Faith formation? Take it out of schools altogether!

May 3, 2016 | 7 comments



Sean O’Conaill argues that with the continuity of Catholic faith in Ireland now seriously in question – and with controversy growing over equal access to primary schooling for all – it is time to abandon school-centred Catholic faith formation as a catastrophic failure.

Why should we Catholics still suppose that a committed faith will be ‘formed’ by Catholic schooling from the age of four or five when it is staring us in the face that this rarely happens?

The virtually complete failure of that system was well summed up by Archbishop Diarmuid Martin of Dublin in 2006 when he told Pope Benedict:  “I can go to parishes on a Sunday where I find no person in the congregations between the ages of 16 and 36. None at all.”

As someone who spent a total of forty-eight years in Catholic schools, as student and teacher, and did not come to a deeply committed faith until the age of fifty-one, I am now convinced that abandonment of the delusion that schooling will form faith is an essential key to a revival of effective faith development in Ireland, at all ages.

To begin with, informed faith is not an outcome of instruction but of a combination of experience, questioning and insight – and school is not the most likely context for that required combination to occur.

Baptised in infancy, and raised in Catholic schools, the experience that brought me to a committed faith eventually was the realisation that as a teacher of history and current affairs – in a Catholic school – I could not connect the data of my own teaching expertise with the loss of faith of my own children.

“I don’t believe all this Jesus stuff,” said my youngest, aged fourteen in 1994.  “And most of my class don’t either.”

He was a third-year pupil in the same Catholic school.

Faith cannot develop properly in adults who opt out of responsibility for passing it on!

Until that moment I had never taken any serious responsibility for discussing ‘faith’ with my own children.  I had seen all that as the responsibility of the RE professionals and the clergy – and opted out.    My own focus was the growing secular crisis in Ireland – especially the crisis of violence, of inequality and of the environment – in Northern Ireland and in the wider world more generally.  I didn’t see, then, how the Gospels were in any way connected with that crisis.

I am now convinced that to leave that option open to Irish Catholic parents – of handing over  the role of addressing the questions, doubts and moral formation of our children to school professionals and to clergy – is to hobble the faith development of both adults and children – and to enable clergy generally to dodge the challenge of dialogue with adults.    Our school-centred system of ‘faith formation’ is a major factor in the growing crisis of Catholic faith in Ireland.

The reason is simple.  Even Catholic secondary schools have now been essentially  ‘secularised’ by the very weight of their vocational curriculum – and by the fashionable faith-averse or faith-indifferent formation of most of their teachers at third level.  Even Catholic teachers of History or English or Geography or Economics are taught to see faith development as the responsibility of someone else, while the expertise they have acquired at university has for many decades used a language that makes little or no contact with Christian faith or wisdom.

Even in Irish Catholic primary schools now there is news of eyebrow-raising in staff rooms at the arrival of more committed younger teachers.   Those teachers are struggling vainly, in all schools, against the tide.

And what of parents of teenagers concerned about the growing dangers that face their children in that rapidly changing world?  Too often they find that weekend homilies show no understanding whatsoever of the relevance of the Gospel to that world – so both they and their children stop coming to church.  Our retained reliance on the schools tells them it’s not their problem – or within their competence – to grapple with the faith formation of their children.  Our entire system says to parents  ‘don’t you worry’ when everything else tells them they must.

It was a profound mistake to ‘professionalise’ the faith formation of children and young adults in schools for the following reasons:

  • Even the usual educational ambience of Catholic schools is now secular and secularising – in the sense of finding religious faith irrelevant in most subjects, even the humanities;
  • Teachers in second-level schools are primarily absorbed by the public exam requirements of their own subjects, and usually never meet to assess or discuss the overall impact of the entire school curriculum upon the developing – or more usually dwindling – faith of their students;
  • Teachers of RE can generally have no detailed knowledge of their students as individuals – the knowledge that only their parents can have;
  • Those parents are mostly completely ‘out of the loop’ – deprived of both the responsibility, and of any sense of competence, for developing the faith understanding of their children;
  • Adult faith formation is at present usually poorly resourced, and unconnected with parenting responsibilities. Seen usually as an option for retirees, not as a life-requirement for all, it mostly doesn’t happen at all.
  • The peer-group culture of teenagers is now generally sophisticated in its disdain for the faith formation system we still retain.   Connected with a globalised online world that warns of the dangers of cults and promotes intellectual independence, young people are increasingly scornful of a system they often come to see as ‘brainwashing for children’;
  • Without any responsibility for faith formation, lay Catholic adults have no compelling need to demand regular dialogue with clergy;
  • Clergy too generally opt out of that obligation, because ‘the schools are taking care of it’ – and the half-century gulf in age between the average priest and the average teenager is now seldom addressed by the weekly homily;
  • As they can see that their parents have usually been given no vital role in the faith-continuity of the church, most teenagers are currently being taught by that very fact that Catholicism will have no vital adult role for them either – so why bother?

