Religious Education in Catholic Schools

Perspectives from Ireland and the UK

by Sean Whittle (Volume editor)
©2018 Edited Collection X, 260 Pages


Catholic schools continue to be a popular choice for parents, including many who do not profess the Catholic faith. One of the distinguishing features of Catholic schools is the importance they ascribe to Religious Education (RE). This volume draws together researchers from Ireland and the UK to bring into focus the complex range of issues around the teaching of RE. Within the public sphere, there is considerable discussion about the role of education in passing on and engaging with religious matters. The essays gathered here make an important contribution to an ongoing debate about the place of RE in Catholic schools within pluralist societies.
Given that almost all Catholic schools are publicly funded, the questions explored in this volume are not only of interest to advocates of Catholic education and those involved in researching and teaching RE, but are also relevant and topical for Irish and British society more widely.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the author(s)/editor(s)
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Contents
  • Preface (Sean Whittle)
  • Introduction (Sean Whittle)
  • The structure of this book
  • Part I: Irish and British Perspectives on Religious Education in Catholic Schools
  • 1 The Role of Religious Education Teachers: Between Pedagogy and Ecclesiology (John Sullivan)
  • Introduction
  • Magisterial role?
  • Local and universal Church
  • The Religious Educator’s landscape
  • The double-sidedness of Christian education
  • To disclose or to withhold
  • Conclusion
  • Bibliography
  • 2 The Place of Religious Education in the Changing Landscape That Is Ireland Today (Gareth Byrne)
  • Introduction
  • Turn-of-the-century educational development in Ireland
  • Educational development and Religious Education, second level
  • Educational development and Religious Education, primary level
  • Share the Good News: National Directory for Catechesis in Ireland, 2010
  • New initiatives in preschool and primary Religious Education
  • New beginnings in second-level Religious Education
  • Adult Religious Education
  • Concluding comments: Opportunities for renewal
  • Bibliography
  • 3 Religious Education in Catholic Schools – Fitting the Field: Educators, Ethos and Catholic Primary Schools in Ireland (Fiona Dineen)
  • Introduction
  • Contemporary context for primary education in Ireland
  • Ethos
  • Religious Education in the primary sector
  • Catholic preschool and primary Religious Education curriculum for Ireland and religious literacy
  • Religious literacy and the role of the teacher
  • Future directions
  • Developing research in Religious Education and Catholic schooling
  • Teacher identity
  • Conclusion
  • Bibliography
  • 4 Will We Have Teachers for Catholic Primary Schools in Ireland? (Daniel O’Connell / Marie Ryan / Maurice Harmon)
  • Introduction
  • Methodology
  • Context
  • Catholic preschool and primary Religious Education curriculum for Ireland
  • Guidelines for Religious Education in a Catholic primary school context
  • Survey results 2016
  • Some reflections
  • Belief in God
  • Religious services and prayer
  • Relevance of Church
  • What can we say?
  • Conclusion
  • Bibliography
  • 5 Godparenthood and Education: An Irish Perspective (Bernadette Sweetman)
  • Introduction
  • Clarifying the key concepts
  • Competing perspectives on godparenthood
  • A brief overview of a research that explores the educational intentions of parents when it comes to selecting godparents
  • Brief discussion of the results
  • Conclusion
  • Bibliography
  • 6 Religious Education: The Irish Secondary School (Brendan Carmody SJ)
  • Introduction
  • The purpose of this chapter
  • Religious Education before Vatican II
  • Religious Education post-Vatican II
  • Religious Education today
  • Religion in the curriculum
  • Religious literacy
  • The Catholic school
  • Conclusion
  • Bibliography
  • 7 ‘It’s like as if I’m close to God. I feel as if God is beside me’: Giving Voice to Children in the Field of Religious Education – An Irish Study (Cora O’Farrell)
  • Introduction
  • The context
  • The study
  • Conclusion
  • Bibliography
  • 8 Religious Education in Catholic Schools in England and Wales: A Critical Assessment of the Religious Education Curriculum Directory (Sean Whittle)
  • Introduction
  • The contrast between Religious Education in Catholic schools and other types of school
  • Overview of the Religious Education Curriculum Directory
  • What vision of Religious Education is promoted by the RECD?
  • Possible reservations with the RECD’s vision of Religious Education
  • Concerns over ambiguous statements in the RECD
  • The RECD, catechesis and the place of dissent in Religious Education
  • Concluding comments
  • Bibliography
  • Part II: The Place of Scripture in Religious Education in Catholic Schools
  • Introduction to Part II (Sean Whittle)
  • Introduction
  • The Reformation and education
  • Bibliography
  • 9 Affirming the Place of Scripture in the Catholic School (Stephen J. McKinney)
  • Introduction
  • The role of scripture in the Catholic school: Some key points raised in Vatican documentation on education
  • Some key points about scripture and Catholic Education in the Vatican documents on education
  • Consecrated Persons and their Mission in Schools. Reflections and Guidelines (2002)
  • Post-Synodal Apostolic Exhortation Verbum Domini
  • Scripture and the preferential option for the poor in Catholic schools
  • The Gospel of Luke
  • Scripture and the role of the Catholic teacher
  • Concluding remarks
  • Bibliography
  • 10 Scripture and Religious Education: Jesus as ‘messiah’ and ‘Divine Son’ – Insights from Recent New Testament Scholarship (Susan Docherty)
  • Introduction: Exploring the scriptural basis for the theme of Jesus’ identity
  • The Jewish context of the New Testament: Messianic expectation
  • Narrative approaches to the Gospels: Jesus’ divine identity in Mark
  • Conclusion
  • Bibliography
  • 11 The Importance of Scripture and Sacred Texts in the Teaching of Religious Education and Securing Engagement for Pupils and Students with Special Educational Needs (David Purcell)
  • Introduction
  • Scripture and sacred texts as an essential part of Religious Education
  • Concluding comments
  • Bibliography
  • 12 Using Biblical Texts in Religious Education in Catholic Schools to Encourage Openness to Diversity and Foster Community Cohesion (John Stoer)
  • Introduction
  • Ground clearing
  • Humanity forms one family
  • Christ’s openness to all and his relationship to all humanity
  • The active presence of the Holy Spirit in all men and women
  • The importance of the Church and Christian witness
  • Conclusion
  • References
  • 13 Conclusion: A Proposal About the Future Direction of Religious Education in Catholic Schools (Sean Whittle)
  • Introduction
  • Reluctance to engage with the catechetical or confessional character of Religious Education
  • Religious Education versus catechesis
  • Dominant ways of framing Catholic education
  • Rahner and a non-confessional account of Catholic education
  • Reframing Religious Education in Catholic schools
  • Non-confessional Religious Education and philosophy lessons
  • Conclusion: Is it time to argue for non-confessional Religious Education in Catholic schools?
  • Bibliography
  • Notes on Contributors
  • Index

