Opting out of faith formation in schools


Sir, – I am at a loss as to the point the Bishop of Kildare and Leighlin, Denis Nulty, is trying to make when he states that, according to diocesan research, “a very small group” of parents withdraw their children from daily faith formation lessons. (“Just 1% per cent of students ‘opt out’ of religion classes in Catholic schools”, December 19th). He cannot truly believe that such a figure indicates widespread satisfaction with the current system.

Around 90 per cent of taxpayer-funded primary schools in Ireland are under the patronage of the Catholic Church. All of these schools are entitled by law to apply the “baptism barrier” in enrolment and select children on the basis of their religion. This ensures baptisms of convenience and conformity by coercion but doesn’t entirely explain the apparently low opt-out rate.

The bishop’s figures are even more baffling when one considers that, according to the CSO, Catholic marriages in the State fell from 90.7 per cent in 1995 to 56.7 per cent in 2015, while non-religious marriages rose from 5.7 per cent to 33.7 per cent in the same period. (Interestingly though, a 2015 Ipsos poll showed 95 per cent of respondents under 35 had baptised their children – explicable, at least in part, by the fact that the State confers a major educational advantage on such children).

There is an explicit constitutional right “to attend a school receiving public money without attending religious instruction”. Nonetheless, the State does absolutely nothing to uphold this right, despite the fact that half an hour a day is spent on faith formation in Catholic schools. Schools are entirely unregulated as to how they accommodate children not of the patron’s religion.

Typically, these children sit separately in the classroom during faith formation, segregated from the rest of the class, doing non-curriculum busywork, while their friends sing songs, and so on.

This is the fate children who “opt out” will face every day of their primary school lives. The situation is infinitely worse during communion and confirmation years.

Faced with institutionalised exclusion during a child’s crucial formative years, faced with the heartbreaking option of marking a four-year-old as “other” within their peer group, is it any wonder that forlorn parents swallow the bitter pill the State proffers and conform.

Of course, the law doesn’t require the Catholic schools to behave in this way – it merely allows them. However, it would appear that waiting for voluntary inclusiveness from Catholic schools is a waste of time. The Government must change the law now to ensure equal school access for all children, regardless of religion, and the teaching of faith formation at the end of the school day – the latter to facilitate parents of all faiths and none in deciding if they wish their children to attend such lessons.

Let’s see the figures for parents opting in to faith formation when the State finally does its duty and upholds the rights of all children in our schools. – Yours, etc,



Dublin 5.