Opinions & Ideas

Category: Catholic


Lecture by John Bruton at the Institute of Theology of St Mary’s University, in the Notre Dame Centre, Suffolk Street, London


To say I was daunted by the invitation to give this lecture would be an understatement.

While I have some knowledge of political life, my study of Catholic Social teaching has been rudimentary.

So I set to work and read, for the first time in my life, numerous of the documents of Vatican 11. I also revisited some of the important Papal Encyclicals on Catholic Social Teaching.

I found “Catholic Social Teaching, A Way in” by Stratford Caldecott, published by the CTS, to be a book that lives up to its title.

It is indeed “a way in” to the subject, that is lucidly written, brief, and accessible.

In all this reading, I discovered something that should not really have surprised me.

Although I might not have realized it at the time, Catholic Social thought influenced my views about political, economic and social questions, throughout my public life.

I will try to illustrate this in this lecture, and to do so I will refer to developments in Irish and European life over the past 55 years, in which I was involved to some degree.

The extent to which Catholic Social Thinking influenced my politics was not the result of abstract thought, or personal study of Encyclicals , because I did neither, but through day to day confrontation with difficult issues, and the Christian influence and example of other people on the way I looked at them.

I attribute the latter to my parents and extended family, to my teachers (Dominican nuns in Cabra and Jesuit fathers in Clongowes), to the priests in my parish in Dunboyne (to whom I probably was listening on Sundays more than I, or they, thought) and, more recently and importantly, to my wife, Finola.


I entered politics at the age of 18 when I joined the Fine Gael party in Dunboyne in 1965.

I was elected to Dail Eireann at the age of 22 in 1969, just as the conflict in and around Northern Ireland, was being transformed from a peaceful struggle for civil rights for PEOPLE, into an unwinnable sectarian war concerning sovereignty over TERRITORY.

Concern about something human and alive, was being replaced by a conflict about something arid and theoretical.

Argument was replaced by arson, and by other forms of deadly violence.

One of my earliest speeches in Dail Eireann, in 1970, was in criticism of the alleged  involvement of the Irish government Ministers in the importation of arms for use by nationalists in Northern Ireland, an illegal and reckless endeavour.

From the beginning I was suspicious of the then prevailing attitude in the South of Ireland to the Northern issue.

It was one sided.

“Nationalists right, Unionists wrong,” would a fair summation of it.

That attitude did not correspond to the Catholic idea that every human being has equal dignity with every other, nor did it correspond with the spirit of rational enquiry that had been encouraged by the education I had been privileged to receive.

The violence used by the, nominally Catholic, members of the IRA did not live up to the requirement of the Catholic Cathechism that

“the result of resorting to arms  must not produce evils and disorder, graver than the evil to be eliminated.”

The civil rights (the elimination of discrimination in housing, jobs etc.) that had been sought had largely been conceded, but the IRA violence continued.

The new goal was a coerced united Ireland.

The IRA campaign, and the Loyalist reaction to it, did not constitute a just war. It did not meet the well known criteria for a just war.  Put more simply, it was a breach of the fifth Commandment.

Its dire consequences were foreseeable, and foreseen.

Atrocity provoked atrocity, in a circle of pain. Trust was destroyed. It opened wounds that, notwithstanding the passage of time and the conclusion of political agreements, remain raw and painful to this day.


We are enjoined to love God and to

“love your neighbor as yourself”

More shockingly, we are even commanded to love our enemies.

Our neighbour is all humankind. These are central concepts in our Faith to which I will return later, is different contexts.

In the case of Northern Ireland, our neighbor is the person living on the OTHER side of the so called “peace line” in Belfast.

Loving one’s neighbor is not a matter of mere sentiment. To love one’s neighbor, one must go out of one’s way to understand him or her, to understand how he or she sees the world, his politics, and his deepest fears.

Too many in Northern Ireland fail to make that effort, and thus fail in their Christian obligation to love their neighbour. This failure is made too easy by the fact that two communities attend different schools (a Catholic church policy), follow different sports, and live in different neighbourhoods.

The obligation to love one’s neighbor derives from the understanding we have, as Christians, of what it is to be human, of the inherent dignity of each human being, created by God.

That global obligation was always there in the Catholic Church, but it took on a new universality in the declarations of Vatican 11 on “Religious Freedom” and on “relations with Non Christians”, issued just as I left school in 1965.

