As many of my Irish readers are aware the patronage of schools in Ireland is being discussed at the moment. Ireland, unlike many other countries, has a very liberal approach to patronage of schools. According to our Constitution parents are the first educators of their children and they are entitled to school their children according to their ethos and the State must support that. In practice this means a group of parents who share a common ethos or religion can set up a school and as long as it adheres to the general curriculum and standards laid down by the Department of Education, the State must finance that school. It is very liberal, tolerant and open; it allows Catholics, Protestants, Jews, Muslims and yes, atheists, to have their own schools so their children can be educated in their chosen ethos. It even acknowledges the rights of parents to homeschool, something which is coming under threat in some countries.
Here is the article in the Irish Constitution which acknowledges and guarantees this right:
42: The State acknowledges that the primary and natural educator of the child is the Family and guarantees to respect the inalienable right and duty of parents to provide, according to their means, for the religious and moral, intellectual, physical and social education of their children.42.2: Parents shall be free to provide this education in their homes or in private schools or in schools recognised or established by the State.The State shall not oblige parents in violation of their conscience and lawful preference to send their children to schools established by the State, or to any particular type of school designated by the State.The State shall, however, as guardian of the common good, require in view of actual conditions that the children receive a certain minimum education, moral, intellectual and social.The State shall provide for free primary education and shall endeavour to supplement and give reasonable aid to private and corporate educational initiative, and, when the public good requires it, provide other educational facilities or institutions with due regard, however, for the rights of parents, especially in the matter of religious and moral formation.
However it seems this liberal approach to education is too much for our liberals – they want to impose a “one size fits all” model: secular state schools in which all the children of Ireland will be educated. Or at least that’s what I understand Senator Ivana Bacik and her friends are looking for. For my non-Irish readers, Senator Bacik is a Labour senator and one of the most prominent members of the pro-abortion and radical secularist movements in Ireland.
At the moment the vast majority of schools are under the patronage of the Catholic Church, simply reflecting the fact that, up until now, the vast majority of Irish citizens were Catholic and wanted a Catholic education for their children. As religious affiliation is changing, naturally schools become an issue. Atheist or secular parents now want an atheist or secular ethos in their children’s schools; that is fair enough and our Constitution supports them. However, while some have formed new schools which the State is financing, in some parts of the country there are not enough of them, so they must send their children to Catholic schools. Those schools accept the children, they are excused from religion classes and their parents wishes are respected.
For some, however, that is not acceptable. Some atheist/secularist parents try to get the school to change its ethos, and on national level, many secularists want to get the Church out of schools altogether: instead of setting up their own they want to take the Catholic schools and make them secular and non-denominational. In some cases that might be possible – where secular parents are a majority in a locality then I think the Church should relinquish the local school. However, if the majority of parents in an area want a Catholic education, then under the Constitution they are perfectly entitled to have it and the State must support it. Senator Bacik wants to see the end of the Church in education and wants to create system of schools with no religious ethos at all. If people want RE for their children, it can take place after school or on Saturdays or Sundays, she says. There are a number of problems with this.
First of all it is inadequate and narrow, not the diversity liberals talk about so much. Indeed the proposition is illiberal and monolithic.
Secondly it takes education out of the hands of parents and puts it into the hands of the State. Unfortunately this is happening in practice in many areas of education, yet the Constitution sees education as the preserve of parents, the state is only there to support it. This proposal seems to be another step in the State’s growing power over its citizens.
Thirdly, it is naïve to think that a school will not have an ethos – every school has an ethos. When these state schools are established an ethos will have to be chosen and there is little doubt that if there is no room for religion that ethos will be secular and perhaps even atheistic; and let’s call a spade a spade – secularism is not neutral as its defenders try to maintain, it is highly ideological. Supporters of these schools say they will respect religion but not favour one, but we know from experience this approach becomes very judgemental of faith, and of one faith in particular (guess which one!). This will of course contravene article 42.2 as it may violate the consciences of Catholic parents.
Finally, the proposal is unconstitutional as it deprives parents of their constitutional right to educate their children in schools of their choice.
I support the provision of schools for the children of secular and atheist parents, as I support the provision of schools for Catholics, Protestants, Jews and Muslims. Given the change in demographics the Church may well relinquish schools where there are not enough Catholics in an area. If a parish had two Catholic schools and only one was required, then the second could well be relinquished. This may also benefit Catholic schools and allow us, in this secular age, to deepen our ethos and our identity as Catholics. Ironically, as we see in other countries, even when lots of secular schools are available, a Catholic education is in great demand and you even find that secularists are desperate to get their children into the Catholic schools. That may well happen in Ireland, but if it does, the seculars should be directed to the state schools: Catholic schools will have to tighten up their admissions policy.
Of course the way the government can change the educational landscape is by a Constitutional referendum, but I think the parents of Ireland, once they understand the liberal nature of the Constitution on this issue, will not pass it: I think the government knows this and this is why, it seems to be, they are trying to slither their way around the Constitution and put a secular state schools system in place. But if they try to make those schools the only ones permitted in the State surely that would be unconstitutional and open to challenge.
At the moment the Church is in dialogue with the government over this issue. Great care must be taken by our negotiators, they must be aware of our constitutional rights and not sign them away no matter how sweet the agreement may seem. Ultimately until the constitution is changed, the government’s hands are tied. If we have to relinquish schools, we must negotiate a tightening of our constitutional rights and ensure government interference is kept to a minimum, particularly in the area of admissions policy and ethos. Not exactly a time for horse trading, but the time to squeeze as much as we can out of the government in order to protect ourselves and our freedom. The Lord's advice comes to mind: "as innocent as doves and as shrewd as serpents". An important thing to remember is that we are no longer dealing with friends and not to presume we can trust them.
However, reflecting on what I am hearing from Senator Bacik and her friends it seems to me that here we may have another example of government trying to dilute the rights and freedom of its citizens at the behest of the secular liberal agenda. And of course the illiberal intolerance of the liberals is once again exposed.