GRACE Report Launch

GRACE Report Launch, All Hallows College, Dublin 23 April 2024

Speech by Dr Niall Coll, Bishop of Ossory, who launched the Report.

It’s a great privilege for me to be associated with the launch of the GRACE (Ireland) Research Project 2021-24. Having been involved in teacher education for many years in Belfast, my short-lived perch back home in parish work in County Donegal during the pandemic saw me participate through the miracle of the new technologies of Zoom and Teams in some of the initial conversations which got this research programme started. My thought then was that my days of direct involvement in macro-level discussions about Catholic education were ending. But I was mistaken, and here I am present in my new position as a bishop to welcome this research and to offer a sincere thanks on behalf of all those involved in Catholic education for all who have worked to bring this project to publication.

Let me say how incredibly helpful it is to have such an excellent quantitative and qualitative study of important aspects of the shape of Catholic education in Ireland today. Whatever its vicissitudes, we have a benchmark study which elevates that discussion above what may have been easily dismissed earlier as the anecdotal – even if much of that anecdotal intelligence was very often well grounded.

Government, academia and media in Ireland all attach a special importance to empirical study and I have no doubt that they will find the data here both accessible and useful. So too will church people, and perhaps them most of all, a cohort that in the past tended to prioritise, whatever the deficiencies in approach, the philosophical, historical and theological elements to reflection on our schools and their mission. Now Catholic education in Ireland, while it needs to be faithful to its own rich heritage of scholarship, can be well pleased at having at its disposal such an accessible and useful study to help guide and orientate future reflection and planning on the work of Catholic education in the years ahead.

I hope that the publication of this report marks only the beginning of such comprehensive empirical research projects in Catholic education in Ireland. The good news about the excellence of our faith-based schools – excellence in the levels of academic, personal, social and spiritual achievement – is a very underworked theme in public discourse in Ireland. More often than not the target of hostile voices in politics and media, Catholic schools here are in fact quietly to the fore in the ways thy work for greater levels of inclusion and participation, not least in the ways they welcome and promote intercultural and interreligious education. More about that later.

Right now, let me acknowledge that much of what is outlined in the GRACE Report does not come as a surprise to many of us. We know well that Irish society, in line with developments throughout the West, has become increasingly secular over the last few decades and that not a few in our society have come to question and even reject the role that Catholic schools have played in our country over the last two centuries. I don’t propose to rake over those issues just now but prefer instead to offer some responses to some of the key findings in the research.

Before doing that, I would like to say that it is not for nothing that so many of the new Irish, peoples from different faiths (world religions) and none find the learning contexts of our Irish Catholic schools welcoming, sympathetic and conducive to their lives of faith and learning. This is a truth that is as evident in the schools in Kilkenny and Laois that I visit, as it was in the many Catholic schools in the North that I visited over many years in my capacity there, among others, as a teaching practice tutor in St Mary’s University College. Future comparative studies in the Republic, if they are to follow the pattern in the Northern Ireland, Great Britain, Australia and other countries too will demonstrate that Catholic schools in pluralist societies are well able to sparkle and more than hold their place in comparison to other types of schooling in terms of the quality of educational outcomes.

That’s why in the face of so much criticism here at home of Catholic schools that I remain positive about their work and the contribution that they make in encouraging and developing young people as both citizens and disciples. I would like to take this opportunity to mention here some words of the late Irish Jesuit educationalist and historian, David Tuohy, when he noted that many denominational schools in Ireland – Catholic, Church of Ireland and Presbyterian – are puzzled about why their positive approach to education is not reflected in a greater appreciation of the religious source which underpins their educational vision. And he went on to point out that there has been little evidence of indoctrination over the decades in the students graduating from Catholic schools.

Now a few points of direct response to some of the Report’s key findings. To begin, the research is striking in the way it points to the high levels of commitment to ethos, the education of the whole person and personal faith among principals aged 50 years and more. Levels are significantly lower, however, among their younger colleagues. Does this signal a hopeless situation for the long-term survival of Catholic education? Can schools survive if there are not the personnel to lead them in ways which are recognisably and credibly Catholic? It’s undeniable that there is a growing trend to define the common good of education in terms of the economy rather than culture (with its close connection with faith), human capital replaced by knowledge capital.

