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Home Uncategorized After the Catechism

After the Catechism

Carmel Heaney

Carmel Heaney writes: There was surprisingly little public reaction when, in January of this year, the then minister for education rescinded Rule 68, a directive to national schools which privileged religion. The rule had been in force for fifty years. This situation reflected not so much indifference as a tacit recognition that in fact the zeitgeist had been whittling away this regulation, in spirit if not technically, for at least a generation.

A recent address (May 18th, 2016) by the secretary general of the Department of Education and Skills may be assumed to reflect contemporary attitudes. His audience was the Association of Trustees of Catholic Schools. Concepts such as “choice in provision of ethos” and the “need for plurality” are not exactly what the framers of Rule 68 had in mind.

The Catholic church itself underwent changes during the Second Vatican Council which impacted on traditional practices in religious education. The council included a new understanding of secularism in its remit. One of the results on the ground was a trend towards providing for preparation of the sacraments (Holy Communion and Confirmation) in parishes rather than in schools. Thereby, it was thought, community involvement would be strengthened and faith formation of the young would be nurtured within a committed environment.

Post-Rule 68, schools under church patronage (96 per cent of all primary schools) will still be imbued with the church ethos. The present minister for education and skills, Richard Bruton, has, of course, initiated a programme for the divestment of church patronage of primary schools. But progress is likely to be slow, not least because of the opposition of parent groups. So, paradoxically, the spirit of Rule 68, if not the letter, may be expected to survive.

The cynical might suggest that parental support for church schools was motivated by a desire to maintain a system of priority access for the baptised. Equally, it could be said that education in church schools is seen as contributing to the formation of young people in a morally good way of living, and contributing also to an acceptable ethos for society as a whole. How will this outcome be achieved if religion is no longer privileged as an instrument in the education of the young? What will replace it? This is the framework within which this essay considers the pros and cons of religion, philosophy and secular spirituality in primary education.

It is necessary to distinguish between religion as an area of knowledge – history of world religions, and the reading of sacred texts ‑ on the one hand and, on the other, religion as formation in the practices of a particular belief system or denomination, with the aim of inculcating moral values and a lifelong commitment to good living. In Christian education prayer and the sacraments are fundamental. In the following pages the words “knowledge” and “formation” are used where clarification is necessary.

Children, parents and society at large are all affected in different ways by the way in which religion is transmitted, if at all. For Irish children brought up in the traditional way of the majority, a religious education means obedience to authority; constraints on behaviour; social interaction through ceremonies and sacraments; developing a Christian world view. Parents react differently to the traditional model depending on whether they themselves are believers or non-believers in revealed religion. For believers, education in church schools ensures that their children are indoctrinated in the parents’ beliefs based on church teaching. Moral training is expected to result in good behaviour. Non-believers’ attitudes reflect their rejection of revelation in favour of a secular or humanistic world view. Religious indoctrination is contrary to this view. Abolition of religious education would free up time for instruction in useful subjects. Multiculturalism would replace the Christian world view.

Religion taught as a branch of knowledge in a multicultural context is presumably not a problem for non-believers, and is so taught in “secular” schools at present. The curriculum of faith schools nowadays also includes study of different religions. Taught in this way, religion is on a par with say, the history of art. Because you learn about Hinduism you are not expected to eschew eating beef. Religion as formation is not acceptable to non-believers, particularly if it is linked to a particular denomination. So the question arises: outside of religion, what is an effective system of formation of the young?

All parents must face this problem. Should the proposed divestment of church management of national schools in the Republic proceed it will be a particular problem for Christian parents, given their reliance on in-school religious formation. It may be argued that the primary agent of formation is the family. But what of dysfunctional families, those with a history of criminality, for example? In such cases, the rights of the child, and of society in general, can only be facilitated outside the home. The school seems the obvious agency, in which case the necessity of a formation ethos seems equally obvious. The kind of education offered, especially to the disadvantaged, but to the school-going population in general, affects society as well as individual children and will shape the future of our country.

The national school system, originally intended by the government of the day in the nineteenth century to be non-denominational, was, at the insistence of the churches, implemented on denominational lines. Religious education has been woven into the fabric of Irish society ever since. According to the 2011 Census, 84 per cent of the population of the Republic describe themselves as Catholic. The question about religion on the census form, however, did not distinguish between practising and non-practising Catholics, which explains the discrepancy between the statistics and the evidence on the ground.

