Catholic education in Ireland is in trouble. Can it survive the end of the ‘Baptism barrier’?

The Irish flag is seen in late March on top of the General Post Office in Dublin. (CNS photo/Aidan Crawley, EPA) The Irish flag is seen in late March on top of the General Post Office in Dublin. (CNS photo/Aidan Crawley, EPA) 

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.

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JR Cosgrove
2 years 6 months ago

Is Ireland a Catholic country? It certainly once was. It is not clear from the article what schools are available in Ireland to non-Catholics. Why does the U.N. have any input on Ireland's affairs? Not very clear.

Tim O'Leary
2 years 6 months ago

Ireland today is mostly anti-Catholic, not just non-Catholic, as the campaigns for the 34th and 36th referenda (gay marriage and abortion) have shown, with the virulent antagonism to everything Catholic in the media and in social media. The priests and bishops are weak in doctrine and practice. Suffering PTSD from their mishandling of the sex abuse in their midst, they are ineffective evangelizers and just want to appease and please. The Taoiseach and his predecessor and many TDs are always looking for ways to make the Church go away, including the schools (above), the hospitals (Varadkar wants Catholic hospitals forced to perform abortions). Mary McAleese, the former President, has gone completely off the rails, demanding women priests, gay marriage (her son is gay) and decrying infant baptism as a human rights violation. The sin of Pride Parade this weekend was the biggest ever. It is a remarkable turnaround for a country that under persecution could never have been separated from the faith. It is like an invasion of the body snatchers, only this time it is the souls that have been snatched.

Chris Balducci
2 years 6 months ago

I think the Irish Catholic Church is headed for a schism. A number of people are calling for the Church to become like the Anglican Church, with married and female priests and embracing secular liberalism to the hilt. I guess Pope Francis wants to leave it to the bishops to solve any problems. But the bishops seem afraid to do anything for fear of bad publicity.

Joe Mcmahon
2 years 6 months ago

Could someone help me with nomenclature? I thought that in most of the 26 counties, the National Schools were government schools with boards of which the local "PP," parish priest, was head. When you see a see a primary school in a small town it is labeled N.S., not Our Lady of Lourdes Parish Academy. On the other hand, it seems to me (from far away) that the situation in South Dublin more represents what goes on in Park Slope: scheming and playing games to make certain that your children study with the better class.

arthur mccaffrey
2 years 6 months ago

so Sister Maxwell--if each and every student ‘is a child of God', what does it matter which school he/she goes to? Does my protestant child lose his union card if he goes to your Catholic school, and vv?
And don't non-catholic parents also pay their taxes to support public education, so why is a baptism certificate necessary for entry? Sounds like a public institution being run for private benefit, no?
shouldn't every child of god have an equal opportunity?

Mark Chandler
2 years 6 months ago

Let us not forget, that these schools are usually run by the Catholic Church, but paid for by the government. The Catholic Church has a lot to make up for: cover-up of sex abuse, Magdalene laundries, attacks on families (contraception bans etc. The Catholic Church needs to get in front of positive social movements rather than resisting them.

Tim O'Leary
2 years 6 months ago

The Irish Government and Irish people played critical roles in covering up the sex abuse, not just the clergy. The Magdalene laundries (originally established by the Church-of-Ireland Anglicans) were foisted on the nuns by the Government after independence. It is the Government and pagan people that is responsible for tearing apart the Irish family, with divorce, contraception, gay marriage, and its latest push for abortion and attacks on Catholic adoption agencies and hospitals. Nothing positive about these social "movements." The Church built the schools and the hospitals and the orphanages when there were none, but then made the fatal mistake of accepting Gov't money, which undermined its evangelical mission. They need to leave the National Schools and Hospitals to the pagans and only run schools and hospitals that they can fund themselves. If only they had the courage.

Vincent Gaglione
2 years 6 months ago

The tangle of Irish Catholic persecutions, constitutional guarantees, and religious and ethnic protectionism are not easily sorted out. Ironically, here in the USA, the “religious freedom” advocates would have us imitate the current Irish situation.

Education, if supported by government, must be wholly free of sectarian, ethnic, and racial barriers. Those who wish to self-segregate (and I do not mean that necessarily as an evil, though in many instances in the USA and elsewhere, it is) must be willing to forego government subsidies and pay their own way.

