It was a great week for the professionally offended; they were out in their droves, setting up straw men and knocking them down with righteous paranoia. Such fun! It's been a wet, dull depressing month, so who can blame them? Especially when one of their targets was the supposedly "gaffe prone" Minister for Education Ruairi Quinn.
Seemingly that godless politician wants to remove the teaching of religion from the school curriculum. Yes, all over the country parents, priests, teachers and politicians – even members of his own party – registered their shock at the idea that Red Ruairi could singlehandedly drive religion out of Irish schools.
"I was appalled by what I heard the minister say," complained Breda Bonner, principal of St Bernadette's National School in Quarryvale and Labour councillor. Robert Dowds, Labour TD for Dublin Mid-West, described Quinn's comments as "inept and inappropriate". Micheal Martin said the minister's comments were "insensitive"; the Association of Catholic Priests rowed in saying that Quinn's suggestion to reduce teaching time for religious studies was "unhelpful, unwarranted and unacceptable", and Catholic economist Ray Kinsella wrote that Quinn as "an Education Minister should be a little more conscious of the contribution of theistic faiths to metaphysics, science and culture".
Dear me. So what did the minister actually say? Well, seemingly the whole kerfuffle occurred at the end of the Irish Primary Principals' Network annual conference, after a discussion on the introduction of the much-needed literacy and numeracy strategy. When asked where teachers were supposed to get the time to do this added work, Quinn said that, if it were up to him personally, he would take time that is currently allocated to religious instruction. He made the point that in other countries, "faith formation", which involves training students for the sacraments, is covered by parents in conjunction with their parishes. And, when we hear that some teachers have complained of having to spend up to nine hours a week of school time preparing children for sacraments, you have to admit that he has a point.
So why the outrage? No one is suggesting that religious education be removed from schools – just that sacramental instruction in a particular faith be done outside school hours by parents and the parish. This is the situation in Educate Together (ET) schools, and it works very well. Far from not covering religion, the ET curriculum teaches children – as Professor Kinsella so correctly pointed out – the importance of the "contribution of theistic faiths to metaphysics, science and culture".
Last April, the results of primary school patronage surveys from 38 towns across the country showed "sufficient parental demand in 23 out of the 38 areas to support an immediate change in the existing school patronage". In 2008, a large poll taken by the Irish Primary Schools Principals Association and Red C, revealed that 72 per cent of parents wanted primary schools to be managed by the State with an equal emphasis on all religions.
The teaching of religion is extremely important. Without it we fail to understand the power of ideologies, of how religious values and knowledge have developed. In particular, as Irish people, it is important to understand the role of the Catholic Church; how its influence has impacted on health, education and our social mores and customs – on how we think. And increasingly, we need to learn about the traditions and value systems of other faiths.
Far from reducing the time spent on "religious studies" in Irish schools, I'd love to see it expanded to encompass philosophy, history and ethics. But unfortunately, what we tend to get in many Irish religious schools is not education, but authoritarian instruction – or catechism.
The difference between the religious education of my two children is startling: the younger (at an ET school) is encouraged to debate, question, respect and explore the ideals, ethics and beliefs of all faiths; while my elder (a non-Catholic at a Catholic school) felt at a double disadvantage because so much time at her primary school was spent preparing students for sacraments –there was certainly no time for critical religious study (as opposed to Catholic doctrine). This, I feel, is the point that Mr Quinn was making. Why can't parents who wish their children to be trained for the sacraments do so themselves, in conjunction with their school and parish?
Breda O'Brien of the Iona Institute gave an insight into this problem on RTE's Late Debate last week. She mentioned a friend who told her that a meeting with parents about First Holy Communion at a school was unusually full. Rumour was that the school may be in line for "divestment". Parents were worried because, as they said to the teachers, "we need you to educate our children [in Catholicism]. We rely on you to prepare our kids [for the sacraments].
Colm O'Gorman replied to her that he thought this was "very sad", that parents were so "disempowered that they cannot teach their children religion". I think he's being kind, because I suspect that lots of parents don't really want to know, and care less.
Many parents who spend a king's ransom on their child's communion couldn't tell you what transubstantiation is. And they don't see why they should have to learn it or explain it to their children. Yet kids are struggling to read and write while their teachers are forced to spend valuable hours on preparation for the sacraments.
Mr Quinn is spot on in suggesting that this would be better handled outside school hours. Many teachers would agree with him. But the 'shock-and-horror' knee-jerk reaction to the idea that parents take some responsibility for the sacramental preparations of their children, suggests that he may have a fight on his hands.