Overview:

The Catholic church still controls the vast majority of Irish public schools and keeps finding new ways to maintain that control.

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Forty years ago, twice a week, my Irish primary school teacher marched my entire class of six- and seven-year-olds to the nearby church to prepare for Holy Communion. This sacrament is the first exposure of Irish children to the Roman Catholic theory that ceremonial wafers and wine literally transform into the body and blood of Jesus.

Even at the time, it made no sense to me. Yet there we were, cheerily singing and dancing into what was effectively the local branch of an international network of pedophile enablers.

We would go through a very similar class-led process some years later to prepare for Confirmation. This ritual induction into the Roman Catholic church is, for the vast majority of Irish people, the first and only time they will get slapped by a bishop.  

This indoctrination happened without consultation or debate of any kind under the “reasonable” assumption that almost every student in the Irish public school system was Catholic. Currently, in the Republic of Ireland, the Catholic Church controls around 95% of the primary schools and about 50% of the secondary schools.

Although Catholic schools are not legally permitted to discriminate against pupils based on religion, the same law confusingly entitles them to take measures to prefer the Catholic “ethos”. School boards have found ways around this, including keeping enrolment criteria secret and prioritising children of past pupils (who would have been subject to overt religious discrimination) and removing the names of the Catholics who shape the syllabus from the public domain.

In 2017, the government recommended that non-Catholics (22% of the population in the last census) send their children to schools run by Educational and Training Boards (ETBs). The Catholic Church itself welcomed this approach to accommodating diversity which should have been a sign that it was ineffective. 

An investigation by Atheist Ireland predictably revealed that at least some ETBs were actively promoting a Catholic ethos. Some highlights of that investigation include the following direct quotes from Tipperary ETB documents obtained under the Freedom of Information Act:

  • “The Christian belief, ethos and characteristic spirit of our schools is Catholic”
  • “… it is our duty to have prayer / put up Christian symbols etc”
  • “The importance of Religious Education being viewed as a core subject in the curriculum”
  • “In addition to class hours, time must be allowed for regular class, school and year-based liturgies as well as an annual retreat or pilgrimage”

At the risk of stating the obvious, this affects not just atheists but also Protestants, Muslims, and Hindus, all of whom have established communities in Ireland. We would do well to remember that the original purpose of the separation of church and state was to protect non-majority religions, not atheists.

Pupils are legally entitled to refuse religious instruction in any state school but again the Catholic school boards have found ways around the law, including ostracising pupils during religion lessons and outright forcing them to take the classes. 

At third level, candidates for nurse and teacher training courses suffer discrimination based on religion and once teachers are in employment, the Catholic Church runs training courses to help explain how to inculcate their pupils with a Roman Catholic ethos.

It’s a constant struggle to coerce the Roman Catholic church to address their constitutional and legal obligations while they spend their time framing these obligations as a series of concessions and positioning themselves as the victims.

Atheist or agnostic parents, perforce, often had their children baptized at birth as fully-observant Roman Catholics to ensure access to education services. One corollary is the wild exaggeration of the number of “real” Catholics in the national census with knock-on effects for any public policy using those incorrect figures. 

It’s a constant struggle to coerce the Roman Catholic church to address their constitutional and legal obligations while they spend their time framing these obligations as a series of concessions and positioning themselves as victims. David Quinn, head of the Roman Catholic Iona Institute (recently identified as a far-right hate group by the Global Project Against Hate and Extremism), regularly appears in our media, apparently without any irony or self-awareness, complaining about “anti-Catholic sectarianism” and how silenced he is.

Positive developments

It’s not all bad news. Since the mid-1990s, Irish mainstream culture has been gradually shuffling off the stultifying influence of Catholicism, sometimes gradually and sometimes “at breakneck speed”.

In 2017, the government announced plans to end what has become known as the “baptism barrier”. At the time, the church reacted with “a shrug”, but they later threatened “a series of legal challenges from parents and religious bodies”. In 2018, the Irish government confirmed the constitutional right of all children to not have to take religion classes in public schools and at least some secondary schools would remove overtly Roman Catholic symbols from their buildings. This year, the government agreed to pay rent to the Vatican for 40 years so that 20 schools could be used for multi-denominational (which is still not a secular education) education.

On a long enough timeline, argues Steven Pinker in Better Angels of our Nature, things get better for everyone, everywhere. This has certainly been the case in Ireland. Because these developments fit neatly into a recognizable and irreversible trend, I look forward to a future where I can send my children to public school without any influence of any church at all.

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Barry Purcell lives in Ireland and writes about religion, philosophy, psychology, politics and language for a variety of paper and online publications. He has been involved in campaigns to counteract the...