I have no doubt they shaped my thinking, albeit indirectly.

On relations with non Christians, Vatican 11 said

“all peoples comprise a single community”

It acknowledges the value of other religions. It says that these other religions, enumerated in Vatican 11, are helping people who are searching for answers to questions like

“What is a man?

 What is the meaning and purpose of our life?

 What is goodness and what is sin?……

 What is the truth about death, judgement, and retribution beyond the grave?”

It said

“the ground is removed from every theory or practice, which leads to a distinction between men and peoples in the matter of human dignity, and the rights which flow from it.

As a consequence, the Church rejects as

” foreign to the mind of Christ, any discrimination against men, or harassment of them because of their race, condition of life, or religion”.

This spirit of openness others, expressed in the religious sphere by Vatican 11, echoed the breaking down of barriers between nations exemplified by the  development, at the same time, of the European Communities, and of moves toward political integration in Latin America and Africa. Each of these are building blocks of the” single community” of peoples in the world called for in Vatican 11.

Vatican 11 recognised the globalization that was already under way in the 1960’s.

It said the world was, at that time,

“joined together more closely than ever by social, technical, and  cultural bonds”.

That “joining together” of the world is much more advanced now, than it was at the end of Vatican 11 in 1965.

A world that is interdependent, if it is not to destroy itself by destructive competition, or degradation of the natural world, needs a common set of rules. It is only through a commonly, agreed, interpreted and enforced, sets of rules, that we can really “take back control” .

This is recognized in many Papal Encylicals.

Hence the support of the Church for the growth of  multinational rule setting institutions like the WTO, the WHO, the IMF, the Bank for International Settlements, and  , of course, the most advanced democratic rule setter of them all, the European Union.


The church has given important guidance here.

As then Cardinal Ratzinger said, in a phrase that, in my view, sums up better than any, what the EU is all about said;

“It is the specific task of politics to apply the criterion of law to power……it is not the law of the stronger, but the strength of the law that must hold sway”

One of my first political interventions was in 1966, and concerned what transpired to be an abortive attempt by Ireland to join the European Common Market.

I turned up uninvited at a public meeting, organized by Sinn Fein to oppose The Common Market. The meeting was chaired by a man reputed to be the Chief of Staff of the IRA!  From the floor, I challenged the platform speaker. The chairman, to my surprise, insisted I be given a fair hearing , and to my delight, I was able to get a scripted version of my pro Common Market views into the local paper. My political career was under way!

I know some sincere Catholics in this country will disagree with me, but I believed then, and I believe now, that the work of bringing European nations together in peace in the EU, is, as a former party colleague of mine Joe McCartin said  to me once, the nearest thing in politics, to God’s work.

The EU is a democratic multinational rule maker.

But it will not be held together by rules alone. Nor will any nation or society be held together  by rules alone.

There must be a shared moral sense, and a spirit of solidarity based on that, to give life and meaning to the rules. That shared moral sense can cover things that cannot, and should not, be regulated by public authorities.

Individualism, and the promotion of individual rights, is never enough. An individual can only achieve fulfillment by working for, and with, other people.  My individual Rights are nothing, if other people are not there, who are willing to spend their time and their money, to ensure that my rights are respected.

As the then Cardinal Ratzinger put it;

“Today we ought perhaps to amplify the doctrine of human rights with a doctrine of human obligations and of human limitations”.

Just because we can, does not mean we should.

Science may tell us what we can do, but it cannot tell us what we ought to do.

Science cannot give birth to an ethos. That is something that religion does.

Catholic Social teaching reminds us of these things.


Without getting directly into politics, the church can make a huge contribution to the well being of  Europe and the world by reminding people of their ethical responsibilities, ethical responsibilities that go alongside their rights.

The church can help set the tone of society, which is as important as any law.  It reminds people of the sense, deep in the conscience of all human beings that there is an objective right and wrong, that there are moral facts, objective rights and responsibilities, that are just as important as any scientifically uncovered empirical facts.

This “natural law”, this moral sense, is there in all humans everywhere, and Catholic teaching is one way of uncovering it. It is this moral sense that makes us human.

The examination of conscience is the door to the natural law that is within each of us. It is an exercise that assures ethical behavior in business, sport, politics, and life.

