The influence of the Catholic church in Ireland has been waning in recent decades with falling church attendance numbers allied with the progress of a number of social changes in the country, such as the legalisation of same sex marriage, that are at odds with church teachings.
However there are still a couple of crucial elements of society where the church has maintained control or at the very least kept a finger in the pie. Although the number of people that declared themselves of no religion rose to 10% in the 2016 census, the church still dominates with 78% of people declaring themselves Roman Catholic, although this figure is down from 84% in 2011.
A failing of successive governments in Ireland is the failure to separate religion from education. Having any part of school day spent praying or learning about Roman Catholicism in detail is time wasted that could be better spent on numeracy, literacy or even newer subjects such as computer coding. Religious practice and learning of prayers should be carried out at home or in a Sunday school format similar to that employed in the USA and not forced upon children seeking an education in the classroom.
Unfortunately in Ireland this issue runs a little deeper since 90% of schools are owned and under the patronage of the Catholic Church. The issue of a lack of school places in certain parts of the country has led to what is known as a baptism barrier, where a school can give preferential enrolment to a baptised child, an issue that the current government has promised to tackle with the Equal Status Admissions Bill 2016 drafted last year.
An oireachtas committee were recently told that only 1.2% (96 children) of school enrolment applications in the greater Dublin area were refused due to the baptism barrier. This figure was used as a defence of the rule by the Catholic Primary Schools Management Association (CPSMA), as if having almost 100 young children being refused a place in a place of education, solely due to their religious affiliation, was in any way acceptable.
The CPSMA general secretary Seamus Mulconry labelled the move to “the wrong answer to the wrong question” but the more removed religion is from education is in fact the right answer to any question. It really is worth querying, if the baptism ban is so insignificant, why are the CPSMA so resistant to legislation to remove the right to ban on those grounds?
The government, and the health department in particular, have been in a spin this week when it was revealed that the new National Maternity Hospital is set to be built on the existing St. Vincent’s Healthcare campus and the government are set to hand sole ownership of the hospital to the Sisters of Charity. The Sisters of Charity are one of the four congregations that ran the Magdalene Laundries and who have to date failed to pay its share of funds allocated under a redress scheme to the victims of institutional abuse.
A petition to block the group from owning the hospital has gathered over 50,000 signatures; there is huge resistance to any religious influence being exerted over the place of birth of any children in the state.
One nun, a member of the group, stated that the hospital would “always respect the rights of the mother and the baby” but it’s easy to see why a group, partially responsible to some of the most horrific treatment of mothers and babies in the history of the state, would meet such resistance in their bid to be granted sole ownership of a maternity hospital. It’s also worth querying, as Una Mullally does in the Irish Times, why do the Sisters of Charity want to own a maternity hospital?
Lust for relevance
The only answer tho both those questions must be that the church is clutching at straws in a bid to stay relevant in modern Ireland. Religious organisations have always prospered in countries populated with poor and uneducated people, and it must be galling to see a progressive Ireland moving ahead and leaving the stale teachings of the church far behind.
As a nation we should continue to move in that direction, progress is the opposite direction to the way of the church. We need to keep this in mind when the abortion debate comes around later this year and we need to keep digging in our heels when it comes to separating church from our education and healthcare systems.