Picture the scene of a generation or two ago: churches full for Sunday Mass; boatloads of missionary priests and nuns leaving for Africa to save the “black babies”; schools staffed mainly by Religious. Today’s scene could scarcely be more different. Yet the churches are thronged at Christmas and to a lesser extent at Easter. This implies attachment to a narrative which is, to a non-believer, well, unbelievable in its theological implications yet is deeply embedded in cultural identity. Regardless of the school situation, traditional ceremonies will still be available to all, including free-thinkers. Church-related aspects of cultural identity can survive.

Outside the classroom how has Christian education impacted on social behaviour, observance of law, family life and political culture? To some extent, it is possible to observe changes in Irish society as a whole contemporaneously with the decline in religious practice, say since the 1980s. Key elements are: an extension of opportunities for women; freedom of information – greater transparency in the exposure of wrongdoing in Church and State; smaller-sized families in the wake of the availability of contraception; liberalisation of choices in personal relationships, for example divorce and homosexuality, and growing awareness of ecological issues such as climate change as well as greater awareness of the evils of racism. The downside has been the development of the drugs and alcohol culture, a rise in criminal gangland culture and a culture of greed in business and political life.

It is to be noted that most of the progressive changes came about through the application of external stimuli, notably to comply with the requirements of European Union law. And of course the whole development of human rights in the twentieth century derived from the UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the resulting Covenants, to which Ireland is a party. The acceptance of same-sex marriage was unique as an Irish initiative.

The smaller family syndrome developed in defiance of the papal prohibition Humanae Vitae, indicating a move among faith-based couples to make independent life choices. The fact that a strong minority of citizens who opposed liberal legislation was faith-based is an argument for diversity of views on important social questions. But such views could be and are of course conveyed by the churches through channels other than the school curriculum.

The argument that the moral health of Irish society is related to faith-based education does not hold up. The unscrupulous behaviour of some in the financial and banking industries, the soliciting of funds by public representatives in return for favours ‑ such behaviour indicates a serious shortfall in ethical standards on the part of an influential section of our society. Furthermore, it has been noted that the guilty parties, far from suffering public opprobrium, often enjoy continued support from the electorate. On the other hand, the decline in religious practice did not mean a falling-off of a compassionate spirit in our society. For example, that spirit expressed previously through missionary societies is now also channelled through non-governmental organisations as well as through private initiatives such as the Chernobyl Children’s Fund.

The suggested conclusion regarding religious education and Irish society is that progressive legislation in recent decades has been the result of membership of the United Nations and of the European Union, not of religious influence, nor are philanthropic initiatives necessarily motivated by religion. Rule 68 did not protect society from wrongdoing in areas of what might be called soft crime, nor has it promoted high standards in public life, nor will its absence preclude humanitarian activity.

If it is not to be religious education, what can provide young people with formation in ethical behaviour, leading to a fulfilled life for each individual as well as a “consensus of consciousness” for future Irish society? Two practices suggest themselves – philosophy and secular spirituality.

When considering philosophy as a subject for the school curriculum the question arises: what use is it? How has it impacted on the human condition that we should consider the study worthwhile? In the ancient world, philosophy foreshadowed subsequent scientific understanding of the natural world as against the mythological theories then current. It was the basic philosophic principle of questioning received ideas which kickstarted the development of science.

In early modern times, it was the philosophical theories of the Enlightenment, transmitted through Franklin and Jefferson, which ensured that the United States was founded on democratic principles. In the nineteenth century philosophy set the course for various developments in the economic and political sphere, the consequences or which still govern our lives. A trend away from Hegelian idealism to Marx and Engels’s dialectical materialism influenced public policy and private lives throughout the Western world. The influence of philosophical thought was felt in social policy, psychology and education through utilitarianism in Victorian England and the work of Comte, Freud and Dewey still resonates today.

The conclusion to be drawn from the above is that it behoves us, as individual citizens, to know what philosophy is all about and what its expert practitioners are proposing. What they propose today may affect our lives tomorrow. Philosophy as a subject of study presents difficulties. The varying theories within the discipline pose a challenge not encountered in faith narratives. Contemporary philosophers do not agree on what philosophy is. Some scientists deny that it is a legitimate field of study at all. On the other hand religious believers are to be found among philosophers – and scientists.

The very dilemma of uncertainty, however, would convey a basic element of philosophical thinking – a diversity of views subject to verification. Thus the child would be encouraged to think critically, to address problem-solving and to develop a mind-set in line with the scientific method.

The difficulties of curriculum planning have been overcome in many countries. Philosophy has traditionally been on the secondary school curriculum in France, Italy and Austria. In Germany it is in some regions offered as an alternative to religious studies. There is a growing trend to introduce it at primary level in several countries including Canada .And in Ireland the National Council for Curriculum and Assessment has under consideration a short course in philosophy at Junior Certificate level to be referred on later this year.

