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Retirement 'For the first time in nearly forty years I could openly admit that I didn't believe in God'

Being an atheist principal and managing a Catholic school was a difficult balance to maintain, writes Peter Gunning.

THE SCHOOL OF Education in NUI Galway recently published a report which explored the religiosity of entrants to primary teaching in Ireland.

One third of those surveyed were either non-practising and/or non-believing. 96% of all primary schools in Ireland are single faith denominational. Many of these young teachers will soon be seeking employment in these schools where there will be an expectation on them to teach religion.

However, it is not only the new entrants to the teaching profession who may feel compromised by a working culture in which they feel alien.

Coming out of the Catholic closet

When I retired as a primary school principal due to serious illness recently, I discovered a silver lining attached to my cancer cloud. As I drove out of the school grounds for the last time on August 30, I felt as if I was coming out of the Catholic closet. For the first time in nearly forty years I could openly admit that I did not believe in God.

If I had made such an admission in 1977 I would more than likely not have been accepted to St Patrick’s College of Education, which at the time was managed by the Vincentian Fathers. Likewise in 1980, without my mandatory Diploma in Catholic Education stapled to my BEd degree, I would have struggled to acquire my first teaching job in St Joseph’s BNS in Cork.

I had always wanted to be a primary school teacher and if that meant having to lie about my age then so be it. At the interview I promised to support the Catholic ethos and to teach religion every day. It was a relatively easy promise to keep.

Ignoring the atheist elephant in the classroom

While I often felt hypocritical teaching children the words of prayers I would never say myself, I ticked all the requisite catechetical boxes and ignored the atheist elephant in the classroom.

On becoming a principal not believing in God and managing a Catholic school proved a more difficult balance to maintain. While conscious of my contractual obligation to uphold the school’s Catholic ethos the interpretation of that ethos was at times contentious.

The positive atmosphere palpable within the school could never belong exclusively to a single denomination. A priest on the Board of Management once told me, and not in a complimentary way, that I was trying to please all of the people all of the time. I told him he was correct.

Visible evidence of it being a Catholic school

I was also challenged regularly on the dearth of Christian images within the school environment.

I agreed to source some child-friendly Christian art and ordered some very tastefully crafted wooden crosses adorned with colourful biblical scenes which were erected over the interactive whiteboard in every classroom. While he thanked me, the priest still felt that the school environment lacked tangible and visible evidence of it being a Catholic school.

I asked him, hypothetically, if Jesus Christ were to visit the school today and walk up and down the school corridors and listen to the happy sound of teaching and learning coming from the classrooms, would he be pleased or displeased? He shook his head dismissively before saying: “Aren’t you the great man thinking you have an insight into the inner workings of the mind of The Lord Jesus Christ?”

My final straw/camel’s back moment occurred on the Ash Wednesday before my retirement. I was told by the new curate that as Wednesday was his day off he would not be in a position to visit the school with the ashes.

I told him that that would be fine. I would send an email to parents informing them that there would be no ashes distributed in the school on Ash Wednesday. “No,” he told me. “Organise a prayer service at assembly and give out the ashes yourself.”

I can’t remember whether I asked him had he lost his mind or whether I asked myself was I losing mine at the very thought of my playing padre for the day. In the end we agreed that a local Minister of the Eucharist could deputise for him. The parents were spared an email, me my blushes and 435 children my secular black thumb smudging their foreheads.

Number of Catholics practising their religion continues to fall

Recent research clearly indicates that the number of Catholics practising their religion continues to fall.  Archbishop Diarmuid Martin is on record as stating that fewer than 18% of Catholics in the Dublin archdiocese attend Sunday mass and he believes that this figure is not isolated.

This was certainly my experience as principal of a Catholic school where while a sizeable minority practised, most did not. If a school is a microcosm of society then our school reflected the growing trend in societal secularisation. The wood is not invisible amongst the trees. Single faith education should be taught to children whose parents want it by teachers who want to teach it outside of school hours.

Primary school teachers are not exempt from growing secularisation and pluralism in the general population. Next September, many newly qualified teachers will be in the same ambiguous position in which I found myself when I began my career in 1980. Like me they will face battles of conscience in order to find and maintain employment.

The NUIG report concludes with a question: “Is it fair, ethical or moral to put individuals who are committed to the education of our children in this difficult situation?” No, no and no.

Peter Gunning is a retired school principal and writer.

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