It would be a radical step to face parents and parishes now with the main responsibility for faith development – but doing that could be a complete game-changer for everyone, because:

  • Christian faith matures usually only at a time of adult life-crisis, often long after a throwing-off of early-stage faith;
  • Parents need to be faced with the reality that unless their own faith is in ongoing development they will not be equipped to speak to their children about that vital issue;
  • Parents are more likely than their children to be asking the mature questions that only a mature faith can answer;
  • It will be the developing faith of their parents – and their recognised role as responsible adults in the church – that will make most impression on children;
  • The imperative need for ongoing dialogue in the church between people and clergy will then become unavoidable by both;
  • There is no other way of challenging the growing secular crisis – deriving mainly from a loss of meaning and the collapse of integrity on the part of the secular establishment;
  • The changing of our major focus to adult faith development will not otherwise happen;
  •  Adult faith development is the most important adventure that anyone can have, and home video screens are ultimately depressive and mind-numbing if they become a substitute for real personal development face-to-face.

It is time for a loud wake-up call to – and from – the leadership of the Irish Church:   our inherited faith formation system is failing and needs to be replaced by a system that allows no one to opt out.


  1. Aidan Hart

    A great article which rightly and very effectively challenges the unfounded presumptions of Catholic school-based education with regard to the practice of the faith by future generations of Catholics.

    The article is not anti RE teacher, the majority of whom I have no doubt work very hard at their task, but rather anti the concept that Catholic schools and Catholic RE lessons on their own were ever, or can ever be, an effective or appropriate way to pass the Catholic faith on to children so that they understand it, willingly embrace it and live it. No doubt there are exceptions but they are just that, exceptions.

    The majority of Catholic school pupils lapse from their faith and the old situation of some/many of them returning to the practice of their faith in later life seems to have gone. An increasing number of Catholic teachers are also lapsed from their faith. It is telling that there is no published research evidence that I have seen in N. Ireland or throughout the UK to gainsay or quantify that situation, in spite of the vast amount of money and resources put into Catholic Schools by the Church through the generosity of Catholic parents over many generations.

    Are parents aware of the lapsation rate among Catholic pupils in their own child’s secondary school? Are committed parents aware of the harm being done to their children by being surrounded daily by other ‘Catholic’ children who think the Catholic faith irrelevant, Sunday Mass a big bore and anyone who still goes to church as stupid? Most secular organisations would regard that lack of substantiated and published evidence for the success or failure of a major aim of the Catholic Education enterprise as irresponsible or as hiding a woeful situation.

    On its own school based Religious Education will not be able to bring young people to a lasting and ever deepening relationship of love with Jesus the Christ and appreciation of what the Church has to offer in helping to bring that about. Now that Catholic schools in the diocese of Down and Connor have become officially ‘Catholic schools for all children’ no matter what their religion, and are subject to intense pressure from state and parents to perform in academic league tables (which many do most successfully), their traditional and additional role of educating in, and passing on, the Catholic faith has become impossible, as Sean rightly states. Home and parish must now accept the responsibly that was previously passed, some might say ‘fobbed off’, to Catholic schools; it was always an unrealistic expectation and impossible task but one that was rarely discussed. The implications of this situation for parents, priests and parishes are enormous; are they up to the challenge? What might those challenges be? Sean has ‘let the cat out of the bag’ and started what will hopefully be an honest, constructive and informed discussion, vitally important to present and future generations of young Catholics.

  2. Martin Harran

    I think we need to be very careful about jumping to conclusions. The fact that something is not delivering what it is aimed to deliver is not necessarily a reason to abandon it, we must always look at “fix” as well as “dump”.

    Sean makes the point that his own Catholic education did not lead him to a committed faith, that this came well on in his life. I would pose the question, however, whether he would have actually come to that committed faith without the foundation provided by that Catholic education. My own experience is that as I start to question and explore various aspects of my own faith, that my Catholic education over 50 years ago does now, very late in life, finally start to make some sense!

    The points Sean raises about the failures in religious education are right and we need to look at them to see are they fixable or whether they should indeed be abandoned. What bothers me most, however, is that the agenda on religious education in school, as in so many other areas, is being driven by those totally opposed to religion and, just as in so many other areas, our hierarchy appear to stand like the proverbial hare in the headlights with no idea what way to turn.

    • Aidan Hart

      I agree with you Martin but ‘the fix’ must be fair to all and not create other problems. The issue with ‘Catholic schools for all’ is that it’s working out in practice falls into two problematic situations, apart from unintentionally undermining the vital parental and parish community’s duty to pass on the Catholic faith to their children, not just intellectually but more importantly as a lived experience.

