Trusteeship of schools: some perspectives

Mary Reynolds rsm

A paper presented at a Conference on Education in 2005 and printed in From Present to Future: Catholic Education in Ireland for the New Century, Eithne Woulfe and James Cassin Eds. Veritas 2006


In this paper, I intend to present ‘some perspectives on trusteeship’. Any consideration of educational trusteeship presupposes a number of premises:

  • Education in a democracy is a shared/contested space;
  • ‘The child’s name is now’ – educational outcomes must optimise pupils’ possibilities;
  • Schooling and education involve the partnership and involvement of differing stakeholders with varying roles and responsibilities, mandates and accountability;
  • Schools are a locus for influence;
  • Philosophies underpinning education are becoming more diversified and radical change is happening in both policies and practice within education;
  • Church interests need to clarify its mission in this change context now and into the future.

For the purpose of this paper, I will address trusteeship in the context of the Catholic voluntary school in the Republic of Ireland, mainly as it relates to schools held by religious congregations, with a brief reference to primary school trusteeship. While my focus is primarily on the development of trusteeship within voluntary secondary schools, the development of trusteeship is not restricted to this sector of schools, though it is the principal school sector owned by and under the trusteeship of religious today. Rather, it is a model for trusteeship engagement in other sectors and areas of education. Thus, for example, grammar school trusteeship is not significantly different, nor indeed is the exercise of proactive trusteeship in Church primary and post-primary schools north and south. It is about enhancement and the structures supporting that enhancement.

To return to my focus on the future of trusteeship of schools under religious trusteeship, at present there are approximately 380 voluntary Catholic schools in the Republic of Ireland, 30 of which are diocesan colleges and 350 of which are in the Trusteeship of Religious Congregations.

In addition within diocesan networks, a small number of primary schools are run by Religious Congregations and are described as convent and monastery schools. All the primary schools in a diocese, including convent and monastery schools, are under the patronage of the bishop of the diocese. Thus, convent and monastery primary schools, either in diocesan or congregational property, are integral to the overall provision of Catholic primary schools within a diocese. Congregational primary schools are supported by the congregational trustees in respect of the philosophy of education, services from education offices, policy development, for example admissions, and formation of staff and parents.


While Religious Congregations have always exercised trusteeship in relation to the schools with which they are associated, the term ‘trustee’ was rarely used in relation to schools before 1970, when it became central to the emergence of the community school model.

In the early 1990s CORI set about agreeing a definition of trusteeship that would make it clear that:

  • The trust relates to Catholic education to which ‘each congregation brings the richness of its original charism’.(1)
  • There is a firm legal basis for the trustee role;
  • Decisions about the future of the school rest ultimately with the trustees albeit after extensive consultation.

Up to the 1970s, the voluntary Catholic school was the main provider of second-level education in Ireland, but this changed with the establishment of a state-run second-level system around that time. Voluntary school providers had then to ask themselves what was their specific identity in the overall system This led to the conviction of the value and indeed the necessity of securing the future of a dynamic, independent, voluntary Catholic system of education which would provide a quality service to the parents and young people of Ireland. It was also increasingly realised that in the context of the unprecedented societal, political, economic and educational change of the period, there was a need for a purposeful exercise of trusteeship within a faith context, and that failure in this regard could lead to the demise of the sector. This concern gave rise to the concept articulated by CORI of the ‘proactive trusteeship’ who would at the same time provide ongoing support to schools in managing change and challenge schools to constantly re-visit and re-interpret the mission of the school and its policies in an open, reflective and dynamic fashion. A Handbook for Leaders of Religious Congregations, referred to as the ‘Trustee Handbook’, was published in 1996. Not only did this contain a formal definition of ‘trusteeship’, incorporating the elements already referred to, but it also provided a framework for a strong, effective, focused operational relationship between trustees and the other educational partners.

