Catholic schools are already committed to genuine pluralism and inclusion, respectful of the beliefs of all parents and pupils, Bishop of Kildare and Leighlin Denis Nulty has said.
In an address on Sunday for Catholic Schools Week, he noted how in Portlaoise, Co Laois, where he was speaking, “as in every urban parish, there are pupils attending our Catholic schools of every creed and none, from every continent and every social class”.
Schools under Catholic control were already committed to pluralism and inclusion “by virtue of being Catholic”, he said.
Dr Nulty was speaking ahead of an announcement by Minister for Education Richard Bruton of a new strategy aimed at divesting hundreds of schools from Catholic ownership.
The current approach for the transfer of patronage – launched five years ago by former minister Ruairí Quinn – has resulted in just 10 transfers from religious to multidenominational patrons to date.
Mr Bruton said the new process would would learn from the this experience by seeking “live transfers” of schools rather than closure and the opening of a new school.
The Education and Training Boards will also play a key role in identifying towns or areas where there is demand from families for greater diversity.
Mr Bruton said demand for greater diversity was evident from indicators such as opinion polls and a rise in the number of civil marriages, which now account for one third of all unions.
He said it was clear that there were not enough multidenominational schools to meet demand among parents.
“This new process for supporting transfers of schools to multidenominational patrons, in response to the wishes of local families, is based around principles of transparency and co-operation,” he said.
“Where the need for a transfer to a multidenominational patron is identified by surveys, the existing landowner, in co-operation with the local school community, will decide what multidenominational patron to transfer to,” he said.
He said the transfer would be by way of a “live school transfer”, with existing staff remaining in place, where this was the wish of the parties involved. In most cases the new patron would lease the building from the landowner.
Education and Training Boards Ireland general secretary Michael Moriarty welcomed Mr Bruton’s plans.
“In the main and by agreement, the school to be divested would be under the patronage of the local bishop,” he said.
“I hope that, where demand for denominational education is proven, the ETB and the diocese can engage constructively to reflect more diversity in school patronage which will provide for the needs of 21st century Ireland.”
‘Dragging their feet’
There has been resistance among some clergy to the divestment of local religious schools, which prompted Archbishop of Dublin Diarmuid Martin last year to criticise elements of the church for “dragging their feet” over the issue.
Emphasising of the value of Catholic education, Dr Nulty said there were 2,880 Catholic primary schools in Ireland and 341 Catholic post-primary schools, and that “identity is important to all of us and parish gives us that sense of identity”.
“Many of the Catholic schools established all over Ireland were founded with a mission to serve and educate the poor. Today we owe a huge gratitude to the religious of Ireland who responded to this need, often at enormous personal cost to the individual, to the community or to the congregation. Catholic education must still reach out to the poorest of the poor,” he said.
Catholic Schools Week was first introduced into the United States in 1974 and this was the ninth year of its celebration in Ireland.
It “gives us the opportunity to celebrate the unique contribution that both primary and post-primary schools make to our local parish faith communities and indeed to the wider society. This contribution is a significant one,” Bishop Nulty said.