| ix →


In November 2014, I was invited to become part of the Heythrop Institute of Religion and Society (HIRS) as a Visiting Research Fellow. This fellowship allowed me to collaborate on many projects connected with furthering research into the field of Catholic education. Over a three-year period I had the opportunity to convene a number of conferences and colloquium events that focused on many aspects of Catholic education, including Religious Education in Catholic schools. Many of the chapters in this volume are the fruits of these events at Heythrop College. This collection of edited essays provides a fitting reminder of the different ways in which Heythrop has contributed to Religious Education in Catholic schools. In the decades since the college joined London University, a significant proportion of those who studied at Heythrop have gone on to teach Religious Education. Many of the most skilled teachers of Religious Education in Catholic schools would attribute their success to the outstanding education in philosophy and theology they received either as undergraduates or postgraduates at Heythrop. After 400 years of existence, Heythrop’s closure will be felt by many of those who have a stake in Religious Education in the UK and the Republic of Ireland. The image of Heythrop College on the front cover has been chosen as a gesture of appreciation for its important legacy.

I am very grateful to all the contributors to this volume for giving so generously of their time and skill to produce such high-quality chapters. This volume is an ideal way of continuing the discussions and debates about Religious Education that have taken place over the years at Heythrop College.

Neither the original conferences and events nor this volume would have been possible had it not been for the support and encouragement of Dr Michael Kirwan SJ, the director of HIRS. I am very grateful for all the opportunities that he has given me during my time at Heythrop as a Research Fellow. I am grateful for the practical help provided by Peter Lang, and for the guidance from the independent reviewer. ← ix | x →

None of my work as Visiting Research Fellow at Heythrop would have been possible without the constant support and love of my wife, Bernie Whittle. It is only through having her by my side, offering me the encouragement and practical help that I need, that I have been able to bring this and my other projects at Heythrop to fruition. Thank you for this and for all that you do for me.

I am deeply grateful for all that Heythrop has given me. As this college closes, I want to reiterate my appreciation of all the outstanding work it has done in so many different ways in bringing about the greater glory of God.

Sean Whittle

| 1 →



This volume brings together many of the leading scholars and emerging researchers with a deep interest in Religious Education in Catholic schools in Ireland and the UK. Religious Education in Catholic schools occupies a unique place in the curriculum and wider life and ethos of the Catholic school. It is often described as the ‘core of the curriculum’. Indeed, one of the distinguishing features of Catholic schools is the focus and sheer amount of curriculum time they devote to Religious Education. If you want to work out the key characteristics of the theory or philosophy of Catholic education, it quickly becomes apparent that you need to recognise the importance it attaches to Religious Education. This edited collection of essays will focus on Religious Education in Catholic schools. It draws together a wide range of researchers committed to Religious Education in Catholic schools to bring into focus the complex range of issues that characterise Religious Education. There is within contemporary society a critical awareness of matters relating to religion and what ought to be the place of education in handing on and engaging with religious issues. These matters are made more complex within the pluralist societies of Ireland, Scotland and England. In these three countries Catholic schools are publicly funded. This makes debates and questions about what is happening in Religious Education of interest more generally. In these pluralist and increasingly secular societies, having some schools which prioritise Religious Education is an intriguing anomaly that deserves detailed analysis and scrutiny.