      In the first situation, the Catholic school with pupils from all denominations, faiths and none, does justice to the religious and spiritual education of Catholic children and thereby runs foul of Vatican 2’s requirement to respect the religious conscience of all people. Few Catholic primary and secondary schools have a free classroom and free teacher for the supervision of pupils from other Christian denominations and faiths during Catholic RE lessons. I have been in many Catholic schools where ‘non-Catholic’ pupils had to endure Catholic RE lessons and classroom Masses, including sacramental preparation for First Holy Communion, First Confession and Confirmation. With increasing immigration into N. Ireland of Muslim families and people of other faiths, this issue can only get worse. Unless Catholic schools provide RE for all their pupils, including those of other faiths, they are actually breaking the law. Also, the segregating out of non-Catholic pupils from Catholic RE lessons or classroom Masses, can be embarrassing to those pupils.

      Secondly, the Catholic school can offer a broad, very general multi-faith type of Religious Education to all its multi-denominational and multi-faith pupils, including Catholic pupils. However this leaves its Catholic pupils with a very inadequate understanding and appreciation of their own Catholic faith and Catholic spirituality. One solution to this problem is for all Catholic children, including those attending Catholic schools, to attend Sunday school classes in their local parishes, where adult religious education is also on offer to Catholic parents to help them, the primary religious educators, pass on their faith to their children. This is increasingly being done in some English dioceses. However non-religious state schools (Controlled schools in N. Ireland) tend to resent this approach as, in some areas, it deprives them of the pupils necessary for their survival. They see Catholic schools changing their identity and original purpose in order to avoid declining enrolments and closure rather than for the reason of genuine ecumenism.

      Research by Stranmillis Teacher Training College showed that many parents of ‘non-Catholic’ children attending Catholic schools were strongly motivated by the reportedly good discipline, examination results, respectful and caring ethos or geographical closeness to their home of Catholic schools and were prepared to endure their children’s’ exposure to Catholic Religious Education and spirituality although they would have preferred to avoid these, if given the opportunity, which they weren’t.

  3. soconaill

    On that last point of Martin Harran’s it often seems that ‘secularist’ opposition to faith schools is used by our bishops to promote a ‘circle the wagons’ strategy in defence of them – without ever admitting that for some decades they have not been justifying the church’s strategic reliance upon them for faith formation. And without ever researching the reasons for this either, as Aidan so well points out.

    We are still in ‘Christendom’ mode – and not reorganising together to meet that anti-faith challenge. That’s why I am putting this argument so starkly – to wake everyone into a realisation of the need for a radical rethink, immediately.

    Most Irish Catholics don’t even know that the Irish Church’s new catechetical scheme launched in 2011 (‘Share the Good News’) proposes a shift in emphasis to adult faith formation over a ten-year period. Here we are – supposedly half-way to that objective – and clearly bogged down in bureaucracy – another cause of demoralisation. It’s surely time to sound the loudest possible alarm.

  4. Teresa Mee

    I totally agree with Sean that ‘..informed faith is not an outcome of instruction but of a combination of experience, questioning and insight – and school is not the most likely context for that required combination to occur’.

    This has already been accepted and acted upon by the Family Links teams active across UK, USA, and in its infancy in N.Ireland. It’s a really exciting initiative and I witnessed it in action last week in Oxford.

  5. soconaill

    The following comes from a letter to the Irish Catholic newspaper (12th March, 2016). T. Gerard Bennett comments on editor Michael Kelly’s account of the vibrant liturgies he had encountered on a visit to Los Angeles:

    “Michael Kelly is missing a critical point … In Ireland, we largely devolve faith formation to the schools, most of which operate under Catholic patronage and with a Catholic ethos. Other than on the days of reception of the sacrament or in the one or two events that precede this, children’s involvement and participation in the life of the parish is limited. What is even more damaging is that no ongoing and developing relationship or connection with the parish is formed.

    “In the US … the vast majority of Catholic children attend the public school system that is devoid of any faith formation. The result is that children attend catechetical classes in their local parishes from an early age and through to Confirmation, typically at 15-16 years of age. So much of this is linked into Sunday liturgies and so the connection with parents and the wider family.

    “We lived in the US (Massachusetts) for a number of years. This was our experience, and parish life there bore no comparison with what is often, in Ireland, dull and uninspiring. Why – because so many families are absent in Ireland.

    ” …I am certain that as long as we leave faith formation to the schools, irrespective of notional ethos, then there is no possibility of the vibrancy of which Michael Kelly writes ever returning except in very few and rare instances. And how sad is that?

    Yours etc.,
    T. Gerard Bennett,
    Co. Westmeath.


    Mr Bennett’s letter strongly suggests that the worst possible situation is not the withdrawal of faith formation from schools, but the severing of the connection between faith formation on the one hand, and parents and parishes on the other – the system we still cling to in Ireland.

  6. soconaill

    ‘The Irish Catholic’ of June 2nd, 2016 highlights a letter from me on this issue, questioning the huge research deficit on the effectiveness of school-reliant faith formation.


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