Joe Humphreys: Church has no reason to fear secularism

Penny slow to drop among Catholic Church in Ireland on issue of school patronage

Is secularism really a threat to the Catholic Church? The answer is far from straightforward as “secular” hasn’t always been seen as such an antagonistic term by Catholics.

The Oxford English Dictionary defines secular as “concerned with the affairs of this world; not spiritual or sacred”.

By this measure, who would not be secular, at least in part?

Defining secularism is more problematic. It can mean anything from humanitarianism to ridding society of religious influence. As a political concept, it is best understood as the separation of church and state – and it is this definition that the bishops should concentrate on.


Why? Because secularism so conceived is not a threat to the church but the key to its survival. In his latest book Not in God's Name, the distinguished inter-faith scholar Rabbi Jonathan Sacks highlights how secular societies provide the best protection for religions precisely because they lack "one sacred canopy".

Not just that, he says, but “liberal democracy, however odd this sounds, [is] the best way of instantiating the values of Abrahamic monotheism . . . It recognises that politics is not a religion nor a substitute for one.”

Pope Francis has implicitly acknowledged the importance of separating church and state in his condemnation of the persecution of Christians in the Middle East. But the penny has been slow to drop with the Catholic Church in Ireland, notably in relation to school patronage.


There is little acknowledgement within the church here of the way in which it has captured a large segment of the state’s education system, let alone is there an appetite for disentanglement.

One calculation highlights the point. The average classroom teacher at primary level spends 2½ hours a week on faith formation (misleadingly described as religious education). Given the average teacher delivers 28 hours of instruction per week, and based on the fact that nine out of 10 primary schools are under Catholic patronage, the state funds Catholic faith formation in the primary sector to the tune of €90 million per year.

That’s a conservative estimate, based on the average teacher’s salary and excluding time spent by non-teaching principals on sacramental preparation. It also excludes the significant institutional funding that goes towards preparing teachers to instruct in faith formation; effectively a compulsory element of teacher training.

Irish citizens – Catholic and otherwise – are right to ask: “Is this a good use of taxpayers’ money?” Aside from cost, there is an issue of accountability. If the state is subsidising a church activity (in the form of faith formation) the money should be properly traced to source.

Church tax

Logically, that would mean the introduction of a church tax similar to that in


so that Catholics can continue to fund this activity through the Revenue system. Or it would mean parishes taking responsibility for faith formation, presumably through a combination of parental volunteering and parish fundraising.

Archbishop of Dublin Diarmuid Martin has made some overtures in this regard, speaking of the need to develop “a much greater degree of parish-based catechesis [religious instruction]”. There are also solid educational reasons for moving faith formation to the parish, chief among them plans for the introduction of the new Education about Religions and Beliefs (ERB) and Ethics primary school programme.

This has been condemned by Rev Prof Eamonn Conway, head of theology at Mary Immaculate College, University of Limerick, on the grounds that it is "an inherently secularist approach to the study of faiths" which, he claimed, sought "to banish specific expressions of religious conviction".

The first part of his critique is accurate – the programme doesn’t champion one faith above all others – but his claim that such secularism amounts to banishing faith is bogus.

The draft syllabus would complement existing faith formation programmes. And if the latter were moved to the parish, Catholic schools would still have scope to express their religious convictions through moral leadership and good works in the community.

Public consultation on the ERB and Ethics programme closes at the end of March (see, and one would hope the church responds not just constructively but rationally.

Joe Humphreys's philosophy column, Unthinkable, runs on Tuesdays in The Irish Times