All of the chapters in this volume have their origins in a number of international conferences relating to aspects of Catholic education held at Heythrop College (University of London) between 2016 and 2018. The book, like the original conferences, invites readers to engage with many of the debates and issues facing Religious Education in Catholic schools.

The chapters in this volume, when taken together, provide a rich insight into current thinking about Religious Education in two closely connected, ← 1 | 2 → but different contexts: the Republic of Ireland and the United Kingdom. As such, it serves as a detailed and helpful snapshot on the state of research into Religious Education in Catholic schools. One of the central strengths of this volume is that it includes contributions from leading authorities on Religious Education in Catholic schools, including Gareth Byrne and Stephen McKinney. These are juxtaposed with high-quality chapters from many advocates and emerging researchers who have been exploring the often controversial field of Religious Education in Catholic schools in more recent years.

This volume is both topical and timely because it will cast a spotlight on some of the recent research connected with Religious Education in Catholic schools in Ireland and the UK. Since 2010 there has been a substantial growth in research and academic interest in the unique context of Religious Education in Catholic schools. However, up to this point, not enough attention has been devoted to the differing, but closely connected contexts of Ireland, and the UK. It is wrong to ignore the presence of numerous Religious Education teachers who have been educated in Ireland and serve as outstanding teachers. Insufficient recognition has been given to the contributions of Religious Education teachers working in the UK, but originally educated or trained in Ireland. Similarly, many of the profound social changes mean that Ireland is rapidly becoming a secular society that is increasingly ambivalent regarding the place of religion in human existence. This mirrors the situation in the UK, which developed this stance over a much longer period of time. Juxtaposing perspectives from Ireland and the UK about Religious Education in Catholic schools is both beneficial and timely.

The structure of this book

The contributions to this volume are divided into two substantive parts. Part I presents an overview of perspectives on Religious Education in Catholic schools in Ireland and the UK. This volume brings together ← 2 | 3 → thirteen contributions that reflect many of the debates and issues facing Religious Education in Catholic schools in Ireland and the UK. Many of these issues are deeply theological and this provides the focus for the opening chapter by John Sullivan. This chapter explores the relationship that Religious Education teachers have with the magisterium of the Church. In a ground-breaking analysis, Sullivan considers the ways in which Religious Education teachers in Catholic schools contribute to the magisterium. Those involved in this activity (now overwhelmingly lay people) have a task which bridges the worlds of education and the Church. Their role calls for both a degree of separateness or detachment from the Catholic world and at the same time an immersion in and commitment to this world.

In Chapter 2, Gareth Byrne introduces the place of Religious Education in the changing landscape of contemporary Ireland. This survey reviews the developments that have taken place in both primary and secondary Catholic schools in recent decades. Byrne presents an engaging and lucid discussion of how Religious Education continues to develop within the changing landscape of Ireland. This chapter also provides an apt introduction to the next five chapters, which are contributions from other Irish researchers. These chapters demonstrate the range of research that is being undertaken in Ireland and which has implications for other contexts and discussions. Over the past decade, Byrne, amongst others, has played a pivotal role in fostering research into Religious Education and catechesis in Ireland. There is now, thanks to his oversight, a rapidly growing number of Irish researchers who are taking forward high-quality new thinking about Religious Education in Catholic schools.

Fiona Dineen, in Chapter 3, focuses on primary schools in Ireland. Dineen explores the contemporary context for Catholic primary education in Ireland at a time of continuing change. She identifies some of the core issues and challenges for teachers in Catholic schools, particularly around Religious Education, with regard to findings from a recent research study in this area. Her contribution suggests some pathways for ongoing critical reflection, and identifies the need for developing a strategic framework for supporting educators with responsibility for Religious Education in Catholic schools. ← 3 | 4 →

In Chapter 4, Daniel O’Connell, Marie Ryan and Maurice Harmon keep the focus on Religious Education in primary schools in Ireland. They examine the religious identity of future primary school teachers. There is a huge need for primary school teachers who are able to deliver Religious Education in Catholic primary schools, but growing evidence is examined about whether or not these teachers have sufficient understanding and appreciation of the Catholic tradition to be able to undertake this role. The chapter, in broad strokes, shows the overlap and dissonance between what students believe and what the curriculum hopes to achieve in the teaching of Religious Education.

Biographical notes

Sean Whittle (Volume editor)

Sean Whittle is a Visiting Research Fellow at Heythrop College, University of London, and a Research Associate with the Centre for Research and Development in Catholic Education at St Mary’s University in Twickenham. He also works part-time as a secondary school RE teacher at Gumley House FCJ Catholic School in West London. He is the author of A Theory of Catholic Education (2014) and the editor of Vatican II and New Thinking about Catholic Education (2016). He recently collaborated with other academics in the field to create the Network for Researchers in Catholic Education.


Title: Religious Education in Catholic Schools
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