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?




  • dwatch

    Coming from Northern Ireland I think we have enought problems sorting out our own education system here before we start giving any words of advice education minister in the ROI.

  • RC religion classes were great – perfect for getting your homework done.

    I would have thought protestants were less likely to attend church compared to catholics. Hasn’t COE attendance (still the biggest in the UK) pretty much collapsed?

    I’m not doubting the possibility of students going through 12 years of religious education and not being familiar with the bible. You cannot teach something like religion to someone that doesn’t believe in it.

    It’d be like going to a science class and being told the earth was created some few thousand years ago. Such knowledge would not have much possibility to stick. 🙂

  • ForkHandles

    ” It’d be like going to a science class and being told the earth was created some few thousand years ago. Such knowledge would not have much possibility to stick. ”

    Imagine going to a science class and the teacher telling you that once upon a time there was absolutely nothing, and then for no apparent reason an enormous massively complex universe appeared! Thats not only ‘something out of nothing’ its ‘absolutely everything out of absolutely nothing!’ only a fool could believe that, wouldnt you agree? 🙂

  • joeCanuck

    what is the purpose of a Catholic education?

    Been there. Only purpose is to indoctrinate and discourage children from thinking for themselves or to ask awkward questions.

  • Zig70

    Defending what doesn’t work? Like Schools? Wise up. Like asking how come a kid sits through 5yrs (only counting secondary) of maths and hasn’t a clue what change he is due at the shops. So to hell with all schools then? School is a place to switch off in. My opinion of religion was more informed by the crazy Christian brothers that taught and tried to ruled me. I do think it’s time to step back a bit, get rid of inequality rules in schools. Let kids have teachers from all backgrounds. But if you are going to teach Catholic religion it only stands that it should be taught by a believer in that religion, otherwise the kids would see through it. That doesn’t need to be a full time teacher or a teacher dedicated to a single year. In the ROI the majority of parents will want their kids to complete the sacraments, flunk religion highers and only go to church three times a year like themselves, so that will need to be catered for.

  • joeCanuck


    I think you picked the wrong example. I think there are very few who don’t know what change they are due. Or am I just an out of touch oldie?

  • Greenflag

    ‘Imagine going to a science class and the teacher telling you that once upon a time there was absolutely nothing,’

    In which case he/she would’nt be much of a science teacher . For the singularity from which the universe emerged some 13.5 billion years ago was not ‘nothing ‘ It was ‘matter ‘ compressed to a degree which human beings can barely comprehend .
    That singularity may have been the remains of a previous universe or universes .

    We can be sure that the universe at the point of singularity was created on either a Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday or Thursday for the Great Creator could not have done the job on a Friday or a Saturday for it would not be kosher and or would upset the Jews and Moslems and likewise he/she could not have done the job on Sunday for that would be breaking the Sabbath and upset the god fearing bible thumpers . The other God the one acts as the role model for our bankers , politicians and international bondholders i.e Mammon – works 24hrs a day -7 days a week and gets no respite .

    There you have it the God of the universe got himself or herself a 4 day week from the get go . I wonder what Trade Union he or she is in ;)?

  • Big Maggie


    “Imagine going to a science class and the teacher telling you that once upon a time there was absolutely nothing, and then for no apparent reason an enormous massively complex universe appeared! Thats not only ‘something out of nothing’ its ‘absolutely everything out of absolutely nothing!’ only a fool could believe that, wouldnt you agree?”

    Are you sure that isn’t your RE classes you’re referring to? If your science teacher really taught you the above then s/he wasn’t much of a teacher and certainly not adhering to the science curriculum.

  • Greenflag

    ‘why does the Catholic Church seem so determined to cling to its control of schools?’

    What a naive question 🙁 To protect and enhance their future revenue stream like any other business or church .

    The purpose of all religious teaching catholic , protestant , jewish or islam is to get them brain washed early enough so that they will believe the incredible or at least most of them will and by the time they eventually wise up they will have parted with thousands of dollars, pounds , euros , shekels or rials or dinars which will ‘enrich ‘ the corporate religious executives .

    The world’s longest running ‘ponzi ‘ scheme, notwithstanding the undeniable role of the Church in the development of what we like to call western civilization .

  • Zig70

    If God had wanted me to be happy he wouldn’t have given me a Catholic wife.

  • Zig70

    The only problem with that last quip is you have to read more than two lines of the previous kak to get it.

  • Zig70

    That seems to have magically disappeared. Did I imagine the crazed rant? and now it looks like I’ve called Greenflags input kak.

  • abucs

    There seems to be two questions raised by this blog:

    1. Is Catholic schooling working in terms of teaching students about Catholicism.

    2. Should the Republic forcibly take schools away from Catholic ownership and give it to expressly non Catholic ownership.

    I think it is deceitful to try and argue that because of 1) then we should have 2).

    For those of us that care about 1) the answer is to get that right. In the last few decades the Catholic Education sector has bought into this secular universalism which ends up with the philosophy that not teaching students about Catholicism in Catholic Schools is a good and virtuous act to be involved in. Many teachers have followed that outdated mindset.

