30/4/14 Catholic Education: Past, Present & Future

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Speaking Notes of Most Rev. Diarmuid Martin Archbishop of Dublin

Radisson Blu Hotel, Galway – 30th April 2014


          “I am very pleased to be here this evening as you reflect on the role of Catholic education in the changing landscape of education in Ireland.  There are challenges to Catholic education, not just in Ireland, but in various countries in Europe. Catholic education is however resilient and constantly re-finds its place, in the measure in which it keeps focus on what is essential to its charism and always strives for educational excellence.


A few weeks ago I took part in celebrations to mark the amalgamation of two Dublin city Catholic primary schools.  The amalgamation was part of a broader process which facilitated the establishment of an Educate Together School in the same area.   I know that there are some – perhaps even some here this evening – who would not look on such “divesting” as something to celebrate.  Some might even consider me opening my talk here this evening on Catholic education by celebrating the birth of a non-denominational school as just another example of the Archbishop of Dublin’s ambivalent attitude to Catholic education.


          Let me say from the outset, as I have said and repeated on many occasions, that I am a staunch supporter of denominational education and of Catholic education, but that I also believe that the future of Catholic education is linked with the necessity of ensuring access to schools of diverse patronage for the children of families who so desire and whose fundamental right it is.  There is no divine right to a Catholic near- monopoly in education in Ireland. 


          Why did I mention that recent event at all?  I mention it because the event was for me an icon of Catholic education, past, present and future (the theme of this Conference.)   It took place in the James St/Basin Lane area of Dublin, the area which was the heartland of Catholic education in Dublin.   It was an occasion to celebrate a rich history of Catholic education in that area.   The Irish Christian Brothers founded their first school there in 1820 – one of their earliest foundations in Dublin – and after a short interlude definitively established their James’ Street schools in 1868.  The Religious Sisters of Charity had been active in Basin Lane School since 1874. 


These were great schools which offered educational opportunity to young people in that area of Dublin in difficult times.  They were great schools which have produced generations of young men and women who have availed of and benefitted from an educational opportunity which they may not otherwise have encountered.


The opportunities offered were focussed especially on the local community and addressed the particular educational needs of what was at times a very deprived community. The schools became an essential part of the community and the new amalgamated school is clearly going to be the same, even if the ethnic and religious make-up of that community has changed.  


The amalgamation was the part of the positive response of Catholic education to the changed situation of today, drawing on the traditions of the past and especially the tradition of focussing directly on those most in need and the educationally disadvantaged.


The change is an expression not of a retreat from the tradition of Catholic education, but of the beginnings of a new presence.    


Catholic education plays a vital place in our Irish educational system, as something which brings a unique value system, a value system which is recognised also by families of a variety of religious traditions who opt to send their children to a Catholic school.


Catholic education will continue to play that role in the future, working however alongside other schools which embrace a different ethos and contribute, in their way, to the rightful pluralism of educational provision in today’s Ireland. 


Pluralism is something we should welcome. The Catholic children of the Ireland of the future will live in a climate of pluralism and must learn not to fear pluralism but to be able proudly and confidently to live their faith in a pluralist culture, a faith which hopefully will be nourished to maturity in the Catholic school.   Young Christians need strong roots in their faith in order to flourish in a pluralist society.


The Catholic school can be, and most of them are, inclusive. They can and do accommodate children of families of different faiths and outlooks.  But that does not mean that the current situation in which the number of Catholic schools greatly exceeds the percentage of Catholics in the population is one that is satisfactory.  There are people in Ireland who wish their children to attend schools without any religious ethos.  The State would be failing in its duty if it did not see that such citizens can exercise that right.  The natural right of parents to decide on the education of their children is a right recognised in Catholic social teaching, not just for Catholics. 


The State would, however, also be going outside its remit if it were to impose on Catholic schools a radical re-dimensioning of their religious ethos.  Where parents wish their children to receive education with a Catholic ethos, the State has the obligation to support that choice.   Catholic schools which provide the same educational service as other schools should receive the same support also with regard to the cost of management services.


I am a firm believer in the value of Catholic schools and the Catholic school system, but I believe for that system to work and to be able to provide authentic Catholic religious education, it requires that there be a viable, accessible and tested system of alternatives which make real the choice of parents who wish a different ethos.  It may seem a paradox, but the longer the Church exercises a near monopoly in primary education, the more difficult it will be foster and maintain a genuine Catholic ethos in those schools.


In the Dublin area, with an increasing number of Educate Together and other schools, that alternative is growing albeit far too slowly and the Archdiocese is applying for new schools only where there is clear demand.