At a series of assemblies and other meetings in the mid-1990s, the members of CORI took on board the new emerging understanding of trusteeship, but also recognised that the opportunities associated with trusteeship would only be realised in situations in which trustees can:

  • Articulate clearly the distinctive values and principles of their religious and educational philosophy;
  • Engage proactively with the school to promote the philosophy and monitor the extent to which it is being implemented;
  • Intervene in situations in which there is a departure from that philosophy.(2)
    (Proposition formally adopted by CORI Assembly, 1994)

The formal adoption of this proposition was important because:

  • It signalled a commitment on the part of the congregations to the continued existence of a network of voluntary secondary schools;
  • It made clear that only in the context of the three conditions outlined above being met was it worth trying to maintain the voluntary and Catholic status of the schools.

The importance that congregations began to attach to trusteeship in the mid-1990s has been re-enforced by developments in national policy in recent years. In particular there is now:

  • A consensus that the most appropriate way of accommodating the growing pluralism in society is the provision of diversity of school type;
  • A commitment to enable parents to choose schools that reflect their religious, ethical and cultural values;
  • Recognition in legislation that trustees are crucial in ensuring that there is clarity about the values that underpin the philosophy and ethos that each school is trying to promote and between which parents can exercise choice.


An awareness of the importance of trusteeship continues to grow, as does the realisation that existing arrangements for trusteeship need to change. Two of the main factors that gave rise to the need for change can be identified:

  1. First is the idea that Catholic education is the responsibility of the whole Catholic community. It became increasingly clear that a situation in which parents and lay teachers were excluded from key positions in schools was not consistent with the thinking that emerged from the Second Vatican Council. Thus, having appointed a growing number of principals and established representative Boards of Management in most of their schools, congregations recognised that the involvement of lay people in trusteeship was the next logical step.
  2. Second, there has been a sharp decline in the number of clerics and religious directly engaged in education and in the number of clerical and religious vocations. Simultaneously, religious in Ireland, many of whom are in the process of re-organisation at national and international level, are seeking new ways of exercising the trusteeship of schools. Congregations are exploring new ways forward; to build on the best of what has been, while seeking to create contemporary models of patronage, trusteeship, management and delivery of quality Catholic education, in fidelity to their founding charism.


Many congregations are now engaged, in some instances collaboratively, in a process of exploration and planning for new forms of trusteeship. It is envisaged that such new structures will be based on Boards of Trustees, established as Charitable Trusts or Trust Companies, comprised in whole or in part of lay people, to which Religious Congregations could transfer some or all of their responsibilities. Much work is in process as to how such bodies might be legally constituted and how their composition would reflect the interests of all including:

  • Safeguarding the religious tradition on which the school was founded – this is to recognise the gift of the spirit that was the founding intention within a particular context of faith and culture, a gift that is ever renewable, finding new expression for the enhancement of the school community;
  • The ecclesial interest of safeguarding the Catholic nature of the school.

CORI is also exploring the idea of a Trust Representative Body. This would act as an umbrella group to all such trusts and would carry several responsibilities, including that of stewardship in regard to fidelity of the member trusts to the expressed values and Catholic character of the school. The vision informing this umbrella body, which would desirably be an influential, values-driven leadership body, is to assure quality Catholic education by the empowerment of Catholic school trusts.


For the remainder of this paper, I wish to highlight some challenges that this time of transition to new trusteeship structures presents, particularly in the context of the Catholic school being part of the evangelising mission of the Church. Because of it being part of that mission, its operation entails an appropriate ecclesiology, including canonical consideration, a proper theology of mission and an understanding of community.

The People of God: The Church

Later in this paper, I will refer to some of the challenges which the juridical (canonical) approach to defining Catholic schooling raises. I would like first to acknowledge that the vision of Catholic school has been greatly enriched in a variety of official Church documents issued during and since the Second Vatican Council. Among those are:

  • Second Vatican Council: Declaration on Christian Education;
  • The Catholic School, Gravissium educationis, 1965;
  • The Religious Dimension of Education in a Catholic School, 1988;
  • Pope John Paul ll, Cathechesi tradedae;
  • The Catholic School on the Threshold of the Third Millennium; Vatican Congregation for Catholic Education, 2002.