The GRACE Report sets out real deficits in introductory and ongoing training/CPD for all school personnel, particularly with regard to identity and ethos and offers a cri de cœur to patrons and trusts to address this matter urgently. This truly must be heard. There is no denying, to use the language of the Canadian philosopher, Charles Taylor, that the ‘social imaginary’ of the younger generations has moved away from being permeated by religious faith. Marked instead by what he terms ‘expressive individualism’ and its tendency to relativise all meaning and truth to personal taste.

Is that the end then? Has history ended? Is there no chance of a rethink, a retrieval of curiosity and sense of exploration that might mean that the direction of travel might change. Let me suggest one possible theme, one which is taken up, however inchoately in the GRACE Report, namely the need for a better understanding and commitment to both intercultural and interreligious dialogue and education in our schools.

Damian Howard SJ (2016) has written tantalisingly about the relationship between ‘Christians and Muslims in tomorrow’s Europe’. While now estimated to be 7% of the European population, it is forecasted to rise to about a quarter by the end of the century, bringing about ‘a substantial change in the religious landscape. Interestingly, Philip Jenkins estimates that France will be 30% and Germany 25% Muslim by 2050. Howard predicts that over time having Muslims in large numbers in Europe is bound to alter the questions that preoccupy Christians.

The current reality is, as Howard has argued, that secular modernity has cauterised the Christian imagination and reduced it to the bare bones of ethics and ‘values’. Muslims, on the other hand, have no hesitation in affirming the reality of God. This new context made possible by the growing presence and confidence of Islam may, he suggests, liberate the European Church, Catholic and Protestant, to speak with a new confidence about God. Who knows, some from a Christian background may feel provoked and emboldened to return to their own traditions of prayer, ritual and fasting with a new vigour? In the long term this will have big implications for our schools.

Back to our schools in Ireland now. A Catholic RE well-grounded in the direction set by Second Vatican Council (1962-65) would not reduce all religions to one and the same reality, to be set aside in the curriculum, as happens in schools were RE is marginalised or absent. Such a ripping out of RE is particularly unfortunate at a time when Ireland is becoming increasing multireligious and multicultural. For one thing, working towards good levels of knowledge of the Bible among young people from a Christian background better equips them to understand and empathise with Muslims for whom the Quaran is immensely important. Such work is of great service to the common good.

Catholic religious education when it is properly valued and taught, as Dermot Lane has repeatedly asserted, respects the irreducibility of the other, values diversity, otherness and interconnectedness. After all, the Council’s Declaration on the Relationship of the Church to Non-Christian Religions, Nostra Aetate (1965) acknowledges that the human community is one because it comes from the creative hand of the one God (n. 1) and that variations in religious faith are a reflection of the rich diversity that characterises Humankind itself. The article states that the Catholic Church rejects nothing of what is true in these religions and that these religions often reflect a ray of that truth which enlightens all men and women (n 2). Consequently, the Declaration encourages ‘dialogue and collaboration’ with the followers of other religions in order to promote common spiritual, moral, social and cultural values.

We would do well to recognise how Vatican II and subsequent Catholic teaching recognises the other world faiths on their own terms. Thus the declaration praises Hinduism’s emphasis on contemplation, asceticism, meditation and trust in God (n. 2), Buddhism’s recognition of the insufficiency of the material  world (n. 2), and Islam’s belief in the one God, its reverence for Jesus as a great prophet, honouring of Mary, his mother, its high moral standards, and its commitment to prayer, almsgiving and fasting (n. 3) The document’s greatest emphasis is placed on Judaism, in which the beginning of the Church’s faith and election are to be found (n. 4)

A word about a study of third level students (carried out by Rita George-Tvrtovic at a Catholic college in Chicago) which found that in a mixed religious setting of Catholics and Muslims, that nominal Catholics who encounter their Islamic classmates finding satisfaction in their study of Islam, feel encouraged to examine their own home (Catholic) tradition, either for the first time or with a new perspective. Might this have parallels in future teacher training in Ireland?

Finally, in light of the Grace Report, I hope that we in Catholic education will be aware of how we need to engage more deeply with our own Catholic tradition. With a strong sense of our own identity, we can, in the words of Pope Francis, have a deeper empathy for the other. Such identity has much to offer in the work of equipping our pupils and students for intercultural and interfaith dialogue and, consequently, to the service of the wider public good. Catholic education has much to offer in our multicultural, multireligious Ireland of the present and the future. Indeed, The Forum on Patronage and Pluralism in the Primary Sector some years back noted that “inter-faith and inter- cultural initiatives work best in schools where the Catholic students and parents are most committed to their own practice”. So, my advice and prayer for all involved in Catholic education is to press on with our important work and witness.

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