With most secondary schools in Ireland being Catholic, Ruth Murphy looks at the damaging effect Catholic views are having in Irish schools

Due to the large number of Catholic schools in Ireland, many Irish teenagers find themselves going to religious schools. When a parent chooses to send their child to a religious secondary school the reasons are generally relating to getting a good education and not about religion. As these schools weren’t set up by the state but by the Catholic Church, the state doesn’t have full control over the schools even though in many cases they pay the staff’s wages. It is amazing that the Catholic Church would take so much time and effort to set up these schools. Nevertheless, the church’s present hold on these schools may be having negative effects.

Sexual education (Sex Ed) is very important in secondary school. Where else is a teenager to learn how to use contraceptives, how to treat STIs, the importance of consent and a wealth of other issues relating to sex? SPHE stands for Social, Personal and Health Education and Sex Ed of course comes under these headings. Some may say it also comes under Science and Home-Economics courses.

Nevertheless, it is difficult to find a secondary school in Ireland that has taught Sex Ed thoroughly and correctly. Many schools exclude Sex Ed entirely from their curriculum. Some students may be taught about condoms, if they’re lucky, and even then it is extremely rare that students would be shown an example. In this modern age this can lead students who want to have sex doing it in one of two ways. They can have sex without a condom or any form of contraceptive or secondly look it up online and find out for themselves. The negative results of both of these are glaringly obvious and yet schools don’t seem to pay attention to them. Girls in one Dublin school were heavily encouraged to use ‘natural contraception’. This meant to only have sex when they weren’t ovulating. We know now that this method doesn’t work. The teacher also stated that this was the best method because it is the only form of contraception that the Catholic Church approves of. What the Catholic Church thinks should have no bearing on what contraceptives a teenager uses.

In a school in Limerick girls were taught that if they had sex before they reached 18 they would get cervical cancer, only when disagreed with did the teacher change their statement to say that they had a higher chance of getting cervical cancer, which is also untrue. The risk of getting cervical cancer is increased if you become pregnant before the age of seventeen or have sex before you receive the vaccine. Schools across the country are both leaving students in the dark and misinforming them. How schools manage to ignore the matter of teenage pregnancy while it may be literally walking its halls is a great feat. It is both ridiculous and unacceptable that schools would leave out such huge issues when they know how damaging this can be to their students. How is a student to avoid illnesses they’ve never heard of and to use contraceptives they’ve never seen?

Following on from this, abortion is another issue often swept under the rug and, when it is taught about, the lesson is rarely without flaws. Many schools following on from their great teaching of abstinence say that if,  somehow you may have become pregnant, possibly by immaculate conception, you should not under any circumstances have an abortion. Some teachers have compared abortion to murder. A Home-Ec class in south Dublin was given a talk against abortion. The class were given pins the size of a foetus’ feet at the time that it would be aborted and were encouraged to wear these on their school jumpers. In an education system where students are expected to take in and accept everything teachers tell them this sort of pushing of political opinions is ridiculous and unjust. In another school when a student asked ‘what about abortion in the case of rape victims?’ the teacher explained that God has a plan for everyone he creates and that it is not our place to intervene. This is blatant pushing of one point of view on to students. No matter the views of any teacher or school shouldn’t students get to hear both sides?

In a non-denominational school in Tipperary despite the lack of religion it seemed that abortion was only discussed in religion class. It seems that the Catholic Church is such a large part of our culture that few schools can escape its views. The class, who were lucky enough to hear both sides, always heard much more from the pro-life side. This seems to be a common occurrence across Irish secondary schools. In another school students doing a project on abortion had to be reminded that as a catholic class “we believe life begins at conception”. Students are not being taught the details of abortion nor are they given the chance to make their own opinions on the matter. A school has no right to tell a student where to stand on an issue like this. A school should try to be unbiased in all its teachings. SPHE and Religion are no exception to this.

