Catholic schools in Ireland retaining loyalty, feeling government pressure

Contrary to headlines announcing the loss of Catholic Ireland and an accompanying loss of Catholic education in the country, Catholic schools continue to retain the loyalty of Irish parents, even though these schools are facing new secular pressures from the government. The Irish quarterly Studies (108:429) notes that the Catholic Church has been the main provider of education in Ireland, receiving generous support from the government. Many Catholic schools have transferred their means of support from religious congregations (which have seen a steep decline in vocations) to lay education trusts, ensuring their future as well as the continuation of government funding. With the percentage of the population that is Catholic dropping due to new immigration and disaffiliation—from 84.2 percent in 2011 to 78.3 percent in 2016—schools have had to accommodate students of different and non-religious backgrounds. Still, the most ethnically diverse student bodies are found in Catholic schools; children from the Traveler community are more likely to be educated in these schools than in multi-denominational ones. With over 90 percent of primary schools and 50 percent of secondary schools under Catholic patronage, there have been new initiatives to divest some primary schools of such patronage in areas where there are several Catholic schools, as well as to increase the number of schools with multi-denominational patrons—in some cases with the support of the bishops.

But the “reality is that parents who have children in local Catholic schools do not want to change what they know and value,” Marie Griffin writes. There are still a greater number of students attending even Catholic secondary schools than multi-denominational ones, with enrollment increasing in the former institutions. There has been a recent controversy over the practice of giving preference to Catholic students in instances when enrollment is oversubscribed. But Griffin argues that this has only been a problem for a very small minority of students in major cities that are experiencing a shortage of student places and where new schools are being built. Nevertheless, in 2018 the government passed an act prohibiting Catholic primary schools from using religion as a criterion for admission while allowing Protestant schools to do so. Moves to award patronage to new large multi-denominational schools have decreased the number of Catholic schools, especially in rural areas. The state has also issued new directives on sexuality and religious education that “may be directly in conflict with the Catholic commitment to educate the whole person and even with Catholic teaching itself…No one would wish Catholic schools to become the preserve of the socially and economically advantaged as in other countries, but if Catholic schools are forced to choose between that which is Caesar’s and that which is God’s, that may well be the vista for the future,” Griffin concludes.