Catholic schools could become unwitting agents of secularism unless teachers, parents and school authorities take heed of the report of the Forum on Patronage and Pluralism, a leading expert in Catholic education has warned.
He said the recommendations did not give proper recognition to the positive role of religion in society.
The report, published earlier this year, recommended the abolition of Rule 68 for National Schools, which recognises religious instruction as a fundamental part of the school day and permits a religious spirit to "inform and vivify the whole work of the school".
It also proposed that religion should be taught as a discrete subject apart from the rest of the curriculum, that hymns and prayers in Catholic schools should be inclusive of the religious beliefs of all children and that Catholic schools would display the emblems of other religions and celebrate their feasts.
Writing in this month's Furrow magazine, Dr Eamon Conway, a senior lecturer in Mary Immaculate College in Limerick, said that the Forum's report should be “a wake-up call for the Catholic Church and its role in the Irish educational system”.
Dr Conway noted that Education Minister Ruairi Quinn had “been anxious to allay fears that schools remaining under religious patronage will be forced to compromise on their ethos, despite the worrying recommendations of the Forum”.
He noted a Seanad speech by the Minister in which he acknowledged that it would be hard to get the Church to divest its schools if it were curtailed “in terms of how it celebrates and teaches Catholicism to its own community”.
Dr Conway wrote: “This might all seem like good news from a Church point of view and we could well decide to sit back, in the expectation that little of any real practical difference is going to happen. This would be a mistake.
“The Forum’s report is a wake-up call for the Catholic Church and its role in the Irish educational system. The content but also the whole approach and tone of the Forum’s report is an important ‘cultural marker’.
The report, he said, was “preoccupied with the rights of a small minority”.
Dr Conway wrote: “In fact, it is startling how often ‘rights’ language is used in the report, predominantly regarding the “10pc of the population who declare themselves as having ‘no religion.’”
The report had uncritically adopted the approach of the Irish Human Rights Commission (IHRC) on religious education, which saw religious influence on education as negative, and which underplayed the right to freedom of religious expression.
Dr Conway said: “It is difficult to read the report without concluding that “the inherited pattern of denominational school patronage” is considered to have no place in a modern society, an impression underlined by the detailed account given of the origins and history of the patronage system that portrays it as belonging to a different era.
“The operative principle seems to be that enlightened Catholic parents will want their children educated in a multidenominational setting and increasingly, future citizens will belong to the ‘no religion’ category.”
He said that the underlying attitude of the State towards religious education seemed to be rooted in a post 9/11 conception of religion as something which still retained great power and danger.
Citing the concept paper of a 2009 Asian European Foundation (ASEF) conference on interreligious dialogue, he said that the modern State's view of religion was that “because religion remains a potent force even in modern societies, education to mitigate its negative effects is essential”.
He said “The emphasis in religious education from the state’s perspective must be upon fostering tolerance, dialogue, mutual understanding and reconciliation.”
Such concepts, he said, occured frequently in the Forum report.
He added: “There is little recognition in this discourse that religions play a significant role in promoting responsible citizenship and social cohesion, although there is ample research to back this up.
“A key study at Boston College, for example, found that religion played a formative role in social commitment for the majority of people studied.”
He also cited the Forum's recommendation that a programme entitled Education about Religions and Beliefs (ERB) be introduced into denominational schools, a recommendation proposed by both the IHRC and Atheist Ireland.
The programme is based on “Toledo Guiding Principles On Teaching About Religions And Beliefs In Public Schools”.
Dr Conway said that there were a range of problems with the programme among which was the programme's alleged “procedural neutrality”.
He said: “This means that the faith perspectives of pupils and teachers alike are supposedly bracketed. Teachers are not to disclose to pupils their own views or allow such views to influence their teaching. What is required of the teacher is not religious commitment but rather a positive attitude towards difference and the ability not to impose their views upon others.”
Further, he said that the approach taken by this method leaves no place “for the concept of doctrine understood as normative teaching or indeed for anything claiming authority other than the students’ own experience”.
Dr Conway says: “Commenting about this approach as a general trend in pedagogy, Frank Furedi has observed 'the current project of confining the education of children to learning from experiences that are directly relevant to them disinherits the younger generation from their rightful intellectual legacy'.
“This valorisation of pupils’ own experiences leads pupils inevitably to the (secularist) belief that religious truth claims are merely relative.
“Therefore, the content and pedagogy of such a module is not neutral. In fact, the notion that religious knowledge can be communicated neutrally is also a secular belief. No education programme can bracket its formative dimension; the ERB unavoidably forms students in a secularist understanding of religion.”