ETBs and Bishops misrepresent the meaning of the word ‘spiritual’ in the Education Act

The ETBs and the Catholic Bishops claim that they are legally obliged to promote the spiritual education of all students through religious education.

They use this as a lobbying tactic with the Department of Education, in order to continue to evangelise, and to ensure that students that opt out of the NCCA Religious Education course are not offered another subject.

But there is no legal obligation on any school to promote the spiritual education of students through religious education.

Educate Together schools fulfil their legal duty to promote the spiritual education of all students through their Ethical Education course at primary and second level.

The word ‘spiritual’ in the Education Act

To claim that Section 9 (d) of the Education Act puts the responsibility of the trustees to promote the moral and spiritual education of all students in ETB schools through the NCCA religious education course is pure fiction.

Section 9 (d) of the Education Act 1998 states that:

“A recognised school shall provide education to students which is appropriate to their abilities and needs and, without prejudice to the generality of the foregoing, it shall use its available resources to (d) promote the moral, spiritual, social and personal development of students and provide health education for them, in consultation with their parents, having regard to the characteristic spirit of the school.”

The meaning of the word ‘spiritual’

The word spiritual was not defined in the Education Act 1998, and the Constitution does not mention it in relation to education, religion and the rights of parents.

The definition of the word ‘spiritual’ in the Act was discussed, when it was making its way through the Oireachtas. In the debate, the then Minister for Education stated that one could be spiritual and not religious.

In reality, many atheists would not even regard themselves as being spiritual. But in this article, we are outlining the meaning of the word spiritual that was understood when the Education Act 1998 was enacted.

Micheal Martin was the Minister for Education at the time and he stated that:

“Senator Ryan asked me to explain the difference between spiritual and religious. I believe one can be spiritual without being religious. I would argue that a person could have strong spiritual values and not be a member of an organised religion or be an atheist. A person could also be religious and not spiritual. Many religious people are also very spiritual.”

Senator Joe O’Toole replied:

“I agree with the Minister’s views on spirituality. I regard myself as being very spiritual but not religious and I have no difficulty knowing the difference between them. I think I realised the difference when I started to study the romantic poets of the last century.”

It is clear from that debate that the word ‘spiritual’ in Section 9 (d) of the Education Act 1998 does not put any obligation on the Bishops to promote the moral and spiritual education of any students through religious education.

Letter from Catholic Bishops in 2018

In a letter to the Department of Education in 2018, the Catholic Bishops claimed that they took their responsibilities seriously, and that promoting the moral and spiritual education of students is a matter for the trustees. ( Catholic Bishops lobbying Letter to Minister Richard Bruton)

They forgot to mention that the Education Act also obliges schools to consult with parents (Section 9 (d)), and to respect and promote respect for the diversity of values, beliefs, and ways of life in society (Section 15-2(e).

The Bishops stated that:

“As co-trustees, we are concerned, because the Education Act 1998, responsibility for the moral and spiritual education of students is a matter for the trustees… The religious co-trustees take their responsibilities seriously and believe that the provisions of Circular Letter 13/2018 deal with matters from which, at a minimum, trustees cannot be excluded.”


If that is the ethos of ETBs, then it is no wonder that they continue to discriminate and undermine the Constitutional and human rights of parents and their children.

The Catholic Bishops and the ETBI are making things up as they go along, in order to continue to discriminate against minorities and undermine their Constitutional and Human Rights.

But regardless of this, parents still have a right to opt out their children from any teaching that seeks to promote the moral and spiritual education of their children through religious education.


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