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baptism barrier

Dublin archdiocese saw 10% decline in christenings in the year after 'baptism barrier' was removed

Baptisms in Dublin dropped from 13,234 to 11,922 between 2018 and 2019.

THE ARCHDIOCESE OF Dublin saw its largest pre-Covid decline of baptism rates in the 21st century just one year after the so-called ‘baptism barrier’ was removed.

In Dublin, the rate of baptisms decreased by roughly 10% between 2018 and 2019, according to new figures from the archdiocese.

These figures show baptisms in Dublin dropped from 13,234 to 11,922 between 2018 and 2019, a fall of just over 1,300. 

In that same year, Ireland’s birth rates fell from 61,016 to 59,796, according to the CSO, showing that baptism rates in the Dublin archdiocese alone saw a larger drop than births in the entire country.

baptism rates

The then-government introduced legislation in 2018 to remove the so-called ‘baptism barrier’, which allowed Catholic primary schools to use religion as a selection criterion in school admissions.

David Graham, communications officer at Education Equality, a parent-led activist group that strongly advocated for the removal of the requirement, noted that the drop in christening rates and the removal of the ‘baptism barrier’ may be “directly linked”.

“This drop in baptism rates is consistent with surveys that were done prior to the removal of the baptism barrier that indicated a significant minority of baptisms were pragmatic, simply in order to keep them in front of the queues in school admissions, rather than motivated by faith, so I’m not surprised in the slightest,” he said. 

“In fact, if there had not been a fall in baptism rates, I would have been extremely surprised.”

Asked about the fall in baptisms, Martin Long, director of the Catholic Communications Office, said “it would be safe to assume” that the drop in baptism rates “was not due to one factor alone”.

Long added that the enrollment prioritisation of baptised children that did occur in the “small number” of oversubscribed schools in Dublin was “wholly correct and legal” at the time. He was strongly critical of the phrase ‘baptism barrier’ being used to describe the situation, saying that it was “derogatory” and “a media soundbite”. 

“It is a loaded term,” he said. “There was no such regulation in place. The problem arising from oversubscription of admission applications to schools was one of a lack of capacity in the schools themselves, and not one concerning baptism.”

Long said that following the legislation, cases have arisen where Catholic children are being excluded as they cannot be prioritised, having “no alternative but to enroll in a school under a non-Catholic patron”.

He said:

Ironically, it now stands that Catholics are the only faith group in the State to be restricted in this manner.

Long said the legislation has “had no effect on the oversubscribed schools as the difficulty continues for some schools. The problem is the number of places, not the baptismal issue, removal or not”.

Speaking to The Journal, Dr Gladys Ganiel, a sociologist at Queen’s University Belfast who studies Christianity in Ireland, noted that the removal of the ‘barrier’ and the subsequent decline in baptism rates “reflected the reality that Ireland is a multi-cultural and multi-faith society”.

She said: “I think it was an important step for all children to have the chance to be educated fairly and cherished equally.”

A 2015 report released by the Dublin archdiocese, which used existing trends to project key statistics such as their Mass attendance, priest population and baptism rates in 2030, assumed that the number of baptisms would remain stable from 2014 to 2030.

However, the report also said: “It should be noted that some of the strong correlation between baptisms and birth rates is likely due to the preference given to children who are baptised when enrolling in Catholic primary schools. If the requirement is removed at any point prior to 2030 we believe there is likely to be a decline in the number of baptisms each year.”

Securing school place

In 2018, then-Education minister Richard Bruton, under the Education (Admission to Schools) Act, removed the ‘baptism barrier’ for entry to all Catholic primary schools. This prevented enrollment priority being given to baptised children, while also mandating that schools facilitate students’ constitutional right to opt out of religious instruction.

The decision was welcomed by the Department of Education, with a spokesperson recently telling The Journal that while “recognising the right of all schools to have their distinctive ethos, the removal of religion as a criteria for admission to school seeks to be fair to all parents including non-religious families”.

A 2017 national opinion poll, commissioned by Equate, a children’s rights organisation which advocates for equality in Irish education, found that one in four parents said that they baptised their children for the sole purpose of securing primary education.

While all 25 new mainstream primary schools that have opened in the last five years have been multi-denominational in ethos, spread over various patrons, 88.7% of primary schools are still under the patronage of the Catholic Church, according to the Department of Education.

Some parents have noted that having children attend schools that actively practice a particular faith during school hours puts pressure on children to partake in such activities, for fear of social exclusion, according to a Noteworthy report.

Isabel Hayes, a journalist and mother of two, described how she was asked to provide a baptism cert for her son in his local national school in Killester. 

She said: “This was 2019, the first year the baptism barrier was abolished, and it was something I felt really strongly about. Other schools in the area had amended their policies to remove questions of religion but not this school.”

Hayes added that the school’s policy noted that religion was a way of life in the school. 

“I got the impression the school was still asking for these documents or describing the Catholic ethos or religious instruction element at length in their policy documents in order to ensure parents didn’t feel they had the option to opt their non-Catholic kids out of religion.”

Hayes noted that although she had read about the Government’s plans of diversifying patronage among Ireland’s 3,305 primary schools in 2011, the lack of progress in the planned divestments led her to baptise her first son, despite being a non-Catholic.

She said: “This was purely to get him a place.”

The announcement of the barrier’s removal came around the same time as the birth of her second child, leading her to “binning” her first son’s baptism cert and refraining from baptising her second child.

Hayes also highlighted the severe lack of non-denominational primary schools in her area, noting that the closest Educate Together was a 45-minute commute from her home.

Secular education

The growing demand for secular education has left many Educate Schools heavily oversubscribed, said the organisation’s CEO Emer Nowlan.

