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Defending religious ethos in the name of pluralism

For Ireland to be truly pluralist, Church of Ireland Archbishop Michael Jackson argues in the Spring 2019 issue of Studies, it must accommodate religious ethos rather than extinguish it. He warns against an “aggressive secularism” which masquerades as pluralism but, because it seeks to enforce “ideological conformism”, lacks the diversity which it needs to give it life. “In our combative and polemical Irish context,” he remarks,

such diversity has to include religion in some form if it is to reflect the reality of contemporary Irish life. If pluralism has to do with diversity, it also has to do with inclusivity. In the Church of Ireland we have never been ashamed of an ethos which is pluralist and religious, in an open sense and in a generous direction.

Archbishop Jackson is one of a set of commentators on the theme of ‘Catholic education in a new Ireland”, to which the issue is dedicated. He brings a Church of Ireland perspective to the question of faith-based schools. Defending the ethos of a school, he insists, is about defending values and is not reducible to questions of religious instruction. “Ethos properly understood has religious components but is not primarily religious,” he says.

Other articles in the new Studies address the matter from a Catholic perspective. Has a commitment to recognising the pluralism of modern Ireland created a environment that is hostile to Catholic education?

Irish barrister Feichín McDonagh ponders whether the religious liberties of the 1937 Constitution are under attack. He observes that while the constitution grants parents the right to provide for the religious education of their children, The Education Act of 2018 may single out Catholics as the only religious community in Ireland unable to focus on members of their own faith.

Paul Meany, examining the involvement of the Catholic Church in education argues that by international standards the level of Church involvement we see in Irish education is in line with that seen around the world.

Irish Jesuit delegate for education, Brian Flannery, like Archbishop Jackson, examines what pluralism and ethos mean for Irish Catholic schools. If we understand pluralism properly, Flannery holds, we can preserve, where desired, a Catholic ethos in education that is compatible with the pluralism of modern Ireland.

Amalee Meehan shares a concern for the dissolution of Catholic ethos in Irish education. She argues that new government guidelines relating to Religious Education in the Junior Cycle will make it difficult if not impossible for Catholic schools to maintain their commitment to faith formation. There is an urgent need for those invested in Catholic education in Ireland – teachers, principals, parents and students – to respond. Meehan turns to the USA for guidance.

Former Irish Taoiseach John Bruton also contributes to the volume. Though he does not treat of education or schools, his essay on the 1918 General Election showdown between Sinn Féin and the Irish Parliamentary Party also relates to the issue of addressing a pluriform national culture. Neither Sinn Féin nor the IPP fully faced up to the reality of cultural difference in the North, he argues: “Neither fully faced up to the implications of the fact that, for the past four centuries, two communities, with different allegiances, have lived together, geographically intermingled, in the Irish province of Ulster.”

For centuries, the contest between these two identities was a zero-sum game: either the British identity had to win or the Irish identity had to win. That zero-sum approach led to wars, threats of war, or uprisings, from 1641 right up to 1998.

For Bruton, the Belfast Agreement of 1998 was the beginning of a new narrative. It was where governments at last found a new way forward, one in which for one identity to win the other identity did not have to lose.

Studies: An Irish Quarterly Review, Spring 2019, Catholic Education in a New Ireland, may be purchased here. Cost: €10 (plus postage and packaging).