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Theologians Critical of Report into Patronage and Schools

Two theologians have criticised the report into Patronage and Schools, which was presented to the Minister for Education recently. According to a report in The Irish Catholic, Professor Éamon Conway and Dr Rik Van Nieuwenhove  of Mary Immaculate College in Limerick consider that the proposals could have the effect of  neutralising  the rights of faith schools and the right of parents to have a specifically Catholic education.

‘Frontal assault’ on faith schools

12 Apr 2012

Michael Kelly

Two leading Irish Catholic theologians have warned of a “frontal assault” on Catholic education if new proposed changes are adopted.

Prof. Eamonn Conway from Mary Immaculate College in Limerick told this newspaper that “if adopted by Government [the changes] will severely hinder a faith-based school from fulfilling its legal responsibility and right to uphold and foster a denominational school ethos”.

He was speaking after the launch of the report of the Forum on Patronage and Pluralism in the Primary Sector this week. The report recommends that some 50 Catholic primary schools transfer to non-denominational patronage. However, it also recommends controversial changes to the remaining faith-based schools. The proposals have also caused concern among the Protestant community. Dr Ken Fennelly, secretary to the Church of Ireland General Synod Board of Education, said that some of the proposals were a “particular worry for us because were so small”.

Prof. Conways comments were backed by Mary Immaculate theologian Dr Rik Van Nieuwenhove who said that while the forums recommendation that the Catholic Church would divest itself of some schools is welcome, “what it recommends for schools that remain denominational will effectively eradicate the rights of parents who want their children to have a faith-based education”.

According to the two theologians, the “frontal assault” takes a number of forms. It calls for an end to Rule 68 for National Schools, which recognises religious instruction as a fundamental part of the school course and permits a religious spirit to “inform and vivify the whole work of the school”.

“The forum is effectively requesting, even for faith-based schools, that no such spirit should characterise a denominational school,” said Prof. Conway.

On the recommendation that hymns and prayers be inclusive of all religious beliefs and none, Dr Van Nieuwenhove insists that this “would prohibit specific Christian prayer in a Christian school if there was even one atheist or, say, Muslim, enrolled”.

“Similarly, the emblems of various religions are to be displayed and the feasts of different religions are to be celebrated without any allowance for a religious patrons responsibility to uphold and foster its own specific ethos.

“This is utter nonsense and is tantamount to a violation of religious freedom,” he said.

Prof. Conway said that “at first glance, this promotion of inclusion and diversity might seem appealing. In practice, it often leads to bland indifference rather than an informed cherishing of real difference.”

Both theologians insist that in campaigning for greater diversity and plurality in education provision, the forum is “working on outdated data regarding religious beliefs and practice in Ireland, which in any case, it interprets superficially”.

“The most reliable and up-to-date data is that of the 2011 census. This shows that 84 per cent describe themselves as Roman Catholic, an increase of 5pc since the last census. The increase is not explainable by immigration alone, and given what has happened with regard to the Catholic Church in Ireland over the past few years, the figure is astonishing, no matter what spin is put on it.

“This statistic, taken together with the fact that non-Catholics often choose Catholic schools because of their evident quality, should give the Minister for Education pause for thought when considering the implementation of the forums recommendations,” they argue.

Fr Michael Drumm, chairman of the Catholic Schools Partnership, gave a “broad welcome” to the report. However, he warned that remaining Catholic schools must retain the right to promote their distinctive ethos. The Church of Ireland has also raised concerns that some of the proposals in the report would seriously undermine Protestant faith-based schools if implemented. Fr Drumm said there “was concern that if some of the proposals were interpreted in a particular way” it could undermine “the ability of denominational schools to protect and promote their ethos”. On religious symbols, for example, Fr Drumm pointed out that it would “make no sense” to ask a Presbyterian school where Catholics are a minority to display Catholic religious symbols with equal prominence. He said that faith-based schools “have been bending over backwards to be more inclusive and welcoming of minorities” and he expected this to continue even when the divestment takes place. Dr John Murray of The Iona Institute warned that some of the proposals “would seriously undermine the identity of denominational schools”.