“How are 5% of the schools supposed to be able to cater for the 30 or 40% of the population who want to choose that option if it were there, so that’s the fundamental reason why they are so oversubscribed,” Nowlan said.

With the majority of primary schools being of Catholic ethos, Nowlan stressed how “when our schools open, they do come up heavily oversubscribed because there might be one Educate Together school in an area and there might be nine or ten Catholic schools”.

She said:

Anybody that wants to go to a Catholic school often has one nearby that is available, but if you want to go to an Educate Together school, it’s a lot more difficult, there simply aren’t enough.

In light of this, the Department of Education (DES) has devised a plan to develop 400 multi-denominational primary schools by 2030. However, the government has been criticised over the plan’s slow progress, most recently from the Irish Human Rights and Equality Commission (IHREC) in January.

The Irish Times reported that the IHREC had contacted the United Nations (UN) regarding the issue, asking for it to directly ask the Government to account for its “slow progress on the divestment of patronage from Catholic schools”.

At present, according to the Education Indicators for Ireland 2021 report, 159 schools are being operated by organisations which are not affiliated with any particular religion, while 2,756 are still under Catholic Patronage.

Educate Together, which is the largest non-denominational educational patron in Ireland, operates 95 schools nationally.

Nowlan pointed out that the Government’s plan is not as simple as reconfiguring Catholic schools into Educate Together schools.

She said that “there needs to be a structured process of how are we going to deal with the fact that not all of the families in that school want to change, how are we going to deal with the fact that maybe not all the teachers in that school want to change, it needs a proper process around it, it needs a proper structure around it and the government just hasn’t done that”.

Daniel O’Connell, a lecturer in religious studies in St Mary Immaculate College in Limerick said: “People just don’t like change, especially if they’ve got a local school that’s working reasonably well, and most schools do work reasonably well whether they’re Catholic, Educate Together or a multi-denominational school.”

O’Connell said that reports undertaken by inspectors from the Department of Education “always come back saying that schools are generally very good, so the majority of parents are probably wondering why they should change.”

David Graham of Education Equality recounted his experience at a meeting in his local Catholic school in north county Dublin, where he recalled that the Catholic Church was extremely unwilling to divest and relinquish their patronage.

He said: “One of the parents in the audience, and there were several hundred parents present, asked if the parents would be given an opportunity to listen to representatives from different patron bodies in order to be able to make an informed decision around patronage. And that was matched with a flat out refusal.”

Graham is focused on the “complete dissociation” of religious instruction from primary education, and while his goal is largely on a human rights basis, he also believes the quality of education would improve.

Graham said: “Teachers are being required to impart two and a half hours a week on religious studies, plus the sacramental preparation process plus prayers, plus church services plus visits from priests and bishops.

All of this uses up an enormous amount of very, very valuable curriculum time that could be put to better use by focusing on education rather than on indoctrination or evangelisation.

Nowlan also shared how parents have come to Educate Together schools because they have been unhappy about the fact that children are coming home learning how to bless themselves or say prayers.

She said: “This doesn’t seem like the biggest deal if you’re a Catholic but it could be if you’re not a Catholic, what would you do if your child was coming home and praying to Mecca?”

Northern Ireland

The removal of the “baptism barrier” has also accentuated the stark difference between the Church’s authority in the North and South of Ireland, according to Dr Ganiel, who also specialises in the conflict in Northern Ireland.

Baptism rates halved from 11,922 to 5,998 in 2020 in the Dublin diocese, largely due to pandemic restrictions. Comparatively, the Down and Connor diocese, which includes Belfast city, dropped from 4,412 to 3,480.

“During the pandemic, the church leaders seemed to have had better relationships with the government in Northern Ireland than was the case in the Republic,” Ganiel said.

Restrictions for religious services were less stringent in the North compared to the Republic, which allowed for more sacramental events such as baptisms to take place.

The Irish Government forced churches to close on multiple occasions throughout the pandemic as level three restrictions prohibited indoor gatherings, while churches closed voluntarily in the North without governmental intervention.

While there has been a decline in the role of organised religion across the island, this development has been “particularly stark” in the South. Over 45% of Catholics in Northern Ireland regularly attended mass in 2016, compared to 36% in the Republic, despite mass attendance being at 68% and 66% respectively in 1997.

Ganiel said: “The Irish state ceded so much control to the Catholic Church in areas like education and health that when the abuse of power and trust was exposed, it was particularly galling. Of course, there have been cases of abuse in the North as well but because there was not that link between the Catholic Church and the Northern Ireland state, it was not quite so systematic and institutionalised.”

Father Roy Donovan of the Association of Catholic Priests believes the Catholic Church still holds a valuable place in both Irish society and education, but acknowledges that reform is needed if the Church is to survive in modern Ireland.

He said: “There is still a lot of cooperation between the Church and teachers, you know, but how much longer will that last? I don’t know.

At the crux of all this is, does Christianity resonate anymore with modern people? Does it work anymore? Is it credible? It’s a big question. You know, that’s what the church has to face, that most people don’t find us credible … we need to evolve in a more enlightening and enriching way for modern people.

Father Donovan also stressed the importance of substituting the Catholic Church’s traditionally obligational and institutional language with a more “invitational” tone, claiming that the Church is more than willing to divest more schools for the sake of achieving a more balanced educational landscape.

“It would seem that by having the sacrament outside of the school would be a healthier way of doing things because then you’re only going to get the parents who really want to, and it helps them think about the importance of it (the sacrament) as well. I think that’s going to be the future.”

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Barry Gallagher, Eoin Ryan, Aoife Breslin, Emma Kilcawley Hemani, Robert Richmond
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