After many skirmishes along the boundaries between Church and State, between traditional faith values and post-modern liberal ones, it appears the question of who should control the Relationships and Sex Education (RSE) in Irish schools may be the one to finally draw a hard, new line in the sand between government and hierarchy. The question of what the Church is permitted to teach in its own historic bailiwicks is essentially what we have come down to.
The classroom in Catholic denominational schools has been, in theory at least, as much a platform for Church teaching on faith and morals as the pulpit or the home. However, the fact that denominational schools are publicly funded and open to children of all faiths and none, has always meant they were vulnerable to cultural shifts. Both sides agree there is a need to transfer a substantial number of denominational schools to secular management. However, when it comes to particular cases, individual schools are often resistant to change.
Many non-religious parents who send their children to Catholic schools do not find the faith ethos of such schools particularly oppressive. Nominally Catholic parents who would frankly admit their faith is of the a la carte variety are not made to feel uncomfortable either, mainly perhaps, because the majority of teachers are cast in the same mould. More often than not, a la carte means it is the Church’s teaching on sexuality which is the doctrinal serving most likely to be left languishing on the menu.
The Church has just published new material for use in RSE classes in Catholic primary schools called ‘Flourish’. The aspect of the mostly highly inoffensive content that has caused most annoyance among some politicians is the part which says Catholic schools must continue to teach that marriage is between a man and a woman.
The Catholic Church, unlike political parties and movements, does not have authority to update its teaching as secular zeitgeists come and go. Its teachings originate outside itself. It cannot change what it has always understood and always taught as foundational truths, preached or upheld by its divine founder. To do so would be not only to lose all credibility but to abandon its mission to preach the gospel both ‘in season and out’, the very point of its institution and existence. The Church, however, does need to address the charge, from both within and without its own ranks, that the Gospel of love and mercy, preached by Jesus Christ, is somehow infiltrated with ancient, outdated prejudices that have no place in progressive societies.
Are Catholic schools going to be banned from teaching what is at odds with modern sexual norms? Will they have to teach small children that someone who is biologically male or female, might actually belong to the opposite sex because that is what they believe about themselves?
What will they eventually be forced to teach about abortion?
There are parents of all faiths and none who do not want their 13-year-old daughters sharing a school changing room or toilet with an adult, male, 18-year-old fellow student. There are parents of all faiths and none who would like their children to understand the amazing and rapid way life develops in the womb, to understand that abortion is not a neutral matter of ‘reproductive health’ but potentially a devastating, life-changing experience for a girl.
There are parents of all religious hues who do not want casual sex normalised to avoid ‘shaming’ those who may feel judged as a consequence. There are parents who do not want prostitution to be re-characterised as ‘sex work’. There are parents who believe that assisted human reproduction is not ethically neutral. Many of those who voted ‘no’ in the marriage referendum did so because they believe that a child’s healthy development is best served within a family structure headed by his or her biological parents. These are among the issues that might make a lot of parents uneasy about an RSE curriculum formed entirely by a liberal viewpoint.
It is why the RSE issue is more than a Church/State argument. It is also a matter of democracy. What is to become of the views of those parents who object to abortion, believe in traditional marriage, and do not go along with gender ideology, and so on? Are they simply to be swept aside?
Many parents would have little objection to an RSE programme that teaches sex education in a genuinely objective, age-appropriate, ethos-light way, leaving it to parents themselves and religious instruction programmes to offer an ethical framework. That is clearly not what the government wants to do, however. Their whole approach is ethos-saturated despite claims to ‘objectivity’. If the Church can be said to have exceeded its remit in education as society secularises then the State is doing exactly the same thing. But there remains an even wider dimension to this debate.
The overriding issue is the legitimacy of dissent in a democracy. Conflicts like this are not unique to Ireland of course but in Ireland they seem to have advanced to a level of confrontation that requires either determined counter-attack or strategic retreat. The Catholic Church may be the first to give way. But this battle is part of a wider ideological war. It will not be the end of the advance of post-modern ideology but the Church’s capitulation will surely make that advance a whole lot easier.