Forum on Patronage and Pluralism in the Primary Sector has come and gone, and all we have to show for it are the transfer of three schools – one Catholic and two Protestant – to non-religious patrons out of 3,200 primary schools nationwide.

The Department of Education is now giving first call to non-religious patrons when creating new schools in areas of population growth but it has all but given up on its attempts to get the Catholic Church to loosen its stranglehold on the sector.

More than 90 per cent of State-funded primary schools remain under Catholic Church patronage, giving the bishops immense control over the curriculum, teacher recruitment and admissions policies.

The church is standing behind “parental choice” to justify its intransigence. Local communities are reluctant to abandon the old school crest.


But the clamour for change is growing nationally and internationally, with successive UN human rights committees voicing concern about the lack of non-denominational schools in Ireland.

The next Government will almost certainly have to return to the drawing board as the current policy is not working.

The irony is this problem could be resolved overnight by the Catholic Church for very sound religious as well as political reasons. The church proclaims to invite people to join in Catholic worship but there is nothing “invitational” about the role of the Catholic Church in the primary sector.

In most parts of the country, Catholic patronage is de facto compulsory or non-voluntary: parents have to pretend their children are Catholic to guarantee a place in school, and teachers have to pretend to be Catholic to guarantee employment.

This runs counter to the spirit of the church's own doctrine. In its latest policy document on "inclusion", the Catholic Schools Partnership, which represents the bishops in education, states that Catholic ethos is "is best understood as an invitation to allow Catholic faith inform the values and traditions that are lived out and nurtured on a daily basis in the school".

The church may claim that parents are consenting to Catholic education when they sign their children up to a Catholic school but, without genuine choice between types of education, there is no meaningful consent.

Are the bishops not embarrassed to stand over this state of affairs? Are ordinary Catholics not offended by the way their faith has been reduced to an admissions ticket to schooling?

There are two things the church could do overnight to create an inclusive education system – one is to end its “Catholic first” admissions policy in schools, and the other is to have children “opt in” to faith formation classes (misleadingly described at primary level as “religious education”) rather than “opt out”.

With these two measures, the need for a diversity of patrons in Ireland would almost entirely disappear. Catholic schools would remain under Catholic ownership. They could exemplify Catholic teaching in their leadership and educational culture, and they could facilitate Catholic parents and children – in a non-coercive way – to develop their faith alongside other members of the community.

Such schools would be Catholic in a much more meaningful sense, demonstrating a Christian spirit of openness to “the other”. Indeed, they would exemplify the sort of Catholicism that many atheists admire – a welcoming, tolerant and intellectually-honest form of Catholicism that puts freedom of conscience centre stage.

If Catholics ever became an endangered minority “positive discrimination” in limited circumstances might warrant reinstatement but that day is a long way off.

A few years ago, Archbishop of Dublin Diarmuid Martin said: "I see very little point in being the patron of Catholic schools which are not truly Catholic."

I couldn’t agree more. If we can accept that Catholic schools should invite people to the faith without duress, then the Archbishop and likeminded members of the hierarchy have a straight choice: either move aside as school patrons, or else abandon “positive discrimination” in admissions and stop the teaching of faith formation without meaningful consent.

This situation would not satisfy everyone. Some citizens are so disgusted by the church’s behaviour in recent years they want religion out of education altogether. Others question whether State-funded schools should remain under the ownership of a religious organisation.

But many others, myself included, see some value – or truth – within Christian teaching, particularly in the realm of ethics, which validates faith as an option.

One could frame this debate in a legalistic way, and look at the competing rights under the Constitution to freedom of worship and to non-sectarian education.

Whether denominational schools should be State funded has never been tested in the courts, and that legal challenge may yet come.

However, we all have rights that we may choose not to exercise for the greater good, and the church has it within its power to voluntarily cede some control so its schools are inclusive in both word and deed.

It appears the bishops don’t want to give up power. Perhaps it’s time ordinary Catholics, at parish level and through school boards of management, taught them the real meaning of Christian hospitality and openness.

The alternative for the church is a much uglier confrontation that will further antagonise non-Catholics and create greater hostility to Catholic teaching in Irish society. Joe Humphreys is Eduaction Correspondent