These documents present a vision of Catholic education that promotes the idea of the Catholic school in dialogue with the modern world, claiming the right in that dialogue to speak ‘meaningfully and imaginatively about the mystery of God – in the face of modernity and…of post modernity’.(3)

They highlight the distinguishing characteristics of the Catholic school that include:

  • The specifically Christian view of the human person and society – an anthropology;
  • An invitation to Christian faith and commitment in a life centred on Jesus and his values. The school is potentially a significant locus for pre-evangelisation, evangelisation/cathechesis for all members of the school community, for example pupils, families, staff and local community;
  • The dialogue between faith and culture, promoting the critical assimilation of culture;
  • The development of critical thinking, discernment and moral judgment;
  • The community dimension of the school itself and its relationship with the wider community;
  • The special concern for those who are weakest – socially, economically and spiritually;
  • The school at the service of society and the common good.

The passing on of trusteeship to new Boards of Trusteeships will involve considerably more than handing on rights and powers, or providing legal frameworks and financial support. The challenge in calling lay people into the role of trusteeship involves the training and formation of those trustees in a vision of Catholic education. Opportunity for some formation in theology and spirituality in dialogue with education will be needed not just for trustees, but for those at the ‘pit face’, so to speak. The partners in educational provision at all levels – governance, management, teaching, pastoral care, outreach, quality delivery, support services – need formation and the capacity for faith-informed discernment if the exercise of trusteeship of catholic education is to be promoted in fidelity and integrity within the Church and its faith community.


With the proposed change in trustee structures, there is an opportunity to formulate a theological formation of trusteeship that will come from a Theology of Baptism rather than the Theology of Religious Life. For many congregations, the educational ministry was an expression of their charism, a gift to the Church for the building of the Kingdom, which while situated in a particular context also evolved in its mode of expression. Hence a congregation whose charism emphasised a care for poor people might establish schools for the education of children of poor families. The congregational leadership, serving as trustees for those schools, were the guardians of the charism, tradition and heritage. After the Second Vatican Council and stemming from an emphasis on the universal call to holiness, there was an impetus to invite and engage laity in increasingly significant roles in some Church ministries. On the premise that Catholic education is a responsibility of the whole Catholic community, perhaps now is the time to articulate trusteeship of Catholic voluntary schools as a form of ministry in the Church. This would situate the responsibility of trusteeship within the evangelising mission of the Church itself and the ministry of trusteeship now under the aegis of a particular congregation would become one of the defined ministries with the Church. The reframing of the trusteeship role as a unique call in the Church would open the door to the thinking of trusteeship in a new way. It would also raise questions about, for example, how individuals might respond to this call, how they should prepare to minister in this role and how the wider community might create a community of people supporting those in the role of trustee for the mission of education.


Reframing the trusteeship concept as a specific ministry would require the identification of a supportive community for those who take on a trustee role. As lay persons begin to assume responsibility for the Catholic education ministry, they will not have available to them the supportive communities enjoyed by yesterday’s/today’s trustees. Something will need to fill the void. The Trustee Representative Body, envisioned by CORI, would provide part of this support, but the development of a sense of responsibility in the wider Catholic community for the ministry of Catholic education will be necessary. The document The Catholic School on the Threshold of the Third Millennium points out that it is ‘urgent’ to sensitise Parochial and Diocesan communities to the necessity of their developing special care for education and schools’.

Another opportunity provided by this transition time is facilitating school communities – parents, staff, management and pupils – in knowing and owning their identify as Catholic schools and engaging in discussions around some fundamental questions. Among those questions might be:

  1. In the pluralist context of Irish society today, what provision is necessary to ensure choice and availability for those who want Catholic schooling?
  2. What commitment and support is there in the school community to give expression to the Catholic identity of the schools in its management, development, policies, curriculum and service?
  3. What commitment and support is there in the wider community for the running of the Catholic voluntary school?
  4. What distinctive contribution does the Catholic voluntary school offer to the education system as a whole?