It precedes all law, and is more effective than any external auditor. The need for repeated examination of conscience was never greater, than it is today in a business world beset by widening income inequalities, narrow pursuit of shareholder value, and sometimes by scandals.

Laws alone will never stop all abuse. Informed, muscular and repeated examination of conscience can do so.

That is what will build trust between people. And numerous studies have shown that a society in which there is mutual trust will be happier and more prosperous.

A society is not a collection of social atoms held in check by government acting as some sort of mutual insurance policy. A society is a set of overlapping communities, with obligations to one another, and trust between them.


Returning to my own journey, I became Minister for Finance in 1981 at a time when the Irish state was on the brink of a financial  abyss, because of the coincidence of recklessly expansionary fiscal policy from 1977, then followed by a deliberate and sudden hike in international interest rates by the US Federal Reserve, which left us cruelly exposed.

In face of this, I had to introduce some hard budgets increasing direct and indirect taxation.

I have to say that I did not fund Catholic Social thinking particularly helpful in confronting this budget crisis.

It was, and remains, rare to find church leaders pronouncing in favour of fiscal prudence, or of matching ends with means, even though that is a moral, as well as a political, issue.

The church advocates financial solidarity with the poor, particularly in times of fiscal crisis, which is right.

But it is too often silent on the necessity for financial solidarity with future generations, which is the main argument for avoiding excessive accumulation of debts, deficits, and pension obligations, for which future generations will have to pay.

Too often the church takes the easy route and leaves that particular moral question to politicians on their own.

The church should apply to fiscal policy, the same concern about the inheritance we pass on to future generations, as it applies in its critique of the present generation’s degradation of the environment and the malign inheritance we are passing on in that respect.

But the church is right to say that the market has limits. Indeed a market can only exist if there are rules, or limits. But rules are not enough, they cannot cover everything. We also need trust and ethics, phenomena that church teaching strengthens on a daily basis.


Although I did have to introduce budgets that increased taxation dramatically, I am pleased to say I also introduced the largest ever increase in pensions and benefits for the less well off, a 25% increase in one year in 1982.

I was also able to introduce incentives for all workers in a firm to own share in the business in which they worked, something advocated by Pope John XXII in his encyclical “ Mater et Magistra”.

Unfortunately this good concept of employee shareholding has been applied selectively in many firms. It has been used to give disproportionately large increases in remuneration, through stock options, to just a few employees at the very top of some large firms.  This works against the sense of solidarity, among all working in an enterprise, that should exist. It has enabled the gap in remuneration to get ever wider, especially so in US firms. These so called compensation policies are a deep structural flaw in modern capitalism, that may eventually undermine the permissive consensus among the public, on which capitalism depends.


Returning to my personal narrative, I became Taoiseach in 1994, as a result of the breakup of the previous coalition government. Coming to office without having had a General Election immediately previously, was a blessing. I was able to take up the work of my predecessor, but without the burden of manifesto promises, which, as we see in the UK today, can be a constraint on common sense.

Looking back, it is fair to say that one highlight of my term of office was the agreement in 1995 with the UK Prime Minister, John Major,  of a Joint Framework Document, concerning Northern Ireland.

The story of the Framework Document of 1995- in what it sought to do and in what flowed from it- will throw some light on the issue of a Irish backstop, which is so controversial today.

The Framework agreement of 1995 between our two governments was later reflected, in a somewhat watered down form , in the Belfast Agreement of 1998, but to which there was also All Party Agreement, as well as just agreement between the two governments.

The Framework said both governments would ;

“respect the full and  equal legitimacy and worth of the identity, sense of allegiance, aspiration, and ethos of both unionist and nationalist communities”

in Northern Ireland.

In return, the Irish Government agreed that it would seek to change the Irish constitution to remove Ireland’s territorial claim on Northern Ireland,

“while maintaining the existing birthright of everyone, born in either part of Ireland, to be part of the Irish nation”. This was and remains crucial.


To give effect to this birth right, we agreed  to set up detailed arrangements for North/ South cooperation, which, because the UK and Ireland were both then in the EU , were completely compatible with Northern Ireland remaining part of the United Kingdom. The issue was not about the hardness or softness of the border, it was about ensuring mutual recognition and ease of cooperation, regardless of lines on a map.

In the Framework Document, the two governments agreed that proposals for North/ South cooperation could include, at the executive level, a range of functions, including infrastructure, marketing and promotion activities and culture.

