Denominational schools are a crucial means of protecting diversity, former Taoiseach, John Bruton, has said.
In an address to the Parnell summer school at Avondale, Co Wicklow on Sunday, he said Parnell understood that “Irish people saw a link between ethical formation and religious belief, and thus favoured denominational involvement in education, as most of them still do”.
His remarks come as the Government plans a White Paper later this year which, it is believed, will recommend major changes in the current system of denominational education.
Last year, the Government's Forum on Patronage and Pluralism made a number of proposals which, if implemented, would severely damage the denominational character of “stand alone” faith schools. These include the removal of Rule 68, which allows denominational schools to permeate the school day with their ethos.
“The issue of denominational education has been a live issue in Irish politics since the 1830s, and remains so to this day,” said Mr Bruton.
“As Parnell recognised, Irish people saw a link between ethical formation and religious belief, and thus favoured denominational involvement in education, as most of them still do. Exactly how this is to be done is a matter of balance, which alters over time.”
“Denominational education preserves diversity, something Parnell wanted in a Home Rule Ireland,” added Mr Bruton.
Senior Church figures and academics have expressed alarm at the recommendations made by the Forum.
Just last month, in a speech to the McGill Summer School about the future of the Church in Ireland Archbishop Diarmuid Martin rejected suggestions that pluralism required that the role of religion in education must be radically re-dimensioned and even reduced to the private sphere.
He stated: “I believe that we have nothing to be ashamed of in fostering denominational education and that denominational education brings a specific and vital reflection to educational policy in general. It is true, of course, that people should not in any way be forced into attending Catholic schools or taking part in religious practises in schools.
Also last month, Bishop Leo O'Reilly of Kilmore, the previous chair of the Bishops' commission on Education, warned that that it would be “incredibly unwise” for the Government to ram through recommendations by the Forum on Patronage and Pluralism aimed at diluting the ethos of denominational schools.
In an interview with the Anglo-Celt, Bishop O'Reilly criticised proposals made by the Minister's Forum on Patronage and Pluralism, and asked whether ‘diversity’ and ‘choice’ was being offered for all, except those practising as Catholics.
Bishop O'Reilly said: "Is it diversity and choice for all except for those practicing as Catholics?"
These remarks came after a statement last month by the Catholic bishops expressing “serious concern among those involved in denominational schools” in regard to some of the proposals made by Advisory Group to the Forum.
The report of the Advisory Group to the Forum also proposed that religion should be taught as a discrete subject apart from the rest of the curriculum, that hymns and prayers in Catholic schools should be ‘inclusive’ of the religious beliefs of all children and that denominational schools should display the emblems of other religions and celebrate their feasts.
Bishop O'Reilly said that the stance of the Forum was one “that essentially suggests freedom of religion is freedom from religion — that’s a crucial distinction and worrying in itself.
"They apparently want no prayers in schools, and that anyone without faith, to not be impinged upon, in any way, by any religious content, as if it were some kind of an infection that could be damaging to their health.”