The response to the challenge of pluralism will have to be measured, however, not just in terms of pluralism in patronage, but in an outcome in which every school, independent of its patronage, becomes a place of welcome for the deprived, the marginalised and those with educational challenges.  There is a tendency in some circles to use the name pluralism to opt out of pluralism and keep away from schools with a high proportion of disadvantaged children.


  Pluralism should not produce negative rivalry or antagonism or give rise to elitism or social division, or a culture which seeks to maintain unviable schools just because they are Catholic or “local to us”.    We need to build up positive relationships within the entire educational community in such a way that our children learn to respect each other and to understand what it means to live one’s values with conviction within a respectful pluralist framework, in a modernity of mutual and respectful understanding.  A clear plurality will make it easier for teachers to find an environment in which they can be true to their convictions.


Education is not just about educational excellence in a technical sense.  If I were to ask anyone here today what the single most significant thing that affected their education was, no one would answer that it was the curriculum or use the term ethos which they might not even understand.  Their answer would most likely not be about a thing but rather a name:  Miss or Mr, Sister or Brother – a teacher who embodied in their own personal lives and commitment what fostering a passion for learning and self-realisation, personal integrity and generosity should mean to each pupil. We have many such great teachers in our Catholic schools.


Education is more than just curriculum.  It is about preparation for life. You can be good at honours maths and become a corrupt banker.  On the other hand, you can frequent a Catholic school system for twelve years and come out anything but a convinced Catholic or even having a rudimentary understanding of what faith means.


To face the culture of tomorrow, Catholic education must look more closely at what its purpose is and thus at the definition of the Catholic school.   The Catholic school must produce good citizens, young men and women who can flourish in their personal talent but also have a real commitment to place their talents at the service of the common good.  A Catholic education should not produce people who opt to live in protected intellectual ghettos.  They must be men and women whose religious faith gives an added quality to their lives and to their service to the community.  The public interest in religious education springs not just from the expression of the rights of parents, but also from the contribution which authentically lived religious values contribute to the life of a pluralist society.


One could discuss precisely at what moment in the school day specific religious instruction might take place in the Catholic school.  But religious instruction in the Catholic school should not become just an added extra, much less a marginal appendix to the particular understanding of education which is the mark of the Catholic school.  Catholic ethos is not about a Mission Statement posted above the school entrance, and which you pass by almost without even noticing it. 


Catholic ethos is about the fundamental foundations of Catholic faith.    It is about a God of love, revealed in Jesus Christ, and thus about believers who witness to their faith through caring for each other, rejoicing when we can pass on to young boys and girls something of the richness of a faith based on the call to love.


Christian faith is about going beyond ourselves and our limitations and rejoicing when others can do likewise.   This comes from our faith in the Resurrection.  In my Easter homily I tried to set out what, what I called “a resurrection ethic” would imply.  Can we speak of a resurrection public ethic which should be the mark of the Christian believer in public life and which should inspire the ethos of Catholic education?  


Too often in the past our Christian ethic has been dominated by negatives. We have listed and categorised sins, rather than presenting a pathway for a mature future, which aims to attain and to anticipate in our life the fullness of life which awaits us, that new kind of future for humankind which Christ’s resurrection proclaims.


A resurrection ethic and a Christian education must lead us to live and foster life fully, to rejoice in the gift of our own life, to want to flourish in that life and to be impatient in ensuring that every other person created in God’s image can also share that life to the full.  Fostering such a challenging ethic of life cannot be imposed.  Pope Francis stresses that people must be attracted to faith by the way believers live.


A resurrection ethic must never leave us satisfied with the status quo.   In life we are all called to make moral decisions about real life situations and this may involve compromise, but an ethic of transcendence will always challenge us to keep our minds and our hearts and our sensitivities open to go further, to realise that something more is always possible, for us, for those we teach and for the world we live in.   Religious education is never about mediocrity.  It is about constantly striving to go beyond our own mediocrity towards excellence.


Such a resurrection ethic has a special contribution to make to a society where everything seems transient and disposable.   An ethic of resurrection is an ethic of faith but not irrelevant to daily life. 


I am in no way saying that only Catholic or Christian schools provide a challenging ethic.   Pope Benedict speaking about education noted that “healthy secularism of schools, like that of the other State institutions, does not in fact imply closure to transcendence or a false neutrality with regard to those moral values which form the basis of an authentic formation of the person”. 


Pluralism in education is not about creating separate silos. Pluralism needs dialogue.   It requires a new and mature culture of dialogue about values, including religious values, and a culture which respects religious values.


How does the Catholic school foster such an ethic and ethos?  Does its religious dimension make the Catholic school different to any other school which also inspires values of integrity and honesty and idealism in life, but from another philosophical perspective?


 I should note that I speak this evening about Catholic education because that is the title of your conference.  Most of what I say refers also to the other Christian Churches.  Indeed I would like to see in the future new forms of collaboration between neighbouring Catholic and Church of Ireland schools.