    If Quinn wants to say 1) is an issue then get 1) right by challenging the errorneous belief system of secular universalism within the Catholic Education sector.

    I think there should be choice in schooling and like most things,and as everyone knows the state tends to spend a lot of money for not much result when it runs things. I am in favour of opening up the school system to competition and choice but the argument for 1) above is an obvious deceitful smokescreen and the forcible transfer of Catholic schools is a totalitarian ideological pursuit under this deceitful guise.

    The Republic should give special funding to new non Catholic schools over and above that of Catholic schools for the medium to long term. It should do this in the name of plurality, choice for parents and competition in schooling. Incidently all of these reasons go against the desire in NI to create one state system for everyone – the worst choice sceneio in my opinion.

    But the forcible seizure and redistribution of Catholic schools is aggressive extremism by opportunists reflecting ideological pursuits.

  • ForkHandles

    GF, Wrong wrong wrong!! The universe was not created in a Monday-Wednesday time slot. Before the universe existed there was no Monday – Wednesday, or any time slot at all ! 🙂 My point was that theories on the origin of the universe that do not start with a point of creation by a creator, all fall down because they can’t account for where a singularity, previous contracting universe, or whatever, came from. Whatever concept you can think of that may have been the start of the universe, go back and ask where did that come from, and so on and so on. Thats why theories without a creator start with ‘once upon a time there was nothing, then something appeared all on its own’ 🙂

  • Big Maggie


    I can only repeat: scientific theory re the beginning of the universe is not as you seem to believe it to be. Back to the books, my son.

  • Hi ForkHandles,

    At the risk of derailing the thread… yes, we don’t yet understand what happened prior to a nanosecond before the universe came into being – CERN may shed light on this before long – in the mean time lets credit a of your choice. Now yeah don’t see it… Now yeah do!

  • Greenflag

    ‘the universe was not created in a Monday-Wednesday time slot. ‘

    If you say so .So it would have to have been a Thursday then in deference to the requirements of the world’s major religions? 😉

    ‘Before the universe existed there was no Monday – Wednesday, or any time slot at all ! ‘

    You don’t say ? You mean of course in this universe .

    Back to thread -apologies

  • Neil

    Jees there was myself thinking the purpose of Catholic schools much like Protestant schools, was to educate children. Obviously Catholic schools are better at that than their Protestant counterparts locally, but what the hell, shut ’em down as the kids can’t quote the old testament. Utter crap.

    Schools are there to educate children, so defending Catholic schools is defending what demonstrably does work: more Catholic schools are producing better educated kids. Whether the children inside take a particular interest in religion is completely irrelevant.

    It’s also been suggested many times that Catholicism is the ultimate religion for being able to negotiate with God, as in I may swear a little bit but at least I don’t steal for example. I don’t go to mass but at least I try to be a decent human being. Personally I’ve never met so many members of one religious group who swear so often.

    There are many potential reasons for Catholics not necessarily going all Dot Cotton about the bible, to simply lay it at the door of Catholic education because of your experience of some kids at one uni some years ago is a bit of a leap of faith.

  • vanhelsing


    Nice piece. Fancy a free transfer? We have an incompetent SF ex-Education Minister up here in ‘The North’ who maybe could take over from Ruairí Quinn.

    Honestly we’d be happy to be rid of her. As long as you don’t mind a bit of hypocrisy with the baggage – you know the ‘let’s get rid of the Grammar School Sector’ – damn I forgot my kids go to Grammar Schools – oh wait – they’re over the border in ‘The South’ – phew wouldn’t want them to get a ‘2nd grade’ education.

    Please take her 🙂 She’ll be looking for work anyway…

  • 241934 john brennan

    Forkhandles: It depends upon what you mean by ‘nothing’, in ‘creation out of nothing’. Stephen Hawking, scientist and Christian, believes in creation out of nothing – caused “by a ripple in the void”. Apparently such a ripple can cause matter to come into being. But in this instance the void is not absolute nothing. Richard Dawkins, scientist and atheist believes in the Big Bang, but doesn’t have a theory to explain what caused it. Most educated Christians see no contradiction between believe in both God and evolution. We have the scientific evidence that all life/matter evolves, and cyclically progresses from dust (star dust) and regresses to dust. Explosions and implosions of stars (suns). It requires faith to believe in God, but there is historic evidence.
    But this thread is about education. I am in favour of strengthening Primary Schools, with transfer to vocational or grammar schools at age 14, by which age all children should be well grounded in the 3 R’s. At that age I left primary school, for manual labour, but knew about Pythagoras, could quote Shakespeare, and, using a pencil and paper work out the square root of 3 to the nearest 3rd decimal place. That basic grounding enabled me to escape from manual labour. At age 18, I had gained/retained enough basic knowledge to pass a Civil Service entrance exam – and from then on learned little more, other than the skill of writing obscure long paragraphs, mostly in the third person.