Turning to philosophy as formation the idea of their children being encouraged to question everything might raise alarm bells, even among non-believing parents, if not for the response: well don’t they do that anyway? What about discipline? The carrot and stick element of traditional formation methods is absent from philosophical pedagogy. Under the influence of progressive theories of education, the punishment of children, thought essential for moral development in religiously-controlled education, has been abandoned. Corporal punishment is a thing of the past.

There were religious educators among the pioneers of the new methods – the Salesian Brother John Bosco, for example. The principle of love/charity/ agape is now a core value in church schools. The threat of hell has been downplayed, though the promise of heaven is still held out as an incentive to good behaviour.

Can philosophy provide an equally powerful agent of formation, engaging the mind, the heart, and the will as does religious education at its most effective? Throughout history there have been many examples of lives sacrificed for philosophical or quasi-philosophical ideas. Philosophy has had its martyrs too, of whom Socrates is perhaps the first. In the 1930s, thousands of young men and women from a wide international spectrum gave their lives in support of communism and in defence of democracy in Spain.

So what praxis does philosophy provide to channel and feed energy leading to action? Ethics is the branch of philosophy which addresses questions of morality. Philosophers, unlike religious leaders and prophets who invoke a supernatural God, address human instincts in considering right and wrong. In contemporary philosophy there is a school of thought, represented by AJ Ayer, which holds that ethics is not a fit subject for philosophy at all. Relativism is the valid yardstick. This position is reflected in the fact that in the contemporary Western world only three of the ten commandments are to be observed in popular concepts of right and wrong – the prohibitions on killing, lying and stealing. Anything else goes if it’s not illegal, many would argue. In other words, morality is embodied in and enforced by, the law.

The philosophical search for a guide to right and wrong resurfaces nowadays in Virtue Ethics, harking back to Aristotle. Philosophy does not have a golden rule but Aristotle’s golden mean, as well as the Confucian principle of balance, must surely have relevance in our age of greed and excess. The source of goodness in classic philosophical thinking springs not from the Gods but from human insight based on knowledge. Plato thought that evil was the outcome of ignorance. The attainment of virtue is dependent on a quality – natural intelligence ‑ which varies from one individual to another. This tends to limit the product to elites. There is no readymade formula to ensure results, as in religion, which may have its prophets and leaders but offers salvation to all who follow its precepts and accept its beliefs. Therein lays its power and its appeal.

Insofar as wider society is concerned the objective of social justice, mandated in Christian as well as in other religious systems is matched in philosophy by striving to identify and put into practice the public good. The Aristotelian concept of the good life did not involve just the individual. The good life could only be achieved in society. Man is a political animal. Morality and moral behaviour, based on informed choices, lead to good laws and good public policy. This is relevant to the concern that, in the absence of religious education, society will bankrupt the moral capital accumulated through centuries of Christian faith.

Education in philosophical thinking could generate an ethically informed citizenry and leadership, thus laying the basis for a contemporary “consensus of consciousness”. Philosophy has historically contributed to such a process, from the absorption of Greek philosophy into medieval theology, through the Enlightenment and the emergence of contemporary human rights norms.

The pioneer of sociology, Auguste Comte, proposed theories of human behaviour straddling philosophy and science which could be applied to the organisation of society as a whole. While Comte proposed the application of scientific method to philosophical theories of society, Émile Durkheim, on the other hand, held that the essence and the key to social life is symbolism. In Durkheim’s theory it is symbols which bind society together and produce the “consensus of consciousness”.

Religious symbolism is deeply embedded in Irish culture. In community life its importance is evident in many ways, apart altogether from the proliferation of churches. The landscape is bedecked with Calvary crosses and Virgin Mary grottoes. Considering the falling rate of church attendance, the overflowing churches at Christmas might also be regarded as deference to symbols rather than faith properly so called. The 1916 Proclamation opened with an invocation to Almighty God. It was, however, the symbols of nationalism, rather than of religion, that dominated the recent centenary commemoration.

As part of that occasion a national flag, as well as a copy of the Proclamation, was presented to every school in the country. Does this mean that in future the flag rather than the crucifix will be displayed in schools, as is the case in the United States? The abolition of Rule 68 might mean that the display of religious emblems in schools would become illegal. In the present climate of opinion the Tricolour might be considered a more appropriate symbol, as taking account of a multicultural society.

