Blackmail at the heart of government policy on Catholic education  

Tánaiste Leo Varadkar has issued a very stark warning that Catholic schools are no longer welcome in modern Ireland. Despite a Constitutional provision that the Government must provide for the education of children, it is clear that the current administration thinks that it has a monopoly on the content of what children get taught because it holds the public purse not in trust but as its own private coercive tool.  

The government seems to forget that public funds come from the taxes of everyone, the majority of whom are Catholics, yet their taxes cannot be used to fund a Catholic ethos in their schools. Catholic schools, it seems, will be allowed to exist de jure for the medium term, but de facto, they are to be stripped of any effective applied Catholicism.

Not content with defining the curricula for nearly all subjects except RSE, Tánaiste Leo Varadkar plans to effectively blackmail any school or patron body who does not deliver the ethos of the government when it comes to Relationship and Sexuality Education.

The issue has arisen because a new sex education programme for Catholic primary schools says that the “Church’s teaching in relation to marriage between a man and a woman cannot be omitted”.

Speaking during Leaders’ Questions in response to Roisin Shortall’s apparent concerns about the new programme, called Flourish, Varadkar announced that the government will be providing an update on its plans for sex education in primary schools, and the Catholic curriculum will not be in line with this policy.

In consequence, he also said, according to that the programme for government is very explicit on the issue of providing inclusive and age-appropriate curricula for relationships and sexuality education (RSE), adding that he expects it to be upheld in publicly funded schools. He announced:

“We need to make a statement on this because the programme for government is very clear and very clear that when it comes to this matter that we have to be inclusive of LGBTI relationships.”

Effectively, this is the deputy head of government issuing a warning to the Church – adopt the government ethos or you will be starved of funds. The question remains whether the Bishops will be willing to stand up to the blackmail of the Government and refuse this coercion which is designed to force Catholic schools to lose the essence of their identity in order to deliver their education vocation, or to close their doors when the government switches off its funds.

The question for the government is whether it is willing to let its ideological position on RSE – its own ethos – result in the closure of schools whose patrons refuse. Having seen what many consider to be a weak response from the religious institutions who have ceded to the government ethos in healthcare, the government likely feels emboldened.

It is only two days since Health Minister Donnelly said that no religious ethos will be allowed influence the proposed national maternity hospital (in relation to abortion and contraception), and that it was a ‘red line’ for the government.

While the Irish Catholic Bishops may not want the issue of ethos to result in the denial of quality healthcare, nor for ethos to result in the denial of education to children, the converse of this issue is whether the Bishops or Religious Orders can allow for abortion in health facilities under their patronage, or whether divesting of these is also enabling a practice that it considers to be wrong.

The same question arises in education where there is constant pressure on the Church to divest its schools at a much faster pace. While, on the face of it, with a changing demographic, having over 90% of primary schools controlled by the Church seems illogical. But when you get to the local level, where a majority preference is for the existing Catholic ethos, do you deny the majority for the preference of the minority?

The issue of RSE clearly shows that the idea of non-denominational education is not neutral and that divesting schools is also exposing all children – and Catholic children – to the values politicians hold rather than those that are reflective of Catholicism or other religions. Knowing the content of RSE that is going to be demanded by the government in exchange for funds, the Bishops will have to revert to the basics of its ethics – it cannot do wrong that good may come. Knowing the content of different forms of RSE promoted by other interest groups, external providers and being informed by the progression of RSE in other jurisdictions, th Bishops are likely to understand, whether they wish to or not, what divesting schools will mean for many children who will be denied a Catholic RSE.

Can the government be relied upon to uphold the rights of children not to be exposed to the type of content that many who deal in comprehensive sexuality education deem to be age appropriate for children, which many parents would consider to be inappropriate?

The Bishops will have to carefully weigh up the role they may be forced to play in potentially facilitating such a progression if it does not take a strong stance now and probably in co-operation with other religious groups.

Will they be willing to force the government’s hand and risk the closure of schools? Will they be willing to force the government to overplay their hand and take potentially unconstitutional steps by enforcing a de-facto ethos on all schools? Will they be willing to say no and force the government to accept their ethos and the role they play in providing education or forcibly remove the schools from their patronage through some form of totalitarian legislation (that will be masked as a Compulsory Purchase Order ‘which already exist’)? It is clear there are many, such as Roisin Shortall, who demand divesting at a much faster pace, who would welcome such an approach.

There are many Catholic parents who will be willing to support them on what may be a difficult road ahead.



Dualta Roughneen


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