Faith formation and decline in vocations
Sir, – While the decline in religious practice among Catholics is very serious, the fall in vocations is truly catastrophic. Maynooth seminary had its lowest entry ever in 2018, with only five entrants. This year, in country with four million Catholics, where all Catholic children receive seven years of faith formation at primary school and the vast majority get five more in secondary school, we will ordain only one new priest. There will be more bishops consecrated than priests ordained.
This year is undoubtedly a bad year for ordinations – in most years there are four or five ordinations in Ireland, a little more than one priest per million Catholics. Yet in France, with a Catholic population of about 40 million, but where religious instruction is banned in about 80 per cent of all public schools, it consistently ordains about 120 priests per annum or three priests per million Catholics. Why does the profoundly secular republic of France ordain vastly more priests than the “Catholic” Republic of Ireland? One possibility is that all religious formation in France is fully voluntary and is generally carried out in the parishes. In Ireland, faith formation is almost exclusively carried out in compulsory classes in State-funded public schools, by lay teachers. New teachers applying for jobs in 90 per cent of our schools must be qualified to teach the Catholic religion and indicate belief, whether they believe or not.
This is now a serious problem, with many teachers no longer practising any religion, presumably because they never really believed in the faith they are expected to teach to begin with. It is very likely that secondary school children pick this up very quickly.
But compelling children who are not Catholic to attend faith formation classes is not only counter-productive; it is unjust.
The guidelines for the inclusion of children of other faiths in Catholic schools baldly state: “Withdrawing students from RE (religious education) class can present the school with considerable logistical and supervision dilemmas. In cases such as this, a school should make it clear that responsibility for supervision of the student at such times lies with the parents.”
How can this be justified? The children of those parents pay the same contribution to the education budget as all other parents. Why should a publicly funded school be allowed withdraw its obligation to supervise children purely on religious grounds?
There is no canonical or civil law compelling Catholic schools to take this decision. There is no educational benefit for the children at the front of the class. Rather, the opposite.
The logistical excuse is nonsense, especially in larger secondary schools, where children change classrooms several times a day. Funding is not an issue either – if schools wish to change their policy, then, in the interests of equality, the Department of Education will surely fund any additional costs.
Why do Catholic schools insist on this discrimination? Perhaps Archbishop Diarmuid Martin provides the answer: “The causes of the crisis lie within the church itself. Much of the heritage of Catholic-dominated Ireland still entraps us from being free witnesses to the Christian message within a secular society that is seeking meaning. It is not a time to be lamenting; it is a time to be rising to the challenge (of secularisation) with courage and Christian enthusiasm.”
The failure of Catholic schools to adapt and face this challenge can be clearly seen in the outcomes for religious practice and ordinations. With goodwill all round, supervision of those children who are not Catholic outside faith-formation classes can be quickly arranged. – Yours, etc,