In the 1916 revolutionary movement religious feeling and nationalism were closely intertwined. The secular socialism deriving from Marxist philosophy and espoused by James Connolly offered an alternative. It was, however, sidelined in the new state and it was mainstream nationalism, linked to a belief system, myth and symbolism which prevailed. The link between religion and nationalism in Irish consciousness was a theme which James Joyce identified as contributing to the alienation of such characters as Stephen Dedalus, representing Joyce himself.

Philosophy, no more than religion, is not a fast track to virtuous behaviour and an enlightened public policy. We remember the responsibility of Hegel and Nietzsche for Nazism. Equally, the history of destructive human behaviour, for example warfare, as well as the viciousness of some individual tyrants raised in a religious environment, raise doubts as to the efficacy of religious indoctrination as an unfailing force for good.

Unlike religion, philosophical thinking presupposes certain intellectual gifts not shared by all. Of course there are “natural philosophers”, but in considering educational formation they are “outside the box”. Their influence will never extend beyond their local circle. The task of educators is to guide the young so that they connect with a world which encompasses the wisdom of the ages in knowledge both humanistic and scientific.

The complexity of philosophical thinking puts philosophy at a disadvantage as against the simplicity of the religious narrative. Those unwilling to accept that narrative and the claims of institutionalised  religion may nowadays be found in the ranks of the “spiritual but not religious”.

It is more than a century since Mathew Arnold, in “Dover Beach”, lamented that the tide of faith was receding from the world. It has continued to go out since then. More accurately, however, it has been the tide of belief in traditional religion that has receded. In the meantime a tide of alternative spirituality has been drifting in.

Systems such as Buddhism, less wedded to dogma than Christianity, have gained adherents in the West. At the same time some Christian theologians have distanced themselves from the world view of the first century AD, thus separating the tenets of the religion from beliefs which it is impossible to accept in the light of the subsequent development of natural science. Early Christians lived in a society which, for example, believed that the sun went round the earth; that the universe was three-tier ‑ heaven above, hell below and earth in between; that the end of the world and the coming of the Kingdom of God promised by Jesus of Nazareth were at hand. Society at large believed in spirits and devils, which caused illness and death. All of these misconceptions, as well as being reflected in the sacred texts, found their way into the language of doctrinal and catechetical texts and devotional literature. In this context theologians like Alasdair Kee would maintain that the concept of “God” requires reinterpretation.

By separating extraneous elements from Christian teaching some claim that the way is cleared to follow the teachings of Jesus in modern times. The foremost exponent of religion without belief is Don Cuprit. He follows the practices and lives by the ethics of Christianity but does not accept its metaphysical underpinning. There are many schools of secular spirituality which, without the theological pretensions of Cuprit or Kee, follow the praxis of living a disciplined life. There is a universal principle accepted by people of good will everywhere ‑ the golden, or silver, rule. Many practices followed by those seeking to lead a virtuous life are religious in origin and some are common to almost all religions: meditation; silence; certain disciplines such as abstinence and sleep deprivation; singing and chanting; body movement, from whirling Dervish practice in Sufi Islam to yoga. In tandem with advances in neuroscience, mindfulness is now widely practised and has been introduced into hospitals as well as schools. Such practices offer an antidote to the attention deficit disorder associated with the contemporary digital mindset.

“Contemplative Education”, a concept introduced in the United States at university level in 1974, is an example of spiritual practices in education detached from religion. Informed by the many kinds of contemplative practises in philosophy and religion the world over, students are invited to embrace the immediacy of their inner lives as well as the close observation of phenomena. The depth of insight and concentration reached through the disciplined engagement with contemplative practice alters the landscape of learning, it is claimed.

Contemplative Education has been put into practice at Naropa University, Boulder, Colorado, founded in 1974. Harold Roth, Professor of Religious Studies at Brown University, Rhode Island, has established a contemplative studies programme there.

The diversity of forms of secular spirituality contrast with the rigid and elaborate structures of organised religion. Certain problems immediately suggest themselves. How are the leaders, the teachers, to be validated? And what would the process of validation for the practitioners of any particular system be, right down to classroom level. To some extent these problems have been addressed already. Secular spirituality derives from the lives and teachings of acknowledged masters of spiritual teaching, usually from men on whose lives a religion was founded – the Buddha, Jesus of Nazareth, but also the Islamic mystic Rumi and many Indian gurus. The influence of great women mystics such as Hildegard of Bingen and Julian of Norwich is no less profound but less institutionalised.

Practitioners of secular spirituality are often derided by the religious as adopting an “à la carte” approach. But it is a growing phenomenon in an era of declining religious practice and cannot be so lightly dismissed. Once the validity of recognising a non-material element in human beings and the link with formation of the young is admitted, secular spirituality might be the form to serve the coming age as religion did in the past.

