John Walshe | Opinion | Irish Times | 30.09.16

'Not in my back yard, not in my front yard, not even past the school gates," is the reaction of the Catholic Church to the State's draft curriculum designed to teach children about different religious beliefs and ethics in the new diverse Ireland.

Descriptions such as "unworkable", "secular" and "confusing for children" pepper many of the written responses to the draft drawn up by the National Council for Curriculum and Assessment (NCCA) at the request of the Department of Education.

"In its current form, it would be impossible to implement in Catholic schools under my patronage," wrote Bishop Alphonsus Cullinan of the Waterford and Lismore diocese, while Bishop Denis Nulty, patron of 164 schools in the Kildare and Leighlin diocese, claimed it represented a threat to the ethos of Catholic schools.

The same diocese's religious adviser, Maeve Mahon, went further saying "the secular, post-modern, pluralist worldview underpinning the NCCA proposal is completely at odds with that of the Catholic-Christian worldview". Her colleagues in the Dublin Archdiocese, Breda Holmes, Helen Leacy and Maureen Matthews SP, said the proposed curriculum is unnecessary and in direct conflict with the philosophy of religious education in Catholic primary schools: "Teachers would find themselves delivering mixed messages."

This is the view also of the Catholic Primary School Management Association, while the Association of Trustees of Catholic Schools describes the draft as a seriously flawed model and suggests it may be unconstitutional: "We cannot recommend to the parents of children in our schools that they would support this planned programme and as representatives of the trustees of the said schools we have no choice but to reasonably object to same."

As well as 174 written submissions, the NCCA received 2,255 responses to an online questionnaire, many of which were very positive. However, the questionnaire was itself the subject of attack.

The strongest comments came from a group of theologians and educators in Mary Immaculate College of Education, Limerick, who claim it was not a genuine and impartial search for knowledge. They said: "It functions merely as a part of a political strategy. Therefore, it does not provide any basis whatsoever for substantiating claims in regard to need or demand for this type of programme."

They don't identify who is behind this supposed political strategy. But they conclude that there are good reasons to believe that the NCCA's version of pluralism "amounts to an agnostic or strongly secular approach to religious truth claims".

The same Limerick academics provided much of the intellectual firepower for the Church's response to the report from the Forum on Pluralism and Patronage four years ago. One of them, Dr Rik Van Nieuwenhove, said at the time that the Forum recommendations would destroy the Catholic ethos in schools and were effectively a recipe for the utter secularisation of Ireland. The Forum had recommended divesting some Church-linked schools and handing them over for other patrons - fewer than a dozen have been divested so far.

It also recommended the introduction of an Education about Religion and Beliefs and Ethics (ERBE) programme. Neither proposal could be described as a plot to drive the Catholic Church out of Irish education.

What's often overlooked is that ERBE is intended to supplement, not supplant, existing religious formation in schools.

It's not an either or. It's not designed to stop schools preparing Catholic pupils for Holy Communion as some allege. It's an addition which would help pupils understand other beliefs, an understanding which would, arguably, strengthen their own. Under the Education Act 1998, patrons are entitled to develop and teach their own programmes that underpin the ethos of their schools.

Not all the submissions from Catholics are uniformly hostile. Some, like that from Fr Dermot Lane PP, are nuanced and critically constructive.

Others claim that they are already doing what the NCCA is suggesting but in the context of their own ethos. However, many of the others go over the same ground using similar phrases again and again.

The suspicion that there was some element of co-ordination or at least encouragement is confirmed by a parent of non-Catholic children who attend the local Catholic school, as there is no other choice within a 20-mile radius. The family teaches respect for everyone's faith. But when the children come home singing that God and Jesus are real "it tells me something is seriously wrong with the way morality and respect are taught", wrote Sharon Delaney.

She said she had received an email "pleading for me to petition you to maintain this status quo of brainwashed children. Well I am writing to you, and with every respectful bone in my body I implore you to follow the recent EU court ruling and allow children to choose faith at an age of informed consent supported by the family, not the education system".

Her three are among the growing number of non-Catholic children in a national network of primary schools, 95pc of which are run by the Churches. According to the census returns in 2011, the non-religious were the largest group in Ireland after Catholics.

A total of 277,237 were categorised as having no religion - one in eight in Dublin were in this category. When the latest census results are published, it's a safe bet the figure will be much higher.

Yet the primary school system has not kept pace with the growing diversity in society. There is no choice for tens of thousands of parents but to send their children to the local Church-linked school - usually the Catholic school.

The proposed ERBE programme was designed to help all children understand viewpoints other than their own. Now that the State's first attempt to draft such a programme has clearly been rejected by the Catholic Church, it's back to the drawing board.

John Walshe was an adviser to former education minister Ruairi Quinn, who established the ­Forum on Pluralism and Patronage

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