The opportunity to refocus the identity of the Catholic voluntary school and to commit to ownership of it by the wider Catholic community and by the school community may indeed prove to be a movement of renewal and rebirth.


Part of the preparation for the new structures of trusteeship has been the exploration of canonical considerations and the Civil Law Trust Models such as Charitable Trusts and Trust Companies. One of the guiding principles in law is its capacity to protect core values; this is central to all our explorations. Law cannot be separated from a value base, and I suggest there is a hierarchy of values to be considered. The question ‘Why?’ must inform all explorations.

A Catholic school is understood to be one which is under the control of the competent ecclesiastical authority of a public ecclesiastical juridical person or one which in a written document is acknowledged as Catholic by the ecclesiastical authority (C.803*1).

Religious Congregations are recognised as public juridic persons. Therefore, ass trustees they fulfil the canonical requirement that a Catholic school be under the control of a public ecclesiastical juridic person. (This is not to overlook the role of local ordinaries and the responsibility for Catholic education within the diocesan jurisdiction.) The proposal to establish lay trustee bodies has raised the question of the juridic person in the future.

CORI has been exploring this and at this point is considering a number of possible scenarios;

  • The concept of Trusteeship of Property for Mission;
  • The idea of Associations of the Christian Faithful (ACFs);
  • The creation of a Prelature for the Mission of Education within the island of Ireland.


  1. The concept of Trusteeship of Property for Mission is based on Canon 115, which refers to an aggregate of goods being constituted as a juridic person (JP). This could provide the possibility of creating a juridic person based on the property of the schools to be used for the furtherance of mission of Catholic education. CORI have begun to explore this possibility;
  2. The concept of Association of the Christian Faithful is explained in Canon 290 *1 as follows:

In the Church there are associations in which the Christian faithful strive by common effort:

  • To promote a more perfect life;
  • To foster pubic worship or Christian doctrine;
  • To exercise other apostolic works, namely;
    • To engage in evangelisation;
    • To exercise works of piety or charity;
    • To animate the temporal order with the Christian spirit.

It would seem that trusteeship of Catholic Schools would fit under this definition.

However, the question of Canonical Juridical Personality of ACFs is relevant to the exploration.

  • A public association of the Christian faithful is established by the bishop (for his own territory), Episcopal Conference (in its territory for national associations) or Holy See (for universal and international associations). The decree which establishes it makes it a public juridical person and gives it its mission in the Church;
  • A private association of the Christian faithful can be established by agreement among themselves. Canon 299*1 says that Christ’s faithful have the right to constitute associations for the purpose mentioned in Canon 290 (above). Such associations, once endorsed by the competent ecclesiastical authority are recognised as private ACFs. A private ACF could become a public juridical person by decree of the appropriate ecclesial authority. This acquisition of juridical personality does not alter the private status of the association (C.322*1)


  • The temporal goods of a private JP are not considered to be ‘ecclesiastical goods’ (C. 1257*2). Therefore, outright transfer of the property (buildings and lands) of a religious congregation to a private JP would be deemed to be alienation of Church property;
  • The temporal goods of a public JP are ‘ecclesiastical goods’ (C.1257*1). Outright transfer of the property (buildings and lands) of a religious congregation to a public JP would not be alienation of Church property.

Possible Scenarios

A religious congregation might decide:

  • To seek to have a Charitable Trust or Trust Company established by the competent authority as a public ACF (as a public ACT it will have public juridic personality and a Religious congregation, with canonical approval, would be able to make an outright transfer of property to it);
  • To establish a Charitable Trust or Trust Company as a private ACF which may have either public or private juridic personality and the Religious congregation, with canonical approval, will have the option to either licence their property to it (if it has private juridical personality) or lease or make an outright transfer of property to it (if it has public juridical personality).

