Faith in the Classroom

Religion Looking to Maintain Its Role in Schools

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By Father John Flynn, LC

ROME, NOV. 16, 2008 ( Catholic schools in England and Ireland are defending their rights in the face of continuing attacks. England’s Catholic Education Service (CES) said that media reports alleging the failure of church-based schools to adhere to the law on admissions were false, reported the Catholic Herald, Oct. 17.

The CES said that most of the breaches regarding admissions were administrative, and not deliberate.

The chairman of the bishops’ education department, Archbishop Vincent Nichols, also defended the right of Catholic schools to control their own admissions, the Catholic Herald reported.

In a speech the archbishop said that some had found it «politically expedient» to highlight a perceived «unfair advantage» of Catholic schools «picking» their pupils to their own advantage.

Prior to the dispute over admissions, the legitimacy of churches running schools was questioned by a new pressure group, Accord, set up to lobby the government into obliging religious schools to accept pupils and teachers from all faiths.

According to a report on Accord, published by the BBC on Aug. 29, the organization is a coalition of secular and religious figures. It wants the government to stop state-funded schools engaging in what they say is «discrimination.»

Critics of religious schools have accused them of picking the best students, and also of selecting a disproportionate number of applicants from richer families.

The BBC said there are about 6,850 faith schools in England out of a total of 21,000 schools. The vast majority of them are Catholic or Church of England institutions.

«Good faith schools help young people in many different ways, not least to know more about religion and its place in their lives,» declared Oona Stannard, director of CES, in response to Accord.


«The development of positive attitudes toward self and others found in faith schools helps to build cohesion across society, not division,» she said in a press statement dated Aug. 29.

The same day a press release was issued by a coalition of religious figures representing the Church of England, Catholic, Methodist, Jewish, Muslim, Sikh and Hindu state-funded schools.

«This latest attack, based on unspecified ‘research,’ does a disservice to the huge value that faith schools add to our state education sector and the extent of appreciation that parents and students have for these schools,» they declared.

«Faith communities will go out of their way to support those suffering from hardship and assist those who request financial help,» the religious leaders maintained. «Methodologies which purport to assess the socio-economic make-up of pupils at state-funded faith schools are highly questionable,» they said.

Newspapers such as the Guardian were not mollified by the statement. In a Sept. 2 editorial the paper’s editors had no hesitation in declaring that: «Certainly, the Christian edict — mirrored in most other faiths — to love your neighbor is harder to follow for children who grow up without meeting those neighbors who happen to have other beliefs.»

Guardian columnist Polly Toynbee also fulminated against what she saw as the pernicious influence of religious schools, decrying them for dangers such as «the craziness of creationism» and «homophobic bullying.»

Public religion

In Ireland, following repeated attacks on the role of religion in schools, Bishop Leo O’Reilly, chairman of the Education Commission of the Irish Bishops’ Conference, spoke out against proposals to eliminate religion teaching from primary schools.

During a homily, posted on the Irish bishops’ conference Web site, given at a Nov. 11 commemoration of Cardinal Newman’s role in the then Catholic University of Ireland, Bishop O’Reilly said that seeking to remove religion from primary schools is a logical consequence of a secular worldview that denies the claims of religion to objective truth.

«Hence it would reduce religion to a purely private pursuit and banish any expression of it from the public sphere,» he noted.

«Religious instruction is an integral part of the curriculum of the Catholic school and permeates the whole life of the school,» the bishop explained. «As Catholics, we are believers when we study. We are rational when we pray.»

A detailed defense of the role of religion in education came from a paper published in August by the Dublin-based Iona Institute. In «The liberal case for religious schools,» John Murray, a former school teacher and a lecturer at the Mater Dei Institute of Education, responded to criticisms such as those that consider faith-based education to be a kind of «educational apartheid.»

Common good

Murray pointed out that defending religious education can be done from a theological point of view, but that this reasoning may not be accepted by nonbelievers. He said there are solid arguments in the defense of church schools from the perspective of the common good of society.

Murray’s starting point was to recall the fact that parents are the primary educators of their children. This is not to deny the role of the state, he clarified, but we must remember that the state is not the primary educator of children: parents are. So parents have a special right with regard to their children’s education.

The relationship between parents and their children, Murray continued, is part of the common good of society.

The right and responsibility of parents to provide education for their children also includes a religious or philosophical element, he noted. Parents have a duty to form their children in the values and customs they hold as important, and this includes religion.

«Just as it could be said to be unfair for society to expect substantial numbers of nonreligious parents to pay by their taxes for a completely religious education system, it would be unfair of society to force substantial numbers of religious parents to pay to support a single type of education system, a nonreligious one,» argued Murray.

Murray also defended the rights of religion in schools based on the principle of religious freedom. If the state were to change its policies so as to promote only one type of school, excluding denominational schools, then this would be a denial of the right to find religion in education that many people consider important.

Helping people to search, to find and to live by key convictions and truths is a legitimate role for the state. To exclude religion from this search would be incongruous, Murray affirmed.

«This is not the favoring of some purely private good, but the favoring of a good that all can appreciate to some extent, and share as a common good,» he said.

Integral vision

On Jan. 21, Benedict XVI addressed participants in the plenary meeting of the Congregation for Catholic Education. Today’s world, he commented, is tempted «on the one hand by rationalism which follows a falsely free rationality disconnected from any religious reference, and on the other, by fundamentalisms that falsify the true essence of religion with their incitement to violence and fanaticism.»

The Catholic school, the Pope recommended, should have as its primary mission the formation of students in accordance with an integral anthropological vision, while remaining open to all and respecting the identity of each one. At the same time it will propose its own educational, human and Christian perspective.

«Here then, a new challenge is posed which globalization and increasing pluralism make even more acute: in other words, the challenge of the encounter of religions and cultures in the common search for the truth,» the Pontiff added. An encounter some would like to avoid, by denying faith any role in schools.

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