 We further agreed the Governments would make proposals, at the harmonising level, for a broader range of functions, including agriculture and fisheries; industrial development; consumer affairs; transport; energy; trade; health; social welfare; and economic policy.

This harmonising of policy was to give practical effect to the commitment we had made, that all in Northern Ireland who wanted to, could be part of the Irish Nation, but without leaving the United Kingdom.


It does not require much insight to see that the Brexit proposal, that UK and Northern Ireland leave  the EU Single market, and thus begin to make progressively different, and potentially incompatible, rules from those south of the border ,  would undermine the harmonising approach the two governments had agreed in 1995 to give

“full and equal legitimacy..to the identity and allegiance”

of both communities in Northern Ireland.

Instead of converging, Brexit without a backstop would mean the two parts of Ireland are deliberately diverging.

Standards and qualifications are to become different, in the name of taking back control.

Brexit without a backstop would involve the dismantlement of a painfully constructed, but still half built, structure of peace on the island of Ireland.

 The decision on Brexit was, I fear, undertaken, without sufficient thought to the effect it would have on Britain’s nearest neighbours.

As I said earlier, to fulfil one’s Christian duty to love one’s neighbor, one must go out of one’s way to understand one’s neighbour, to understand how he sees the world, his politics, and his deepest fears.

That obligation of charity applies to nations and states, to statecraft, just as it applies to individuals.  As I said earlier it is inconsistent with that duty of love, to fail properly to consider the effects of one’s actions on others, particularly on one’s nearest neighbours.

It is important that the British people understand what they are doing by Brexit, and thus why there has had to be a so called Irish backstop.


Returning to my own narrative, when my time as Party Leader ended, I was fortunate to be appointed in 2002 as one of the representatives of Dail Eireann to the Convention on the Future of Europe, the body charged with revising the EU Treaties. I was elected to the Praesidium of the Convention.

One of the ideas I promoted there was the inclusion in the Treaties, of a reference to belief in God as one of the sources of inspiration for the European Union, using a wording derived for the Polish constitution. This was not acceptable to the Liberal and Social Democrat members and had no majority.

Another proposal which did get support was one that recognised the special position of the churches in Article 17 of the Treaty. This has formed the basis for a dialogue with the churches. It also safeguards their independence. Like families, churches are a necessary mediating structure between the individual and the state.  This Treaty Article means EU law cannot be used to supercede the protections given to churches in national law.


In 2004, I was appointed to be the Ambassador to the European Union to the United States of America. The US is very different from Europe. The vast majority of its population are the descendants of recent immigrants, of strangers who arrived, often friendless and lonely, in a strange land. The sense of rootedness, that we take for granted here in Europe, has had to be constructed anew in America. This explains the brashness of American culture. It also explains it religiosity.

Churches, provided, and continue to provide, a focus for community and for setting down roots for Americans, in way that is not so necessary here in Europe. That is why Americans are much more open about their religious affiliations than we are.

This highlights an important role the church can play in alleviating the problems of modern, urbanised, society, not just in the US but all over the world.

This work of community building that churches perform is still needed, now more than ever. Let me illustrate why I say this.

The Global Risks Report of the World Economic Forum says that mental health problems affect 700 million people in the world.

It says that, since 1990, depression has increased by 54%, and anxiety disorders by 42%. There is an especial problem among young people.

This development seems to be linked with increasing materialism among the young. I also believe it is associated with loneliness among young people, and a lack of involvement with social organisations, like churches

The Report says that in one US study

“81% of 18 to 25 year olds said getting rich was their generations top or second from top goal, compared to 62% of 26 to 39 year olds who said that”.

It refers to the increased stress factors in young people’s lives…violence, poverty and loneliness.

22% of people here in the UK feel lonely either sometimes, often, or always.

In the US, people report having fewer close friends, on average 2.1 friends in 2013, as against 2.9 in 1985.

Living alone is associated with urbanisation. Solitary living has reached 60% in Stockholm, 50% in Paris and 94% in mid town Manhattan.

Loneliness is associated with poorer sleep quality, and thus less personal resilience in face of the challenges of daily life.

Meanwhile use of social media has led to declines in empathy, the ability to put oneself in the shoes of another. This is something the church directly addresses in its daily work.

Technology may also begin to devalue work, as a means of developing a sense of self worth.

