Former Taoiseach John Bruton has defended the teaching of the sacraments in primary schools.
He was reacting to suggestions made by the Minister for Education Ruairi Quinn earlier this week that the teaching of First Communion and Confirmation took up too much class time. He referred to figures showing that the perfomance of Irish pupils in literacy and maths had declined significantly in the past number of years.
Mr Bruton, speaking in the Radisson Hotel in Booterstown last night, acknowledged that these figures were worrying but accused Mr Quinn of singling out religion for blame.
However, he said: “As far as I know that 30 minutes per day has not increased over the period since the earlier tests in which Ireland obtained a creditable 5th place.
“So why single out religious formation? Why does the Minister not, for example, refer to the teaching of second language, Irish in most cases, on which I believe 120 minutes per day is spent?”
He suggested that a possible explanation for the decline could be that the school year was too short.
“Irish second level (but not primary) school children spend slightly fewer hours per year in school than do their equivalents in the OECD as a whole,” he said.
However, when Ireland got its former high mark in the international comparison, this was also the case, he pointed out.
“So why single out the 30 minutes per day spent on religious formation, when there are so many other ways to find time to improve out scores in reading and mathematics?” Mr Bruton asked.
He added that improving results for the sake of international comparisons should not be “the be all and end all of educational policy”.
Mr Bruton said: “Education seeks to prepare children not just for working life, but for life as a whole. Education that focussed narrowly on work available today would soon be obsolescent. The purpose of education is to develop the whole person, aesthetic, artistic, physical, moral, and spiritual.”
He also rejected the Minister's suggestion that religious formation take place outside school hours.
Both parents, in most households, were working in paid employment outside the home, he said.
“Their working day usually ends later than does that of their children. To expect parents to make up for the 30 minutes devoted to religious education during the school day would be quite demanding,” Mr Bruton said.
“A tired parent arrives home, prepares an evening meal, supervises homework for all non-religious subjects, and is then expected to give 30 minutes religious instruction after all that is done. How realistic is that? How well qualified are most parents do this?” he asked.
Providing religious education at the weekend, would require an additional class of two and a half hours which “would essentially mean that the children whose parents wanted them to have a religious education would have a five and half day week , while other children would have a five day week”.
“That would be a good way to kill off religious education altogether, which I am confident is not the Ministers intention,” he said.
Mr Bruton also defended the intrinsic value of faith formation. Citing the history of the 20th century, he said that Christian faith had not been successfully replaced by “secular religions” like Communism and Nazism.
He said: “Once people ceased to believe, as Christians do, that each human person was individually created by God, and thus had an inherent value that no other person had a right to take away, it became all too easy to accept concentration camps, gulags, ethnic cleansing and the elimination of class enemies.
“If we replace religion , what criterion will we use to determining what is “good” and what is “evil”? What will guide our educational system in making value judgements?
“If society is not to descend into chaos it needs to develop a common sense of right and wrong. That is not something that will happen spontaneously. It has to be created through education, and through reasoning together.”