The churches run 96 per cent of our primary schools and approximately 50 per cent at secondary level, yet the fastest growing cohort in the Irish population today is people with no religion. They are also among our youngest.
Their number, including atheists and agnostics, increased by more than 70 per cent per cent between 2011 and 2016, and now number 481,388. They are now the second largest category in the State, at 10.1 per cent of the population, with an average age of 34, or 3.4 years younger than the average for our population overall.
All came through an education system dominated by the churches.
It was Catholic Archbishop of Dublin Diarmuid Martin who last July noted that those in the “no religion” category were “highest in the age group 20-39, the group with children entering school life”.
That age group, he said, “accounts for 28 per cent of the general population, but 45 per cent of those with no religion fall into this age bracket”.
Yet there remained, he said, “a stubborn reluctance within the church” to allow the current situation to change. The “Irish religious education establishment is fixated on questions of ownership and management, and too little on the purpose of the Catholic school and the outcomes of Catholic education in terms of faith formation”.
The same would apply to the other churches.
All our major churches are ageing and in decline. The average age of Church of Ireland members was 40.3 years in 2016, while their number was down 2 per cent on 2011.
Catholics averaged 38.2 years, while their number was down to 78.3 per cent of the population in 2016. Most dramatic of all are Presbyterian numbers on the island of Ireland, which have dropped by approximately 40 per cent since the 1970s.
The trend is clear, vigorous and relentless, and it is unequivocally towards the secular among those who will be our future – our younger population – while more and more of those younger people who still identify with a church do so for cultural/identity reasons rather than faith.
And all despite an education system dominated in Ireland by the churches for almost 200 years.
It is at the deeper level of faith and values that our church-run schools are failing most abjectly.
Would the Celtic Tiger madness have overrun this country with such a devastating effect if our church-run schools were successful in instilling Christian values in our population?
Would developers have been as reckless had church-run schools been effective? Would bankers have driven the economy over a cliff? Whatever happened that laudable “Protestant probity” once associated with Irish banks?
Had our church-run schools been effective would we have had need for so many tribunals and lengthy bank-related trials? Would the September 2008 bank guarantee in Ireland have been necessary, or the arrival of the bailout troika in November 2010? Would there have been need for either had our church-run schools done what they still claim to do?
Would our homelessness figures continue to climb even while 40 years ago, in a poorer Ireland, a government could build 100,000 homes over four years?
You do have to wonder.
None of this is to deny the quality of education provided in our church-run schools without which Ireland could not have evolved into the first-world country it is today with one of the fastest growing economies.
All of us have benefitted from such church-run education, including myself. That needs to be acknowledged. We should not throw out that baby. We should appreciate it, and at least some Irish people still do.
This came to mind when, on a visit to Rome, I found myself in the sacristy of the Pauline Chapel at the Vatican, where I saw some prominent Irish names on a plaque there. It acknowledges, in Latin, generous financial support by 26 patrons for the chapel's restoration which cost an estimated €9 million before completion in 2009.
Among those included are Seán FitzPatrick formerly of Anglo Irish Bank, Michael Fingleton, formerly of Irish Nationwide, property developers Paddy McKillen, Seán Mulryan, and Johnny Ronan and financier Derek Quinlan.
They are listed as patrons of the arts in the Vatican museums. They have not forgotten their debt to church-run schools.
Patsy McGarry is Religious Affairs Correspondent