These development are illustrated in opinion polls quoted in latest edition of the Atlantic monthly suggests that, among 18 to 34 year olds in the United States, self assessed “happiness” has declined, most dramatically among males.

This happiness recession is associated, among other things, with a decline in the rate of marriage, and a decline in religious attendance.

Married young adults are 75% more likely to report that they are very happy compared with their peers who are not. The share of young adults who are married has fallen from 59% to 28% since 1972.

The decline in happiness is also associated with a decline in religious involvement. Young American adults who attend a religious service at least once a month are 40% more likely to report that they are happy, than those who do not. Religious attendance among young adults has also fallen since 1972, from 38% to 27%.

Interpreting all this data is challenging. It is not always clear what is the cause  and what is the effect.

But the data does suggest that there is much work for the church to do,  that there are many modern challenges to which Catholic Social thinking must respond.  How?


I will sum up what I am saying very briefly.

At its most minimal, the church offers a sense of belonging, an antidote to loneliness through participation in religious services and activities.

More importantly, it offers a sense of the value of each human life, from conception to natural death, a rational basis for keeping a sense of proportion about contemporary problems in life, in light of our eternal destiny.

It helps us to puts suffering and setbacks in their proper context, and not to obsess about them. We must not be consumed by the things of this world, and by our own short lives.

Most importantly, the  message of the Resurrection is absolutely essential to our faith. Christ died and rose again, so we may live eternally.


Earlier this week, the new  Minister for Education, Ruairi Quinn TD, is reported in the “ Irish Independent “ of  3 April, to have said  he  would  “prefer schools spent time improving reading and maths skills rather than preparing pupils for  sacraments such as  First  Communion and Confirmation”.
He reportedly said that faith formation carried out during the day took up time that could be used in other ways, and referred in this context to the severe decline in performance by Irish pupils in the  international OECD/PISA league table on  literacy, dropping from  5th  to 17th place, and he  remarked that performance in Maths had also disimproved.
Primary school students spend 30 minutes per day on religion, which, in the case of Catholic schools, includes preparation for the  sacraments.
He  said that while  no person should enter the  world  without clear knowledge and understanding of the history of  religion, faith formation  was a different thing,  He said that  faith formation ”takes up a lot of time” and that “some people might suggest it might be  done by parents or parish  but outside school teaching hours.” He remarked that “quite frankly, we have overloaded the curriculum”.
I believe it would be impossible for anyone to talk about religion and politics in Ireland in the  week that  remarks of this significance  were made without addressing them in a serious and studied way.  I would like to contribute to the debate that the Minister, to his credit, has launched.
 It is an important debate, and one that should be characterised by reasoned dialogue not name calling. It is a debate about the proper content of education, of the content of preparation for citizenship. In that sense it is a debate about who we think we are, or should be, as Irish people in the twenty first century and beyond.
 That is why, in many ways,  the Education portfolio is the  most important one in any Government, in the  sense that the decisions its holder makes have  effects over  a longer time frame  that those of the  holder of any  other  office of Government.
 Seventy years on, the impacts, for good or ill , of  citizens’  experiences in  education will still be being   felt in society.   The impacts of the  work of a Minister for  Finance, a Minister for Health,  or a Minister for  Social Protection may have greater immediate  effect, and attract greater public notice for that reason, but these effects  are  both more transient, and more reversible,  than  educational decisions, because  people usually  go through the educational system  once in their lives.
 It is thus, I suggest, even more important that we get educational policy decisions right than almost any other category of political decision. 
HOW ARE SCHOOLS TO BE RUN?                                   A 200 YEAR OLD DEBATE

