Religious education differs vastly from faith formation

Opinion: There’s an important distinction to be made between how religious teachings are introduced in a church, mosque or synagogue…

Opinion:There's an important distinction to be made between how religious teachings are introduced in a church, mosque or synagogue, and how such teachings are to be introduced in schools.

Where this difference is overlooked, there is a danger that the need to distinguish between educational experience and faith formation will be similarly disregarded. Both generally involve systematic learning. And religious teachings can feature in both. But, properly understood, educational experience is mainly exploratory in character while faith formation is, from the start, evangelising in purpose and in practice.

The distinction here is not simply one of “learning about” religion on the one hand and being nurtured in the teachings of a particular faith on the other. Genuine educational experience is always more than “learning about”.

As well as a deepening of conceptual understanding or an advance in knowledge, it involves some appreciation of the significance of what is learned for one’s sense of personal identity, for one’s efforts to find an enduring sense of orientation and belonging in a world shared with others.


Where Christianity is concerned, a keen awareness of the distinction I’m highlighting can be discerned in the teaching activities of Jesus Christ, as documented in the synoptic Gospels. But the distinction seems subsequently to have become eclipsed in the history of institutionalised Christianity, from imperial Rome to Reformation and thereafter. The distinction is all but obliterated by the concept of “school patronage” – a remnant that still burdens educational policy and practice in 21st-century Ireland.

Jesus Christ used strikingly different approaches when dealing with “disciples” on the one hand and “multitudes” on the other. Here’s how Matthew tells it: “All these things Jesus spoke in parables to the multitudes; and without parables he did not speak to them.” (Matthew 13:34).

Mark’s account is similarly unequivocal: “And with many such parables he spoke to them the word, according as they were able to hear. And without parable he did not speak unto them; but apart, he explained all things to his disciples.” (Mark 4:33-34).

“Multitudes” were heterogeneous groupings – what today we might describe as groups containing a wide plurality of values and beliefs. The term “disciples”, then and now, refers to already well-disposed and eager believers. Viewed from a religion perspective, most Irish schools today, including faith schools, are populated more by multitudes than by disciples. That is probably as true of the teachers as of the students.

Teaching in parables

Speaking to multitudes only in parables seems to have been a decisive, even a categorical strategy on Christ’s part. As a teaching approach, parables draw imaginatively on life’s troubles and triumphs. They seek to illustrate important points in a memorable way, yet in one that makes no presumptions on the loyalties or convictions of the hearers.

Jesus Christ set up no schools. The teaching episodes described in the Gospels are all informal, whether with disciples or with multitudes. Of course Christ’s purposes were evangelising ones. But where multitudes were concerned, his practices were invitational and exploratory. The concept of school patronage, and its preoccupation with control, is properly a foreigner to Christian missionary endeavour.

Patron bodies are so familiar a feature of Irish education that it’s hard to imagine what life for our schools would be like without them. What would happen if the churches, the VECs, Educate Together and An Foras Pátrúnachta were no longer to feature in Irish schooling? Who would do the work these bodies are doing now?

A short answer to a searching question is that the work would have to be reconceived and carried out by public education authorities. This would also mean amending the 1998 Education Act, which still retains the concept of “patron” and makes no mention of public education authorities.

There are critical differences between a patron body and a public education authority. In Ireland, patron bodies took shape even before the establishment of the national school system in 1831 – a policy endeavour that succeeded on many fronts but not in its declared purpose “to unite in one system children of different creeds”.

Public education authorities in more than a few countries have periodically embraced strident political doctrines, sometimes acting as if they were secular variants of aggressive patron bodies. But their proper role in a democracy is to ensure that education is recognised, provided for and protected, as a distinct practice in its own right. An impressive example of how public education authorities can build strong traditions of reciprocal trust with communities in a pluralist democracy is provided by Finland over the last three to four decades (See Finnish Lessons, by Pasi Sahlberg, 2011).

Of course, Ireland is not Finland. Traditions of civic engagement – as distinct from community commitment – are weaker in Ireland than in many other European countries. But the Republic’s schools, by and large, including faith schools, are non-sectarian. This is chiefly due to the commitment of teachers to practices that are defensible on educational grounds, whatever the nature of the patron body. It is also due to a widespread pragmatism – mainly caring, sometimes more calculating – among school managements.

Denominational schooling

But problems now loom larger. School managements and teachers have to make increasingly demanding accommodations. And misgivings about the denominational nature of so much of Irish schooling are increasing among parents.

The Government’s response, rather than encouraging a greater plurality within all schools, seems to be promoting a greater plurality of schools, and leaving the notion of school patronage intact. Perhaps no other course of action appears practicable at present. But the future frequently confounds the wisdom of the present, even making “non-starters” suddenly timely. Let me conclude with a recent telling example.

Former German chancellor Willy Brandt, when asked about the prospects of a reunited Germany, replied that he could envisage it only as the final step in a united Europe. Germany has been one country now for 22 years. The EU remains divided on many fronts. Percipient policymaking appreciates the crooked paths of history are replete with surprises.

* Dr Pádraig Hogan is a senior lecturer in the education department of NUI Maynooth