It has been thought that the links between Catholicism and Ireland have been loosening in recent months and years. Leah Flanagan wonders if this is the case with the Irish education system.

“In the beginning, there was a man and a woman.” The opening creed of Fr. Brian McKevitt in LawSoc’s final debate last March was met by a collective, exasperated sigh of a crowd of young people. We were sitting on the precipice of a changing Ireland and it seemed that there was no space for Catholicism. Arguing in favour of the motion “This House would vote ‘No’ in the Marriage Referendum”, Fr. McKevitt buried his stake deep by saying that by supporting same-sex marriage, we “take away hope for the future.” It seemed Fr. McKevitt was more of a symbol of the Catholic Church than we knew.

As the rainbow flags were hoisted above the crowd in the grounds of Dublin Castle two months later, it seemed that the country had taken a giant leap away from the pressures of Catholicism. 62 per cent of voters from our predominantly Roman Catholic country had voted in favour of a referendum that defied the teachings of their own religion. In response, the Holy See’s Secretary of State, Cardinal Pietro Parolin referred to the outcome of the referendum as “a defeat for humanity.” Post May 22nd, Catholicism in Ireland has reached a crossroads. Many people are now looking to adopt a “supermarket” religion, picking and choosing whatever aspects appeal to them most. Although there is, and probably will forever be, support for religion and faith in our country, modern Ireland is becoming suspicious of its once respected leaders. The question now arises: should we encourage the fostering of such religious values and traditions in the children of the next generation?

Across the Republic of Ireland 3,300 primary schools are church controlled, with 90 per cent being Roman Catholic and 6 per cent Protestant. The support of these schools has shown rapid decline over recent years. However, a pressing issue that has arisen is the fact that there are little to no alternatives for non-religious parents. In some cases, in rural communities, it is unfortunately not unheard of for families to have their children baptised purely to offer them a better chance at a good education. Religious schools, by their ethos and mission statements, are allowed to select candidates based on whether or not they have been baptised. This means that the Catholic schools, which are in a heavy majority, are allowed to offer students from Catholic families priority over children from non-denominational families. In order for their child to gain access to the local school, some parents are being forced to commit them, somewhat falsely, to a religion and faith that they have no belief in.

“It is a struggle to paint the illusion of the Church being highly protective of its schools.”

From a legal perspective, under Section 7(3)(c) of the Equal Status Act 2000, a school under church patronage is allowed to discriminate on the basis of religious denomination. This legislation permits discrimination that prevents society from moving towards an equal Ireland. In fact, it can be deemed unconstitutional since An Bunreacht na hÉireann asserts that “The State shall not impose any disabilities or make any discrimination on the ground of religious profession, belief or status.” Young children may not have access to an education because they don’t share the same beliefs as their neighbour.

A movement which has become increasingly popular over the last forty years has been initiated by an non governmental organisation known as Educate Together. They are an organisation that are striving to set up multi-denominational schools around the country in order to offer equal opportunities to all students. Since 1978, the NGO has set up 77 schools around the country educating over 19,000 children across the board, irrespective of gender, race or religion. The demand since May 22nd has soared. Educate Together are now working with parents in 40 more areas in various regions to build and fund further primary and secondary schools, making this sort of education more accessible. Rather than searching for secular schools, it seems that more people are now recognising the place for religion and faith in our society. It has always been an integral part of our culture and heritage. Instead of shielding our children from that, it might be time to educate them from a wider, more objective lens.

The concept of multi-denominational education is to enlighten children to the teachings of faith and religion from all around the world. Rather than limiting a child to one viewpoint, it gives the child an opportunity to grow up surrounded by the beauty of all religions. This, in turn, nurtures a more inclusive atmosphere within a classroom, preventing any child from being marginalised from the rest of the school community. Educate Together define multi-denominational as being: “all children having equal rights of access to the school, and children of all social, cultural and religious backgrounds being equally respected.” It is difficult to find fault with a community that treats everybody as equal.

However, it is a struggle to paint the illusion of the Church being highly protective of its schools. On the contrary, they are seeking to work in tandem with the state to see the amalgamation of Church and state schools. Despite slow progress and resistance from many Catholic families, some of them are beginning to hand over patronage to non-denominational, independent organisations such as Educate Together. Following the Marriage Equality referendum, Archbishop Diarmuid Martin called on the Church to take a “reality check”. It seems they might be looking to do so. It is a relief to see such open-mindedness in esteemed members of the Roman Catholic religion. “We tend to think in black and white,” he stated. “But most of us live in the area of grey, and if the church has a harsh teaching, it seems to be condemning those who are not in line with it.”

Today, in Ireland, we are celebrating individuality, diversity and adulating those who veer away from the status quo. We are becoming an inclusive society, one devoid of prejudice and discrimination. Until the Church is willing to align itself with our values, it will be difficult for us to entrust our children to them. Too many taboos are cultivated on the basis of a religious ethos in Catholic schools, marginalising students from the rest of the community. If our schools begin to comply less astringently with religious beliefs, they might become more welcoming places for young people.