The Minister has set up a Forum to examine the patronage, or ownership, of schools by religious bodies.  The Forum is going to hear from a long list of established organisations, with established  views and historic positions and interests to defend.  Educational policy making in Ireland  in the past 150 years has been  dominated  by the interplay between these same  interests. There was very limited democratic political involvement in these debates in the past.  As  Seamus O Buachalla said in  his book  “Education Policy in the  Twentieth  Century” in  1988 
      “Parents, political parties and representatives of the socio economic system have not figured  as                                  active  participants in the policy process, the low level of involvement of the major parties is self imposed”
   That was true in 1988. It is still true today. Dail debates on education  consisted, and still consist,  of demands for more money for schooling, rather than discussions of what the schooling should be about, or for that matter of discussion of where the extra resources sought might be found.
Well, it is good that that is all changed now, by Ruairi Quinn’s intervention last week.  Before joining the welcome debate the Minister has started, it is no harm to set it all in its historic context.
The present structure of control of patronage or ownership of schools long predates the state itself. It has roots in  the movement that had led to Catholic Emancipation in 1829 and the  reaction against the century long  religious settlement that had followed the end of the Williamite  wars. 
 The present system of National Schools was launched in 1831, based on a  proposal by a parliamentary Committee  chaired by  Thomas Wyse  MP, one of the first Catholics elected to the House of  Commons, a  Waterford man who was elected to represent Tipperary.  The first Board of Education was chaired by the Duke of Leinster, with clerical and lay representatives of different  denominations.
 The idea put forward by Thomas Wyse was to provide combined literary, but separate religious, education.  In other words, Protestant and Catholic children would go to the same schools, attend most classes together, but separate for religious instruction.
 But the National  schools  system did not remain multi denominational for long.
 According to Seamus O Buachalla, the first objections came from the Church of Ireland. In 1832 a petition was lodged in Parliament by seventeen of the Church of Ireland bishops protesting that the system deprived their clergy of their legal trust of superintending schools.  This is not all that surprising in that, at that time, the Church of Ireland was still the state church.
Initially the Irish Catholic bishops supported the National school system as proposed . Archbishop Murray of Dublin actually became a member of the Board of Education, but his stance was opposed by the  Archbishop of Tuam, Dr McHale, who has enjoyed perhaps unjustifiably, a much better   press from subsequent nationalist historians than has  Dr Murray.  But Archbishop Murrays stand was also opposed by the Vatican .
  By 1841, Pope Gregory recognised that the operation of National Schools on a multidenominational basis in the preceding ten years in Ireland  had not, in fact,  injured the Catholic  religion but  ruled that  participation by Catholics in multidenominational National schools should in future be decided  without controversy by each  local Catholic bishop.
 In practice this meant that the argument among Catholics went against multi denominationalism. By 1852, only 175 out of 4795 National schools were managed on a joint basis. Separating religious education from other aspects of the curriculum proved to be difficult in practice, especially as many of the teachers were themselves members of religious orders. Nationalist opinion did not give much support to multidenominational education either. In fact separate educations seems to have been  what the people wanted at the time, and  for  more than a century thereafter. With the benefit of hindsight, perhaps if Thomas Wyse’s  original idea had been adhered to, there might be fewer so called peace walls  keeping neighbours apart in Belfast today.

Now I would like to come to the present  Minister for Educations views. He is not just going back to Thomas Wyse’s original model, of common teaching of all subjects except religion.  He is going further and is questioning whether religious formation should take place during the school day at all.  I would like to respond to what he said on that  point.
First the poor results in OECD/PISA tests.  I agree with him that disimprovements in Ireland’s performance in these tests is profoundly discouraging.
  But where is the evidence that the 30 minutes per day spent on religion is responsible for this?
 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? Perhaps because that has not increased either in the period since we got the good result in an earlier test.
 Another possibility could be that the school year is 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.  But that was also so when we got the earlier good result in the international comparison
Of course, reducing the time spent on Irish would be very unpopular with some people. Increasing the length of the school year would be unpopular with others.  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?
It is also important not to enthrone results in OECD/PISA comparisons as the be all and end all of educational policy. 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.
How about the Ministers suggestion that religious formation take place outside school hours?
There are two possibilities here, that this be done in the evening, or at the weekend.
 First how about doing it during the school week but  outside school hours? At home? Or in the  school building but  outside the normal school day?
 While it is true that,  in theory under the Irish constitution, the primary educator of the child is the  family, as the Minister knows only too well, in most households today both parents are also  working in paid employment outside the home.
  Their working day usually ends later than does that of their children. To expect parents to make up at home , for the 30 minutes that might be lost to religious education during the school day, would be quite demanding.  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? They may be observant in their own religious practice, but how prepared are they to become teachers?
Another possibility is to provide religious education in school but not as part of the school day.  Those who want religious education would  either have  to arrive at school half an hour early, or leave half an hour late.   That would severely disrupt the school transport system, and   would involve making significant demands on young children.
The other possibility would be that religious education be provided at the weekend, on a Saturday for example.  To make up for the 30 minutes per day now provided would require two and a half hours work.  That 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.
It is important to say that many other matters, as well as  reading mathematics and religion  are dealt with during the school  day.  Education in road safety, sport, positive health, nature study, and   civics are all part of the school week. Nobody argues against that.  Indeed there are frequent calls for a new topic to be added whenever a new social problem is identified that parents have no time to  adequately cover.
If one  argues that  religion should  be  dealt with “outside school hours” , but that all these other non core matters should continue to be dealt with at school., one is  saying that  religion is less important than  road safety, sport, positive health etc.  Given that , for most people,  religion concerns itself with eternal life, that would be  a pretty  radical claim to make.