But public and private ACFs require vigilance of competent ecclesiastical authority. The ecclesiastical supervision of public and private ACFs canonically required (C.305) has a twofold purpose:

  1. Preservation of integrity of faith;
  2. Verification by the authority that there is no abuse of ecclesiastical discipline.

However, the implications of setting up a considerable number of Catholic schools trusts, each holding a large number of schools would be enormous for the Conference of Bishops (CoB). Moreover, the CoB does not have the structures to deal with the canonical requirements relative to vigilance over public and private ACFs and relative to accountability. The CoB could be served in this by a National Education Service for Catholic Schools such as exists in other jurisdictions. The Trust Representative Body as proposed by CORI could be structured in a way that might answer this need.

I have referred already to the Trust Representative Body as a possible umbrella trust with a stewardship role towards participating Trusts. It may be possible to establish the TRB also as a Public Juridic Person. Canon 313 states:

A public association as well as a confederation of public associations is constituted a juridic person by the decree by what it is erected by a competent ecclesiastic authority in accord with the norm of C.312.

There is also a facility within Canon Law for establishing as part of the National Episcopal Conference, a prelature for a particular mission, which is not a personal prelature. Perhaps such a prelature for the mission of education in Ireland might be worth exploring.


Religious Congregations do not envisage the handing over of trusteeship of schools as a ‘closing down’, but rather the passing on of something that they have pioneered and developed. The handing over, which is likely to be a gradual process rather than a once-off event is full of opportunity for empowerment and partnership. To engage with future lay trustees in developing a theological foundation for trusteeship, to co-devise with them the formational, educational and training opportunities to meet their needs as they take up their role, to explore the canonical and legal structures that allow them to assume public trust of the education ministry and to raise the awareness of the Catholic community to their responsibility for Catholic education is an exciting and enriching project. This is a time when congregations can be heroically generative as they transition their legacy to new forms and empower and trust others to bring it forward.

It is time too for congregations to be collaborative in their approach to the provision of Catholic education. All the education traditions of the Religious Congregations, while uniquely important in a local context of ministry, collectively continue the teaching ministry of Jesus. What matters to those who will be trustees of the Catholic education ministry in the future is that Gospel values will underpin their educational enterprise. Hopefully the tradition of the congregations who initiated and shaped the development of the enterprise will continue to influence, but that is secondary to the continuation of a Catholic sector of education, based on a Gospel-inspired philosophy. In her book Wrestling with God, Barbara Fiand passionately asserts that congregational protectionism cannot have a place in a world called to radical transformation. The following quotation captures the challenge facing us in our collaborative efforts:

The same spirit that led women and men religious to begin new works, to establish new facilities and to launch new ministries, flourishes in the Church today. The charism of each Religious Congregation is from one Spirit, a gift to be given, to be used, to be spent It is an evolving gifting to and from the Church. Ultimately, this post conciliar age is witnessing the emergence of new spiritual endowments, of new corporate forms with potentially stronger, more vital and viable ministries. In this time Congregations must re-vision, reassert and celebrate that which unites them rather than that which sets them apart.(4)

I once heard the poet Máirtin O’Direáin say that a poem was like standing on the middle of a bridge. It connects the creativity of the author and the creativity of the reader and out of that is born something greater than the writer ever imagined. In a sense we stand on the middle of a bridge, preparing to offer ‘our poem’ to those who will re-imagine it. The structure and the process for doing that will be all important.


  1. Vatican Congregation on Education, The Religious Dimension of Education in a Catholic School, 1988.
  2. CORI, Handbook for Leaders of Religious Congregations, 1977, Chapter 1, p.12
  3. Dermot A. Lane ‘Afterword: the Expanding Horizons of catholic Education’ in P.Hogan and K.Williams (eds) The Future of Religion in Irish Education, Dublin: Veritas, 1977
  4. Barbara Fiand SND deN, Wrestling with God, New York: Crossroad Publishing, 1996
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