Fintan O’Toole, ‘Lessons in the Power of the Church’, in The Irish Times (6 June 2009), Weekend.

Source: Irish Times online.

THIS WEEK, the Government chief whip Pat Carey said an extraordinary thing. Or, rather, a thing that is extraordinary only in Ireland. He suggested, in the context of the negotiations between the Government and religious orders over the fallout from the Ryan report, that this might be the time for the State to “take on its responsibilities for delivering an educational system”.

In almost every other developed society, this would be a virtually incomprehensible statement. In Ireland, it is a potentially potent one. It hints at a realisation that the Ryan report marks the necessity for a whole new deal in Church-State relations, one in which basic services in education (and in health), overwhelmingly funded by the taxpayer, finally come under public control.

To understand the need for such a new deal, it is necessary to understand why Ireland, almost alone among developed societies, allows basic social services to be run by a secretive, hierarchical organisation that has repeatedly been seen to regard itself as accountable to no one - not even to the law.

The great myth that hangs over so much discussion of the Catholic Church’s domination of the education and health systems is that the church stepped in to offer services that the State refused to provide. Had it not been for the church, the story goes, the plain people of Ireland would have been left without schools or medical services.

While there is some truth to this belief in relation to the conditions of the early 19th century, it is largely wrong. Indeed, the opposite is nearer the truth - the church consistently undermined State services, fought to limit their expansion and consistently put the maintenance of its own power ahead of the interests of vulnerable people.

THE MOST SPECTACULAR case in point is the primary school system. Ireland is one of the very few countries in the developed world that does not have a national system of primary education. The church controls 2,899 of the 3,282 primary schools in the State, catering for 92 per cent of pupils. This situation didn’t just happen, and nor did it arise because the church undertook a task that the State was shirking. The overwhelming church control of the system of primary education results not from charity but from the exercise of power.

In 1831, Lord Stanley, then chief secretary for Ireland, established a national schools system. A board in Dublin would make grants for the building of local schools and the payment of teachers’ salaries. These schools would be under the patronage of important local figures. The schools would, however, be obliged to be strictly non-denominational - in the context of early 19th century Ireland this meant that they would ensure equal access to Catholics, Protestants and Dissenters. The rules were that they should be managed by reputable people of both Catholic and Protestant faiths; that they should not mix religious education with basic teaching; and that they should encourage the development of religiously mixed classrooms. Religious instruction by clergy of each denomination would be separately facilitated.

Catholics, by and large, seemed happy with this system. (Initial opposition came primarily from Presbyterians and, to a lesser extent, from the Church of Ireland.) While the idea of joint Protestant-Catholic management never really took off, there was a reasonable level of success in establishing a public system of primary education that transcended sectarian divisions. On the eve of the Famine, Ireland had relatively high levels of literacy; the National Board of Education was spending £100,000 a year on primary schools; and 12,000 registered teachers were providing a basic education for half a million pupils in 4,300 schools. In 1862, 54 per cent of the primary schools throughout the island of Ireland were religiously mixed.

After the Famine, however, the Catholic Church began to recreate itself as an institutional structure with power over the civil and intimate lives of the majority of the population. As part of that process, it set about destroying the national schools and replacing them with a specifically Catholic system. Its leader, Cardinal Paul Cullen, declared the national school system to be “very dangerous when considered in general because its aim is to introduce a mingling of Protestants and Catholics.”

The Christian Brothers had been founded to teach those who would not otherwise have access to education. They became, instead, the shock troops for an assault on the existing national school system. “The Brothers’ schools,” wrote the historian Barry Coldrey (a Christian Brother) in his seminal study Faith and Fatherland, “came to be perceived by Catholic leaders as key factors in their struggle with the government for control of education in Ireland.” A principal part of this strategy was that the Christian Brothers’ schools (CBS) should cater not, as Edmund Rice had intended, for the destitute, but for the “sons of the better class of the Roman Catholic population”. So far did the Brothers stray from their original mission that by the end of the 19th century, Archbishop Walsh of Dublin was referring to a Christian Brothers school in his diocese “from which the poor are virtually excluded”.

THERE WAS A brilliant pincer movement of carrot and stick. On the one hand, the Brothers and other orders offered a Catholic and nationalist education, leavened with Victorian gentility, that was in tune with the emerging identity of the Catholic middle class. On the other, Cullen reinforced this pull with a crude push of spiritual intimidation. In 1869, he made an explicit threat to deny the sacraments to parents who kept their sons in “the lion’s den” of the national schools rather than send them to the Brothers.

This control of education placed the church at the very heart of the process of modernisation in post-Famine Ireland. It was the mechanism for controlling sexuality and limiting the growth of population that had contributed to the Famine. As sociology professor Tom Inglis has written, “It was through the schools that bodily discipline, shame, guilt and modesty were instilled into the Irish Catholic. Through such discipline and control, successive generations of farmers were able to embody practices which were central to the modernisation of Irish agriculture, including postponed marriage, permanent celibacy and emigration.”