The argument may be made, although it is not made by Ruairi Quinn to date, that, in the United States, religious education does not take place in  public schools.  And, despite that, there is a religiosity about American public life that is missing here.  Could such a system work here?
 I do not believe it would. The United States is an immigrant society, and one where people move  house far more often than they do in Europe. Churches provide a way of meeting people and integrating into a community, a role for churches that is less salient in European society.
There is  also much more lively competition between churches in the United States. Half of all Americans change their religious affiliation, during their lives.
 The exclusion of religion from public schools has not helped the US get good grades in the OECD/PISA comparisons to which the Minister referred.  US performance is much worse than Irelands’ and many American parents are prepared to pay very high  fees to put their  children into religiously run, or other private,  schools in order to get them a  decent  education. As a result, the United States, originally a more egalitarian and meritocratic society than Europe, is rapidly becoming more socially stratified  than Ireland is.
 I would also add that the absence of religious education in schools in the United States  may have contributed to  an “anything goes “ approach to  religious belief there, which  focusses on what feels good, rather than on what is true, and which  allows people, who call themselves pastors,  to  think it is a religious thing to do burn the sacred books of other faiths.
 An  absence of religious formation in US public schools may also  have contributed to a form of relativism which  says “ believe what you like, it is of no interest to me”, rather than a  true pluralism which would  say “ I respect you and  your convictions, because , like me, you too are seeking to find truth, to find out the meaning of our lives”.

But now I would like to turn to the wider question, underlying what the Minister is saying, should there be faith formation at all? Is faith formation important for a society?  Is it just a private matter?
I believe a religious sense is inherent in every human being. As GK Chesterton supposedly remarked, once men stop believing in God, they do not believe in nothing. They start to believe in anything.  Secular religions take the place of transcendental ones.
 Communism, with its belief in iron laws of history and the ultimate utopia of a classless society, was a secular religion.  Nazism, with its enthronement of race and its elaborate ritual, was another secular religion. 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.  Other human lives just become objects, to be disposed of for the greater good, or the greater convenience of chosen life styles
If there is no God, is there any basis for saying that there are any absolute values laid down by any agency greater that the consensus of the   human beings who happen to be around at a given  time?  In the absence of  a sense of the  Absolute, what is a “human right” in one generation, could be  quite properly deemed to be a  luxury in another generation, and vice versa.
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. Rabbi Jonathan Sachs described our  modern dilemma thus
“The idea of reasoning together was dealt a fateful blow in the twentieth century by  the  collapse of moral language, the disappearance of “I ought” and its replacement  by “I want”, “I choose”, ” I feel”.  Obligations can be debated. Wants, choices , and feelings can only be satisfied or frustrated” he said.
He went on to  identify  the importance of religion in providing a basis for the development of a shared civic  sense of obligation,  for each of our countries, and for  our world.
He said
“Reverence, restraint, humility, a sense of limits, the  ability  to listen  and  respond to human distress- these  are not virtues produced by the market, yet they are attributes we will need if our global civilization is to survive and they are an  essential part of the  religious imagination”
Those who would banish religious formation from our schools should reflect on those words  of the former Chief  Rabbi of Great Britain.

