The people of Ireland are primed for change in the wake of the recent referendum that has paved the way to legal abortion in the country. The latest radical departure from Ireland’s Catholic roots is the removal of the so-called baptism barrier to allow equal access for students of any faith or no faith at all to Irish Catholic primary schools. The School Admissions Bill amendment 137 passed all stages in the Dáil (Irish parliament) on May 30 and is expected to easily pass through the Seanad Éireann (Senate).
Fierce competition for a limited number of spots at Catholic schools in Dublin has led some to question current admissions process, which prioritizes students who are able to provide a baptismal certificate. As Irish society grows increasingly secular and diverse, there is greater demand for alternative forms of education, including nondenominational and multi-denominational schools.
Denominational primary schools make up 96 percent of all primary schools in the country, and Catholic schools make up 90 percent (2,880 Catholic primary schools) of the total. Education Minister Richard Bruton has argued that it is unfair for a child of the Catholic faith, who may live some distance away from a given Catholic school, to be admitted over a local child of a different faith or no faith.
Fierce competition for spots at Dublin’s Catholic schools has led some to question the current admissions process.
Nevertheless, removing the baptism barrier has presented a legal challenge for the government. The Equal Status Act 1998 enumerates nine grounds on which it is illegal to discriminate in the provision of goods and services, accommodation and education. Religion is one of the grounds, but an exception is made to allow denominational schools to “protect their ethos.” The baptismal certificate became the qualifying document to ensure adherence to the faith and a fixed feature of the admissions process of Catholic primary schools in Ireland.
Twenty years on, many parents are highly critical of the admissions process. On Feb. 4, 2016, additional pressure came from the U.N. Committee on the Rights of the Child, which found that Ireland’s international human rights obligations require the government to take concrete actions to end the “discriminatory admissions policies on the basis of the child’s religion.”
It was expected that changes to the primary school admissions system would be met with legal opposition from the Catholic Church. As a result, Mr. Bruton worked closely with the attorney general to produce a new legal formula that, according to the government, did not breach the Constitution. The Catholic Church has not issued an official response to the removal of the baptism barrier.
It was expected that changes to the primary school admissions system would be met with legal opposition from the church.
The majority of primary schools in Ireland are privately owned and supported by different denominations. Most building and operational costs are covered by the state with support from local contributions, while the Catholic Church owns much of the land on which schools are built. Archbishop Diarmuid Martin of Dublin has urged the divestiture of schools—that is, giving up the patronage of schools to nondenominational groups—to give families more educational options. The process of divestiture of schools, however, has been slow. So far, only 10 Catholic schools have opted to divest.
When asked whether the Catholic Church would take legal action if the baptism barrier was removed, Archbishop Martin, speaking on a national Irish radio show on May 10, said that the bishops had not discussed the topic. Archbishop Martin did say, however, that Irish bishops would have to “robustly defend Catholic ethos in Catholic schools.”
The religious character of the schools was hard won during Catholic Emancipation in the 1800s. In the 16th and 17th centuries, Penal Laws in Ireland and Britain imposed fines, imprisonment and even death for Catholic priests who practiced their ministry. Other laws barred Catholics from voting, holding public office, owning land or teaching the Catholic faith. During that period, Catholics founded what were known as the “hedge” or “pay” schools because Catholic children were educated among the hedgerows by teachers who risked their lives to teach the faith—or anything at all.
The state has taken an increasing interest in regulating religious education and faith formation in schools.
Today, the state has taken an increasing interest in regulating religious education and faith formation in schools. In a number of schools, religious instruction has been scaled back or relegated to the end of the school day. Members of the Dáil have proposed amendments that would have religious instruction taken out of the school day altogether. Such a move would effectively remove the Catholic ethos from schools without actual divestiture.
And yet Irish Catholic primary schools remain an attractive option for many families. Archbishop Martin has noted that “[t]he big problem that we have is that Catholic schools in areas which are very good, everybody wants to go to them, and you have to have some criteria for a judgment.” The archbishop has said that baptism for the sake of entry to Catholic schools is a misuse of the sacrament, which should be undertaken only by those who sincerely seek entry into the life of the church.
The removal of the baptism barrier may appease the demands of parents that see the prioritizing of baptized Catholics in the school admissions process as discriminatory. But it does not address the lack of government provision of alternative forms of education. Nor does it solve the problem of competition for a limited number of spots in certain schools.
One compromise proposal is to allow for the further divestiture of Catholic schools with the caveat that the remaining Catholic schools have the freedom to retain their ethos. The state has already been working on guidelines for how religious education should be provided in primary schools. It could also determine whether religious education and formation for sacraments should be provided in schools at all.
Removing the Catholic ethos from education would be a loss for the wider community, according to Sister Elizabeth Maxwell, the provincial leader of the Presentation Sisters Northern Province. “The Catholic school focuses especially on the holistic formation of the person because it recognises that each student ‘is a child of God,’ who is destined to grow into an active citizen in the world,” she wrote in the Irish Times in 2014.
“A Gospel-inspired concern for the needs of others calls for practical local and global outreach and partnerships,” she said. “We see numerous examples of this generosity among the students, current and former, of our Catholic schools.”
Indeed, advocates believe it is the responsibility of Catholic schools to provide young people with the values, language and support that will guide their engagement with the world. If Catholics in Ireland do not rediscover their religious identity, someone else may very well redefine it for them.