Stuart Meisenzahl
2 years 6 months ago

There is a theoretical/practical solution :EVERYONE under age X gets a voucher to pay for the school of their choice. If a school,be it sectarian or totally non sectarian, cannot attract enough voucher holders, then it closes or survives on additional private contributions. If a school is attractive enough to create more students than it can accommodate, then it must hold a lottery to select those admitted.
By issuing "vouchers " the government treats each citizen equally and the citizen student gets a his/her choice of education. To be sorted out would be whether the government/ school board establishes minimum standards for a school to be be able to operate.

Tim O'Leary
2 years 6 months ago

Vincent - Your absolutist principle is not easily doable and is not what all but the most anti-religious governments do. For example, even schools not funded by the government have to use the roads to get to the schools, so the government can always claim to have some say in what the schools do and say. Secondly, your principle is inherently antagonistic to religion, in that secular ideologies of all sorts get promoted by the schools when they are not in the public interest. Thirdly, the very idea that the government is paying for anything is a fraud, since the government doesn't earn anything. It is always the people who pay for whatever gets done, with or without their support. A major part of the resistance of Christians to "government-funded" anything is that they will immediately use those funds to discriminate against the Christian mission.

Stuart's proposal here is the best for aligning the government interests with the people's interests. if government wishes to be involved in paying for education, they should give a voucher to the parents and let the families decide what schools to support. This is very much opposed by the public school system as they know it would result in a major shift of power away from school unions and towards families.

Vincent Gaglione
2 years 6 months ago

Tell me, Stuart and Tim, would you allow vouchers to be used for schools which teach principles and values that are contradictory to the constitutional values of the civil society and the nation? I keep reading, for example, these fears of “Sharia Law” being taught in some schools to replace USA laws. Let me be clear, have you thought your proposition through?

Vouchers are the way to subvert the general education of the children of the nation in common USA values and laws. Public education has been the great common denominator of passing on those values and law. I always get a kick out of how our Catholic schools brag about the USA values that we teach. What values are more important, the values of Catholic Christianity or the values of the USA? Sometimes, and more often than not, they conflict. Note well the moral opposition and condemnation by St John Paul II of the Vietnam war. How many Catholic students ever heard it in a Catholic school, and forget any word about it from our pulpits!

Church and state never mix well, should never mix, and hopefully in this nation never will.

Tim O'Leary
2 years 6 months ago

Vincent - The absolutist separation of Church and State as you define it is already a departure from the Constitution, as conceived of by the Founders (see note on Jefferson below). There are indeed some things schools could teach that should disqualify them from funding, but that only shows how an absolutist approach to Church-State conflicts fail the people. For example, it is taught in most public school sex-ed that sex before marriage, perverted sex (take your pick) and abortion are goods, provided there is consent and the health risks are kept at a minimum. That is clearly wrong, yet it is permitted in the name of a secular ideology. So, that should disqualify those schools. But it doesn't, because secular ideologies get special protection on their beliefs.

Vouchers (or tax allowances) should follow the children, and the key test should be the schools' ability to cover a standard curriculum and meet a minimum on some standardized tests. What else they teach should be up to them. That would permit the greatest liberty of ideas in the US. If a school is teaching something that offends you, don't send your children there and try to persuade other parents not to, if you feel strongly enough.

For a more nuanced view of the Church-State balance see this previous America article Even, Thomas Jefferson himself, originator of the "wall of separation" refused to interfere in Catholic schools (the Ursiline schools).

Henry George
2 years 6 months ago

How can it be that the faith my great grandfather died for is so easily

swept away by secular desires that can never satisfy.

Who failed to teach the Modern Children of Ireland that nothing, nothing

is worth losing your soul over ?

Anna Marsh
2 years 6 months ago

I am a Catholic professional. we are able to kind and education the complete person that is body, mind and soul. publicly education Federal law demands that a child's spirituality be altogether unheeded as if it's not there. however, it's there -- even as for sure the arms, legs, hands, etc. are there. The Christian church is what formed this nice nation of us. No-one has done such a lot to elevate individuals out of the category|class|social class|socio-economic class} into the centre class the maximum amount because the nuns and monks WHO worked inexhaustibly for many years in Catholic colleges. From there, the morals we tend to learn essay help UK there (or had re-enforced) we bring to the geographical point.

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