Amid Sex Ed Debate, Mary McAleese Says She Regrets Sending Children to Catholic Schools

Mary McAleese

Ireland’s former president is at odds with one of the country’s top archbishops in the debate over a sexual education curriculum for Catholic schools, which has caused some people to re-examine the relationship between church and state when it comes to Ireland’s schools.

“Flourish” is a Relationships and Sexuality Education (RSE) program developed by the Irish Bishops’ Conference that aims to present sex education “within a moral framework that reflects the teachings of the Church,” reported The Irish Times. Given this lens, LGBTQ advocates have raised concerns the curriculum might not provide sufficient or correct information about sexual orientation and gender identity.

Mary McAleese, Ireland’s former president who is also a canon law scholar and LGBTQ advocate, said that because of the church’s anti-LGBTQ teachings, she regrets having sent her children, one of whom is gay, to Catholic schools. While McAleese did not directly address the “Flourish” curriculum, Irish Mirror quoted her as saying recently:

“If I knew back then what I know now, would I send my son to a Catholic school? Absolutely not. . .I wouldn’t send any of my children to a Catholic school. . .”

McAleese recognized that Catholic schools did provide her children a strong academic education, but commented:

“There is a dark side of it that perplexes me and worries me. I think now, if I was making choices about schools and the schooling system that I would like my children to have, I would like something that opened them up to greater possibilities than the Catholic Church and its teaching does.”

But Archbishop Dermot Farrell of Dublin defended the program while speaking recently to Catholic education officials, acknowledging a dual need to care for LGBTQ students while presenting church teaching. He commented, per The Independent:

“The resource material clearly states that any young person grappling with questions around their own gender identity or sexual orientation is to be treated with the utmost care and respect.”

Farrell focused on ideas about marriage, saying that while “love is at the heart of family life, no matter what type of family it is” and the magisterium’s emphasis on heterosexual marriage “does not mean that sacramental marriage in Church is for everyone,” the church still must present students in Catholic schools with its teachings. The “Flourish” curriculum states that “the Church’s teaching in relation to marriage between a man and a woman cannot be omitted.”

The “Flourish” program also included a message from the bishops conference that there is “no such thing as an ‘ethos free’ approach to relationships and sexuality education since it must be rooted in a particular value system.”

Such claims about marriage and ethos exemplify what have LGBTQ advocates, legislators, and educators worried. About 90% of Ireland’s primary schools, some 2,800 schools, are Catholic, many of which are publicly-funded, according to The Independent. While the Department of Education requires all schools to have an RSE policy developed with input from administrators, parents, teachers, and even students, what is appropriate for each curriculum is disputed.

According to Extra, Tánaiste (deputy head of government) Leo Varadkar, who is in a same-gender marriage, maintains that all publicly-funded schools should adhere to the government policy. He said the policy “is very explicit that it will develop inclusive and age-appropriate curricula for RSE and social, personal, and health Education across primary and post-primary schools, including an inclusive programme on LGBTI+ relationships.” Varadkar also noted that the ethos of the schools might influence how RSE content is treated, but “should never preclude learners from acquiring knowledge about the issues.”

However, many government leaders have pushed back against the “Flourish” curriculum, including Róisín Shortall, co-leader of the Social Democrats. Shortall denounced the curriculum, telling Extra:

“Do we really want LGBTQ+ children in schools, who may be struggling with their sexual orientation to be taught that their relationships are in any way less worthy, meaningful, loving, or deserving of respect that their heterosexual peers?”

Legislator Mick Barry, who represents the Solidarity Party in parliament, also spoke out on the Newstalk Breakfast podcast, saying“people should be taught about different types of sexuality, different types of gender, contraception, abortion, and crucially–at the heart of it all–the question of consent.” He also expressed concern that “this does raise the whole issue of the need for separation of church and state:

For others, the issue is extremely persona. Sinn Féin Party Senator Fentan Warfieldserves as the party’s spokesperson on LGBTQ rights, and called on the government, rather than the church, to take full ownership of sexual education in schools. Warfield recalled his own struggles. “I prayed for years that I would not be gay,” he told Irish Central. “I did so because of shame, much of which I can place blame for at the door of the church.”

Máire de Barra, a secondary school teacher, also disapproves of “Flourish” based on her experience in the classroom. In a letter to the editor in Irish Examiner , she write:

“I would be strongly of the opinion that the programme proposed here is one that is more damaging to the long-term health and well-being of our children. It will cause confusion between sexuality and relationships and religion; a confusion that will echo throughout their lives as they mature and explore their own sexuality.”

The National Council for Curriculum and Assessment (NCCA) plans to update its own syllabus for RSE, which Varadkar has promised will be inclusive of LGBTQ+ relationships and expects to be upheld in all public schools, including government-funded Catholic primary schools. The Irish bishops maintain that all biological aspects of Flourish are in line with NCCA requirements, but says they will amend their program as necessary when the updates are released.

Angela Howard McParland, New Ways Ministry, May 20, 2021

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