Religious education remains a valid part of the Irish system of education. We can say so because all the surveys indicate that there is a clear desire of parents to see that their children receive education with some kind of a religious basis.  Admittedly, it is not always easy to interpret what people are actually saying through such surveys.  Very often people simply do not want change, especially when it comes to change in their local situation.


I can say, for example, that the willingness of the Catholic Church to foster pluralism in educational patronage runs up against opposition, especially at local level.  That opposition comes often from within local Catholic communities, and it can come – as I have said to the Minister – from local political representatives including some from the Labour Party.  The problem is that often such opposition to change is precisely just that, opposition to change rather than the affirmation of a real policy of pluralism.    When difficulties and resistance arise then we need to form new working relationships between Church and State to overcome them. 


It is important for those of us who favour religious education to make the case for it in the appropriate language of public debate.  It is important that we put our case rationally to parents to assist them in making decisions.  Education is today no easy undertaking and education to the faith has become more and more arduous and precarious because of the culture of the day.  I am not here talking just of the challenge of “aggressive secularism”, but much more of a more subtle devaluation of the currency of values and of a culture of superficiality regarding values.  This is something which challenges and should concern secular education as much as religious education. 


Pope Benedict often spoke of an “educational emergency”, especially in Western Europe.  By this he meant an “increasing difficulty in transmitting the basic values of life and correct behaviour to the new generation”


The challenge for all education is to pass on from generation to generation fundamental norms for discovering authentic meaning and objectives for human existence.   Pope Benedict was struck by the danger that education might be “broadly reduced to the transmission of specific abilities or capacities for doing, while people endeavour to satisfy the desire for happiness of the new generations by showering them with consumer goods and transitory gratification”.


Catholic education and what I call a resurrection ethic are called to challenge a culture of the transitory and quick-fix and easy solutions in life, through leading children, adolescents and young people to meet Jesus Christ and to establish a lasting and profound relationship with him, albeit in a world largely distant from God.


It is easy to set out the ideals of Catholic education and the fundamental ways in which it can bring a specific contribution to education and society in a pluralist system.  We have to ask ourselves honestly, however, as to how well we are achieving this aim?  Do our Catholic schools and our religious education programmes transmit a sense of faith which provides and sustains bonds between faith and life?  Are our Catholic schools producing pupils who feel secure enough in their faith to be able to enter into dialogue in their future life around the most fundamental questions about the meaning of life and indeed of the everyday challenges about integrity and honesty in life?   Is the aim of our Catholic schools just one of hopefully producing good citizens with a generic veneer of religious culture?  Are our religious education programmes becoming more and more just about the history and sociology of religion, rather than opening young people to the possibilities of faith?  How do our Catholic schools build the bond between faith and life and not just rely on the transmission of formulae or of a vague ethic of goodness?


The religious culture of Ireland is changing.  It is important that as the religious culture of Ireland and its young people change that those in leadership in Catholic education constantly look at the effectiveness and adequacy of the current curriculum for religious education and of the texts and methods that are being used.  At secondary level this is even more urgent than primary level, as the fundamental decisions about faith and the values of life are formed, especially, in the already difficult and challenging years of adolescence.  


No one can say without qualification that our current situation is working well, despite our efforts.   Some aspects are working well.  Some schools are doing very well.  Some teachers and chaplains do real pioneering work and deserve much more public support from Church authorities.   But overall our impact on young people is problematic and requires new methods and a radical new focus.   There is no room for complacency in our analysis.


There is also need to ensure that teachers of religious education are adequately trained for their task.  If religious education is one of the fundamental pillars of the Irish education system, then there is a public interest in seeing that those involved in religious education and in denominational education in public schools are adequately trained for their task. 


I would hope that in the near future we will be able to find ways in which teachers on all levels might be trained in a common culture of education, with the possibility within such a framework of providing specific training for religious education in the various religious traditions.


I congratulate you on the work of your organisation.  I believe, however, that we need a leaner and more incisive structural support system for Catholic education, which today still involves too many parallel structures.  At a recent meeting of one umbrella body I had to ask for a list of acronyms, to allow me to enter into the mysteries of lists involving almost every letter and combination of every letter of the alphabet.  More than one of these organisations had no direct responsibility for the management of a single school.   Without betraying the heritage of their past, many of these organisations and Trust bodies could benefit from working more closely together in future.


I congratulate you on the way you face the daily challenge of giving new confidence to Catholic education. “A celebration of Catholic education: past, present and future” is the title of your conference.  My hope is that your coming together will give you all increased confidence in the value and place of Catholic education within a pluralist culture, building on what is best in the past and being creative and daring within a different future. ENDS