Defending What Doesn’t Work?: Catholic Education

The Catholic Schools Partnership (CSP) – the new umbrella group for Catholic schools – has come out in opposition to Minister for Education Ruairí Quinn’s plan to transfer the patronage of 50% of all primary schools in the Republic from the Catholic Church to civil society.

I am not against Catholic, or any other sort of religious schools. I even attended a Catholic university, Providence College, which is run by Dominican Friars. All students were required to enrol in two theology modules and to take four modules on ‘Western Civilization.’ These modules included in-depth consideration of the role of the Christian churches in the development of Western civilization.

Without sounding too smug, I must say that the professors at Providence were immediately able to identify the Protestants in our classroom discussions (myself included). Although many of our Catholic classmates had attended elite, American east coast, Catholic high schools, they tended to lack what seemed to me very basic knowledge of Catholic teaching, let alone the content of the bible. The few Protestants I knew at the university were, incidentally, regular church goers, and better able to answer questions about matters such as how biblical texts were reflected in the work of Milton or Shakespeare, and so on.

In short, we hadn’t attended religious schools, but we had better knowledge of Christianity than many of the Catholics who had. Note I am not saying that we had a better faith in God, or anything like that. I probably shouldn’t frame this discussion in Catholic/Protestant terms.

Perhaps I should be framing in terms of church-going, or taking Christianity seriously. Indeed, there were some Catholic students at Providence with encyclopaedic knowledge of their faith, but they were the regular mass-goers who had put in personal effort to develop their faith outside of the classroom.

But this made me wonder: what is the purpose of a Catholic education? If, as it seemed to me at the time, it hadn’t ‘worked’ for many of my classmates, why bother with Catholic schools? Would Catholics not be better off learning about their faith at their church, rather than in the classroom?

This question is being increasingly asked in Ireland. Writing in today’s Irish Times, Brian Mooney a guidance counsellor at Oatlands College in Stillorgan, Dublin, argues that ‘the CSP is wrong to oppose the Quinn plan.’

An ex-seminarian with 20 years experience of religious education, Mooney thinks that Quinn’s plan ‘will greatly strengthen both Irish society and the Catholic Church.’

Mooney wants parents to have a ‘real choice’: one where in ‘some schools Catholic faith formation is an integral part of the curriculum and an alternate patronage model’ where faith teaching is not required.

I agree with his reasoning, which he elaborates:

I believe that there is nothing more destructive to the faith of a child than to be catechised and prepared for sacraments by teachers who are not themselves practising Catholics.

It is a lose-lose situation.

The teachers can resent having to do this work. It teaches the child at a very early stage in their personal development that it is okay to say one thing, and believe something completely different. Where has that insight led us to as a society?

…. I believe this kind of hypocrisy undermines our civic society and personal morality. And we have had very serious failures of business ethics in this society in the past two decades.

These sentiments are echoed by Seán Byrne, who lectures in economics at the Dublin Institute of Technology, also writing in today’s Irish Times. Byrne quotes a 2007 survey by the Iona Institute, which revealed that among Irish people aged 15-24:

Only 5 per cent could quote the First Commandment, 32 per cent could not say where Jesus was born, and 35 per cent did not know what is celebrated at Easter. Fewer than half knew what the Trinity is comprised of, and only 15 per cent knew what transubstantiation is.

As I asked after my experience at Providence, Byrne asks:

This pitiful ignorance of the basic facts and tenets not just of Catholicism but of Christianity raises the question of whether the significant resources devoted to teaching religion in Irish schools are largely wasted.

Byrne says the current religious syllabus is ‘so broad and vague that practically anything that is connected, however tenuously, to religion or spirituality can be taught.’ Like Mooney, he thinks there should be a choice. But for Byrne, that choice should be made by the Catholic Church:

The Catholic Church should decide whether religion should be catechesis, and so taught only to those who wish to learn it, or religious studies, which would better prepare students for a multicultural world. The present system leaves many young people ignorant about the Christian tradition which, leaving aside questions of personal faith, is central to an understanding of western civilisation.

Given these rather dismal evaluations of the effectiveness of Catholic education, why does the Catholic Church seem so determined to cling to its control of schools?




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