Another issue often ignored or skipped over in secondary schools is the existence of different sexes to male and female and different sexual orientations to heterosexual. The idea of teaching Sex Ed in relation to non-heterosexual relationships appeared to be out of the question. Most students can’t recall every being taught anything about sexes that don’t fit the gender binary. This is hugely damaging to the transgender or otherwise non-cisgender person sitting in the class having no idea how people might react to them and possibly not knowing who they are. Most LGBTQ+ students have similar problems sitting in an SPHE class taught for the straight, cisgender student. A 2012 online survey, for an LGBTQ+ organisation called ShoutOut, of 624 respondents, found that 92% of students think their secondary school did not provide enough information and support on sexuality. As with pregnancy and sex, we all know that the LGBTQ+ community exists so why can’t we talk about them? What help to a student’s mental health is it to avoid discussing the topics that are worrying them? LGBTQ+ students are more likely than straight, cisgender students to have mental health issues, to consider suicide and to drop out of school because of their mental health and/or bullying. Expressions such as “that’s so gay” are often let slide by school staff. If students can’t tell themselves to cop on it’s the job of the teacher to tell students that words like “faggot” are not ok, just as any other derogatory term would be punishable by a teacher.

Some may still argue that these issues are not the responsibility of a religious school to educate on. Religion, however, is something that Catholic schools must teach on. We can all understand that if a student attends a Catholic school they may be expected to uphold a Catholic ethos. A student may be expected to attend a few masses and sit through religion classes that are from the point of you of that school’s religion. In one Catholic school although students who identified with a religion other than Christianity were allowed sit out of religion classes those who simply lacked religious faith were slightly mocked by the teachers and forced to participate. Multiple schools hold confession where students would have to sit in a room with priests and a teacher. The student would have nothing to do other than to confess their sins and everyone else in the room could tell if they didn’t. Many schools teach students to neither use nor bow down to peer pressure and yet in this way they use it on their students.

In one South Dublin school a teacher who is also a well-known journalist in the national press often on television discussing Catholic issues showed students several presentations in response to recent accusations placed on the church. This included a slideshow explaining the goodness of Pope Benedict, research on the Magdalene laundries explaining how they had been depicted as worse than they were and supposed evidence that the cases of Savita Halappanavar and other victims of Irish abortion laws were the fault of the hospitals and not religious state law. This sort of behaviour from a teacher is outrageous. A religion class is not a chance for a teacher to spread their opinions.

Many teachers it seems are discussing issues with the church in mind as they genuinely fear for their jobs. One teacher in a South Dublin school admitted that as a teacher in a Catholic school they could not recommend the use of condoms. This same teacher when asked why their class didn’t do as much as another class explained that they were not permanent and didn’t have the same flexibility. Teachers fear that if they do not uphold the Catholic ethos they will be fired. This isn’t surprising when we consider that Irish law allows schools to take “action which is reasonably necessary to prevent an employee or a prospective employee from undermining the religious ethos of the institution”. Without a clear definition of “religious ethos” schools are free to punish teachers who teach their student ideas that in anyway oppose views expressed by the Catholic Church.

Teachers should be unbiased and let students decide their own stance on issues. In some cases, teachers do just this. Some teachers are perfectly, unbiased and open. Some whole schools are like this. Each school is different as is each teacher. With some teachers giving the correct education on these important matters it’s clear that not all teachers need fear punishment for such actions. Also, in many cases it may be the principle who decides how important a Catholic ethos is and teachers are forced to comply with this.

With teachers fearing discussing certain issues a lot of social education is taught through retreats. Workshop co-ordinators should have less fear as they will not lose their job if they don’t uphold a wholly Catholic theme. They are only in the school for a short while so discussing these issues shouldn’t be a huge problem, right? Unfortunately no, many of those who give retreats don’t want to say anything in their retreats that would anger the school as they may be told to leave, they may not be allowed to return and the school could tell other schools not to accept them.

Teachers, workshop givers and students are silenced while Sex Ed, abortion and LGBTQ+ issues are badly taught or brushed aside and religious views are pushed upon students. With Irish law allowing schools to discriminate against teachers who don’t uphold a school’s Catholic ethos there’s little to stop this continuing. Retreat groups may decide to teach what’s most important but may not then be allowed into schools. This sort of misinformation is unacceptable and damaging to students. A student’s faith should not be defined by the school they go to and a student should not be expected to act upon the views of the Catholic Church. The only hope is that the law will change, schools will get new teachers and management and slowly loosen their grip on the term “religious ethos”.