Far from providing what the State would not, the Church increasingly set limits to the State’s capacity to provide social services. The Catholic hierarchy bitterly opposed the idea of compulsory attendance at primary school (a crucial protection for children who were otherwise obliged to work) as an infringement on parental rights. Partly as a result, attendance levels slipped well below international standards. In the early years of the 20th century, daily attendance was only about 70 per cent. Instead of bringing poor children into the educational system, the church helped to keep them out.

After the foundation of the State, the church’s control of first- and second-level education became all but absolute. It not only dominated secondary schools (which remained as private, fee-paying institutions while other developed societies were making them free), but used them as recruiting grounds. Donald Harman Akenson, in his ground-breaking 1975 study A Mirror to Kathleen’s Face, worked out that in the years 1956 to 1960, of 5,428 final year students in diocesan colleges and secondary schools, an astonishing 1,346 professed religious vocations.

The church’s dominance extended even into what was, in theory, a non-denominational public system - that of vocational schools. As managers of primary schools, priests were entitled to be nominated as members of the local vocational education committees (VECs). Once on the committee, the culture of deference virtually ensured that the priest became chairman. In the mid-1950s, 22 of the 27 VECs were headed by priests.

Again, the church’s control was used not to provide services but to prevent the State providing them. Such was the church’s determination to retain complete control of the primary school system that it actually blocked a proposal to inject more public funds. The Irish National Teachers’ Organisation (INTO) campaigned for decades for local government to pay the cost of heating and cleaning schools and for national government to increase the State’s contribution to the capital cost of constructing them. In 1952, it was widely expected that Sean Moylan, the then minister for education, would finally agree to these demands. The Bishop of Clogher, Eugene O’Callaghan, issued a strong attack on the proposals, claiming that they would lead to an “intolerable state of affairs whereby civil servants from Dublin might come down and attempt to take control of the primary schools”.

When the hierarchy formally discussed the issue, its decision, according to Akenson, was “that the present arrangements were desirable and that the school teachers should now stop their campaign”. The government dropped any move towards full funding of the primary schools. The INTO campaign petered out. Children continued to be schooled in unsuitable, badly equipped and often insanitary buildings. The anomaly whereby the State pays teachers’ salaries but primary schools have to raise their own running costs continues to this day. It is a direct result of the church’s willingness to sacrifice the interests of children to the protection of its own power.

ALMOST EQUALLY DAMAGING to children was the church’s resistance to the ideas of child-centred education that were emerging in developed societies throughout the 20th century. Church control over primary education was used to insist on a punitive system. Because of original sin, children were assumed to be inclined towards badness. Thus, the church strongly opposed the progressive educational practices of John Dewey, Maria Montessori and others that were beginning to take hold in developed societies. In 1923, Fr Denis Fahey wrote in the Irish Ecclesiastical Review that the educational systems of other countries had been led astray by modern theories and that “we must return to the saner education ideal of the Middle Ages”. The archbishop of Dublin, John Charles McQuaid, condemned Montessori’s theories “wherein … the child is supposed to be his own end.” That punitive approach was at its most violent in the industrial school system, but it was a standard assumption of most Catholic schools.

What was true of education was almost equally true of the development of the health service. It is certainly the case that in the first half of the 19th century, the church did provide medical services that were not otherwise available. The work of orders of nuns such as the Sisters of Charity and the Sisters of Mercy was of immense value to Irish society at the time.

As the idea of public health systems began to emerge in the late 19th and 20th centuries, however, the church again successfully stymied their development in Ireland. In 1911, when David Lloyd George introduced the pioneering National Health Insurance scheme in Britain, guaranteeing free GP care and medicines for workers, the church, allied with parts of the medical profession, successfully opposed its extension to Ireland. A system that became standard throughout developed societies was denied to Irish people. As a result, levels of public health in Ireland - including the highest rate of tuberculosis in western Europe - were appalling.

Equally, in the 1940s and early 1950s, while the post-war world was developing national health systems, Ireland failed to do so. This was not primarily because of the State. The Department of Health produced radical proposals for a national health service in 1945. The church, allied with right-wing doctors, opposed it on the grounds that it infringed the rights of the family. When Dr Noel Browne became minister for health in 1948, he proposed a more modest scheme under which children would have free medical care and hospitals would care for mothers before and after birth. In what became the infamous Mother and Child controversy, the church again blocked the scheme.

The reality is that Ireland ended up with its anomalous system of church control in education and health, not by default, but by design. The design was the church’s determination that these services be delivered, not as the universal right of citizens, but as gifts of its own benevolence.

This has left us with a system in which, for example, the religious orders named in the Ryan report for inflicting and covering up systemic child abuse still control around 1,000 primary schools. The church not only insists on retaining this power, but is demanding that in any new system that takes account of the increasing diversity of Irish society, the church would still be joint patron of schools. Power built up over 150 years will not be easily ceded, but until it is, neither the church nor the State will be free to face up to its responsibilities.

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