Critical to this dialogue is the clear recognition that parents have a right to have their children educated in accordance with their philosophical and religious convictions. Consequently, the State has a duty to support this right with public funds. It is important to point out that Catholic parents are taxpayers.
What gives parents the right to decide that their children should be educated in accordance with their philosophical and religious convictions? There are a myriad of such convictions, and no doubt some parents hold some very damaging and harmful ones. So where does the right come from?
If I’m convinced that failure to atone for sin will result in eternal torture in the flames of hell at the behest of an omniscient policeman, as one of my teachers taught to a bunch of 8 year olds, do I have the right to expect that my child be educated in this tradition?
This is not to say I think a state, on the other hand, has a right to determine how a child should be educated, or is automatically in a better position to determine that than the child’s parent: on the contrary.
I simply fail to see whence this ‘right’ emanates, if not from mere assertion. And as such, I fail to see how it follows from this that the State has a duty to support this right with public funds. Nor does the fact, cited by the Cardinal, that Catholic parents are taxpayers, have anything to do with it: if a Satanist is a taxpayer, there would be very few takers for the suggestion that the State should provide the child with an a Satanist education. Which leads me to a problem in this formulation:
Those parents who choose and value the Catholic education provided for their children are taxpayers in exactly the same way as parents who send their children to other types of schools. To disadvantage any group of parents because of their faith is completely contrary to the principle of equality and pluralism.
But in Ireland many parents who send their children to other types of schools are not necessarily doing so on account of any particular ethos -to use a popular term among the Catholic hierarchy- imparted by that school, but simply out of the desire to avoid a Catholic education. In this sense, the predominant position of Catholic schools in Irish society is in itself completely contrary to the principle of ‘equality and pluralism’ cited by the Cardinal.
And I have a problem with said principle. How can equality and pluralism be bundled into the same principle? If equality means equal entitlement to educational needs being met, perhaps including religious ones, then there is not much wrong with that. But one can hardly be equally entitled to diverse educational needs being met, as pluralism implies. The insertion of pluralism here lends truth to the charge levelled by Fintan O’Toole that the relativism adopted by the Church hierarchy on this score is merely strategic: would any Catholic bishop really believe that the children of fascist parents should be provided with a fascist education in the interests of pluralism? OK, perhaps that is not the best example, but you get the point.
At the same time, I also have some sympathy with the following:
There is no such thing as a value-free school. If parents want the government of the day to define and manage the ethos of their schools, it is important to ask what philosophy of life, of the human person, of the child would the government of the day promote? What system of values would it seek to promote? That of the particular party in power? Would it change from government to government?
The distrust of government is well-founded, but the problem posed here is based on a false opposition between an ethos imparted by the government and an ethos imparted by a church (leaving aside the problem of what an ‘ethos’ actually is and whether it should be a defining element of what a school does). He’s saying that if you take out the church, then the government will step in and impose its own ethos. So for him it is the question of the substitution of one centralised, top-down power with another. But, if it can be agreed that parents should have a say in how their children should be educated, and that schools are an important element of a local community, shouldn’t the local community simply have a greater say, via an acceptable set of fora, in how the school ought to be run? Assuming there can be some basic guiding principles to such an exercise, like, say, equality, or, if you like, cherishing all the children of the community equally (which is hardly at odds with Catholic teaching) wouldn’t local parents be best placed to agree on what should be studied and what ethos should be imparted? I see no reason why this would exclude religious education for those who hold it to be important, and it would mitigate the risk of indoctrination by Church or State.