The recent proposal of the National Council for Curriculum and Assessment to introduce a new subject in schools ‑ Religion, Beliefs and Ethics –seems intended to compensate for the reduction in hours spent on faith formation. If the new subject is linked to spiritual practices it should meet the objection that, unlike faith formation, it is a learning process rather than a living discipline. Wittgenstein expressed the nub of the problem: Meaning is in the use. You won’t find it elsewhere.


Carmel Heaney is a retired diplomat.

Space to Think, an anthology bringing together more than fifty of the best pieces to have appeared in the Dublin Review of Books since its foundation ten years ago, will be published this month. Selling in the shops at €25, it is available now for pre-order at a special price of €20 (to collect in Dublin) or €20 + post and packing charges as appropriate for shipping to addresses in Ireland and internationally. To buy online, follow the steps from the home page of our website.

One piece featured in Space to Think is John Swift’s 2013 essay “The Barbarians Strike”, on the Kristallnacht attacks on Germany’s Jewish community. Here is an extract:

Irish public opinion and Irish politicians in the 1930s were certainly not antisemitic in the Nazi “scientific racism” sense. Most Irish people then did not share [Irish diplomat Charles] Bewley’s active dislike of and prejudice against Jews. But, as elsewhere in Europe, there existed in Ireland a degree of passive antisemitism which contributed to the lack of concern with which reports of the persecution of Jews in Germany and elsewhere were received. As regards the components of this prejudice, I believe three separate elements can be distinguished.

First, there was the cluster of images inherited from the nineteenth century and perhaps from much earlier which saw Jews as treacherous and grasping. As portrayed by Father Creagh in Limerick in 1904, the Jews were a stubborn and impious people who had rejected and betrayed Christ; they were usurers sucking the blood of the poor; they were freemasons, in league with enemies of the church; they were taking over the local economy and sold inferior goods at inflated prices; they were middlemen who took and took, and contributed nothing. At a different social level, these attitudes could be reinforced by the casual disdain of certain literary figures or the exclusivity of golf and rugby clubs.

Second, less than twenty years after independence, there was still a very narrow line in Ireland between the generous inclusive nationalism which, on the whole, typified the 1916 Rising and the War of Independence and a corrosive, narrow-minded chauvinism which by definition rejected all foreigners as “others” and sought to maximise ethnic, political and cultural “purity”. Joyce disliked and mistrusted this strident combination of nationalism and prejudice; in Ulysses, the Citizen denied Jews the right to call themselves Irish; it is evident that he would also have had grave suspicions of Wolfe Tone, Parnell, Synge, Douglas Hyde, Erskine Childers, Lady Gregory and Samuel Beckett. I understand that the Catholic Bulletin dismissed Yeats’s Nobel Prize of 1924 as an award to “a member of the English colony in Ireland”. One key strand in this cultural mix was an unhappy combination of national chauvinism with religious fundamentalism. Views expressed by Arthur Griffith and DP Moran, at least at certain times, opinions expressed in the Catholic Bulletin, the activities of Fathers John Creagh and Denis Fahey and their supporters attest to this. From the Catholic side, the influence of French right-wing anti-Dreyfusards seems to have been particularly strong and long-lived, in defiance of the facts.

Third, there was the Catholic church, at home and abroad. In pre-Vatican II, pre-ecumenical days, relations between Catholicism and Judaism were characterised, at best, by coldness and distance. When Frank Duff founded the Pillar of Fire Society in Dublin in 1942 as a forum for dialogue, Archbishop McQuaid of Dublin saw it as a place for explaining Catholic doctrine to Jews. He feared that Jews would see it mainly as a channel which could be used “to stave off persecution or expulsion”. He wrote: “Their purpose, however it be marked by an appearance of suavity or accommodation is and will remain material”. The coldness and lack of human sympathy in this comment, more than three years after Kristallnacht and in a year when the first rumours were already circulating in diplomatic circles of “deportees being sent to death by various methods in places specifically prepared for this purpose” is striking. Archbishop McQuaid may not have been typical of the Irish ecclesiastical hierarchy but his views on ecumenical dialogue, especially when conducted by lay people, were widely shared.

Such coldness may have been an echo of attitudes at the highest levels of the church. Much modern writing on the record of the church and the Vatican in the 1930s and 1940s is sensationalist and of tabloid quality. But the fact that many big questions on that record are still open, three-quarters of a century later, puts the attitudes of the Irish church and the Irish people in the 1930s into a different, and larger, perspective; it suggests at least that a balance between self-questioning and condemnation is desirable.



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