  Of course, people who believe religious formation does not belong in schools  may argue that there are other sources available  to draw upon in   shaping the ethics of children. 
Could not   science, material progress, freedom, a secular ethic, or human rights perform that  role? 
Could a  combination of  these provide us with a sufficient sense of what is good and what is evil, so that we could safely banish religious belief to the private sphere,  as something unnecessary to the formation of future citizens? 
 Science, as we know, is a search for truth but, on its own, it has no inherent ethical boundaries. The application of science has given us marvellous medical advances, improved sanitation, and wonderful new means of communication.  But it has also given us the atom bomb, the depletion of scarce water resources, and climate change.
Material progress and rising living standards?  Should they be our goal and our guide?
Material progress has not been cost free. Beyond a certain point, which we in Ireland passed about 30 years ago, there seems to no correlation between improvement in average material  living  standards and  improved wellbeing.  This is a finding of economists who have been studying the “economics of happiness”.   
The same economic studies suggest that, when it comes to links between material wealth and a sense of wellbeing, everything is relative. If we can afford a better car than our brother in law, we feel well off. If we can only afford a cheaper one, we feel badly off.  Thus it becomes an endless and unsatisfying struggle.  A religious sense, if it is allowed to develop, would  put all these things back into proportion.
Should that be the goal? Should we just leave it to people to decide for themselves how to use their freedom, without any collective communal guidance?
 The trouble with “freedom” as a goal for society is that it is a purely individualistic concept. It says nothing about how we should treat other people. It would, for example, validate the pursuit of private profit regardless of the effect that has on other people, or on the environment.
 Freedom can only exist in the framework of law, otherwise it becomes chaos.  And law making involves value judgements, and the values underlying law have to come from a source above and beyond the law itself.   Otherwise law is just a malleable thing based on popular consensus and majority opinion, which as we know is highly fickle and contingent on emotional  waves. Majorities can be both  blind and unjust, at times.
Ethics, separate from religion? Is that a possibility?
 I think it is difficult to come up with a complete set of ethical principles, without  having a view about the purpose of human life, why we are here, and  thus who we are as humans. Some would argue that we can have a concept of human rights that is entirely separate from our concept of how each human being came in to existence and  from our sense of the value of that human life, and whether that life exists in any continuing form after  death.  I am not sure that this is possible.   I believe Christians could reach a wide level of agreement on a lot of human rights topics who believed this, but not complete agreement, I suggest. Why do I say that?
 Genomics, the science of genes, brings us up against the limits of such an approach.  Is it okay to “create” a new, better, man, with fewer diseases, in a test tube, to experiment with human beings, to discard some and retain  others?
I believe these are questions that go beyond any possibility of absolute determination by some system of secular, religion free, ethics
When do we become sufficiently “human” to have “human rights”? Are human right inherent from the beginning of life, or are they contingent on whether we can live independently, as some might argue? These issues cannot be decided for us by science on its own.  And in the absence of a scientific answer  he  question is left to politics . And, as we know from the debate about  abortion in other countries,  the best politics can come up with is some arbitrary rule, determined by a temporary political compromise of some kind.  That shows the limits  of the human rights model on its own, if it is separated from a deeper consensus on the nature and meaning of human life.
A similar problem of agreeing on common assumptions arises in a dialogue on human rights with countries like China, whose Marxist materialist ideology and Confucian ethic give it a different view on the value of individual lives. Islamic societies would also have different priorities than western societies, whose “secular” notions of human rights have roots in, often unremembered and unacknowledged, diluted Christian assumptions.
I believe the cultivation of a religious sense, through religious education is  a vital part of  education. Education is  about more that  a lot of facts.  It is about learning how to live, and how to make judgements. Anyone who sets out to educate children and prepare them for life, and  for making judgements,  has to start with their own belief of what constitutes a good life and good judgement. I think that is self evident.  So I think it follows that teachers need to believe what they are teaching and  schools do need to  have a shared  belief system

Of course this does not mean that religion should have free rein, without critical rational challenge.  Without a constant questioning, faith can become a form of oppression, fanaticism that distorts our humanity.    As Pope Benedict said in his famous Regensburg address there is a proper dialogue that must always go on between faith and reason. They should influence one another constantly. Religion must check the hubris of faith, and faith that of reason.
As he said ,before  he became Pope, in a speech in Saint Etienne  in June  2004
“I would say that there can be no peace in the world without genuine peace between reason and faith, because without peace between reason  and religion, the sources of morality and law dry up”
So I would suggest respectfully to Ruairi Quinn that faith formation does have a place in our schools, a place that it should share peacefully with science, literacy,  mathematics and all  those other good  things.

Speech by John Bruton, former Taoiseach, in the series of “Lenten Lectures” on faith and public, policy organised jointly by the Catholic, Church of Ireland and Presbyterian parishes, in the Radisson Hotel, Dublin , at 8pm on the 7 April 2011

Powered by WordPress & Theme by Anders Norén