Or “Picking a Fight with Iona – just ‘cos”


In my last post I took the highly-unusual step (for me) of praising an article by David Quinn and agreeing with his oft-stated view that Catholics are subjected to a great deal of unfair criticism.

This week (and largely for the sake of my own mental equilibrium), I thought I’d pick a fight with David Quinn’s “Iona Institute”.

Going to their website, I picked the first position paper I encountered and had a read. This paper happened to be “The Liberal Case for Religious Schools” by John Murray[1]. Readers will be familiar with the debate around whether or how to change Ireland’s existing education system in which the overwhelming majority of schools are denominational institutions that practice faith formation and have entrance criteria that favour children of their particular religion.

Murray’s paper describes a “pluralistic” education system in which each reasonably-large religious group has its own faith-based schools in receipt of state support. The claimed purpose of the paper is to present the philosophical arguments – based on reason and shared human values – in favour of this system and against a system of universally-secular schools.

Some of these arguments are entirely reasonable. For example, Murray is correct in his rebuttal of those who would claim that religion is a purely private and individual pursuit when he describes the various ways in which the practice and celebration of religion necessarily requires that adherents be able to come together as a group.

However Murray fails to explain why it is that, if we do need denominational schools so that the religious can come together, we don’t also need denominational workplaces or theatres or pubs. No-one suggests that it’s necessary to fence off a large section of Phoenix Park for Catholics, a smaller section for Protestants and so on. So why is it necessary to fence off sections of our schools system?


Murray premises many of his arguments on principles with broad – and not merely religious – appeal. However, these principles are only applied only to the extent that they support his “pluralistic” education system. Consider the following,

“Just as it could be said to be unfair for society to expect substantial numbers of non-religious parents to pay by their taxes for a completely religious education system, it would be unfair of society to force substantial numbers of religious parents to pay to support a single type of education system, a non-religious one”

“A pluralistic system is one that respects the views, rights, and responsibilities of all the parties involved. A single-type system (in a pluralistic context such as ours) imposes on some people for the sake of others, and thus fails to respect the common good of all.”

Here, Murray appeals to ideals of fairness and reciprocity in defence of his pluralistic system. Yet his paper almost completely ignores the unfairness to those many parents and children who are confronted with a system that is, for them, effectively “single-type” for the simple reason that there are no schools within commuting distance that accommodate their faith.

Murray devotes a couple of lines to the plight of children denied entry to their local school on the basis of their religion. He dismisses this as being merely due to “poor planning”. But Murray doesn’t explain why – when there is poor planning – the consequences must always be borne by religious minorities alone (in particular, non-Christians).

There will sometimes be insufficient school-places in an area, just as there will sometimes (always?) be insufficient hospital beds and affordable housing. However, if beds or housing were allocated based on religion that would rightly be denounced as intolerable discrimination. Iona spokespeople have been known to protest that “discrimination” is a loaded term. That may be, but the word “discrimination” – with all its connotations – is also entirely appropriate and applicable. Some children are losing out based on their religion. Other children are being privileged based on their religion. Discrimination really is the only word for it.


Murray goes on to refer to the “principle of subsidiarity” – the idea that society should devolve decision making to the least powerful authority competent to make that decision and that the state should not interfere in activities that civic society is capable of performing on its own. Murray invokes subsidiarity in support of denominational schools where decisions about ethos are made locally by boards of management and in opposition to the idea of a state-imposed school monoculture.

However Murray ignores that subsidiarity can also be invoked to argue for removing faith-formation from schools altogether. If sports teams, Tidy Town’s committees and amateur dramatics societies can all be organised and run without relying on publicly-funded schools, why is the same not true of faith formation? If local parents can bring children together, teach them the rules and skills of a sport and then organise games for them to play in, why can’t local religious groups and churches establish “Sunday Schools” to teach children the beliefs and practices of their faith?

The answer, of course, is that they can. And indeed they do in other countries not dissimilar from ours – the obvious example being the United States where faith formation takes place strictly outside schools but where many states have levels of religious observance that are far higher than they are here.


Murray also does a poor job of describing what, if any, harm would be done to religion or religious people if schools were to lose their ability to use religion as an entry criterion or had to keep faith formation out of the classroom. Indeed, the “harms” that are detailed amount to little more than hurt feelings.

“To exclude denominational schools from the public education system would surely send out a strong signal to Irish society and all its members that religion is not reasonable, not social, not a significant and valuable part of Irish life and culture and history, but something to be restricted to the purely private and personal sphere. It might even send out a strong signal that religion is something to be weakened and, ideally, eliminated.”.

Murray thinks that any move away from a faith-dominated education system should be interpreted as an explicit rejection of religion (as opposed to being accepted as a genuine effort towards the common good). Murray’s claims read like those of a child who complains that being made share her toys proves that her parents don’t love her anymore.


Ultimately, however, the arguments I have described so far are of relatively little importance in the context of a public discourse about religion in schools. The Iona Institute is fully aware that in the short-form adversarial-debate format favoured by the media the most effective arguments are those that are punchy, easily-absorbed and intuitively appealing.

Iona spokespeople won’t be raising the principle of subsidiarity on Prime-Time. Instead they will focus on the core argument presented in this paper – that parents want denominational schools.

Indeed this claim may be strictly correct. The majority always tend to want systems that privilege them, as the majority.

Iona spokespeople will elaborate on this argument as they do in this paper; they will say that parents know what is best for their children, they will remind us that the constitution recognises parents as the primary educator of their children and they will infer from this that, if parents want something, then it must be proper that they get it.


The Iona Institute know what Josh Lyman from The West Wing knew – that politics is not about who has the best answer to the question; it’s about who decides what the question is.

Iona will look to keep the discussion focused on the question of what the majority want and hope we all forget about the many parents who do not want denominational schools (for the obvious reason that they tend to discriminate against their children). If that fails, Iona will hope we can be persuaded not to care about such parents or their children (perhaps by convincing us that they are too few in numbers to merit consideration). If that fails, Iona will attempt to steer the discussion toward the question of an interfering state in pursuit of a politically-correct, anti-religious agenda.


Of course, the question is not what the majority of parents want. The question is what families need.

The question is not one of state-interference but of how we, as a society, can best balance the competing rights of people of all faiths and none.

The question is not how to oppress the religious but of how an education system can best accommodate the religious freedom of everyone – whether they be in the majority or not – in circumstances where many communities cannot realistically support more than one or two schools and where Murray’s “pluralistic” education system can only ever be hypothetical.

The question is why religious groups must be allowed to co-opt publically-funded schools to privilege their own. The question is why we must accept the harm that is so clearly done to religious minorities by a system that forces them to the back of the queue.

The question is what, if any, harm might be done by insisting that faith-formation takes place outside the classroom so that maths and reading and writing can be taught in an environment where kids who live next door to each other are treated equally and where no-one is singled-out as being “different”.


These are the questions that Murray’s paper fails to address. These are the questions that the Iona Institute doesn’t want to be asked. But these are the questions that matter.



[1] This paper was written in 2008 but since it’s on a topical issue and was given prominence on the Iona Institutes website, we can assume it materially reflects Iona’s current positions.

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