Religion and Education: a Volatile Mix?

Catholic Schools Dismiss Talk of Divisiveness

By Father John Flynn

ROME, MARCH 11, 2007 ( The positive role Catholic schools play in society was strongly defended by Archbishop Sean Brady in a recent speech. The archbishop of Amragh was speaking on the occasion of Catholic Schools Week, held from Feb. 26 to March 4 in Northern Ireland.

“It is time to end the facile argument that Church-based schools are divisive,” said the primate of all Ireland, according to a report published by on March 3.

The report noted that there are some 550 Catholic schools in Northern Ireland which educate more than 45% of all pupils. The archbishop commented that some argue against faith schools, alleging that they impede peace and reconciliation. In reply, Archbishop Brady affirmed that Catholic education is based explicitly on the values of the Gospel, and promotes, faith, justice and peace.

“Commitment to tolerance, justice and the common good is at the very heart of the Catholic vision of education,” he insisted.

Catholic schools were also defended by Archbishop Diarmuid Martin of Dublin. He addressed the issue in a speech given at Dublin City University on Sept. 22.

In his discourse, available on the archdiocesan Web site, Archbishop Martin noted: “There is a viewpoint which tends to look at religious education as something ideological, divisive and doctrinaire and perhaps not really a good thing for young people and certainly alien to what should belong to a school curriculum in a modern pluralist democracy.”

Dublin’s archbishop maintained, however, that Catholic schools communicate a message of a God who loves. A true religious education, he continued, will open children’s minds and also invites them to love their neighbor. Moreover, religious formation is a necessary antidote to a culture that falls prey to consumerism and superficiality, added the prelate.

Archbishop Martin also pointed out that there is no evidence that a strictly religiously neutral and secularist society occasions the best opportunity to foster dialogue between religions.

English debate

Secularist pressures are stronger in neighboring England, where both Catholic and Anglican schools were asked last year to let in more non-Christian students. In response to government pressure, the chairman of the Anglican Church’s board of education, Bishop Kenneth Stevenson, wrote to Education Secretary Alan Johnson, agreeing to set aside 25% of places for non-Christian families, reported the BBC on Oct 3.

According to the article, there are 4,646 Anglican schools in England. Catholic schools number 2,041.

In the face of government plans to oblige all Christian schools to set aside 25% of places for non-Christians, the Catholic Education Service for England and Wales (CES) issued a statement Oct. 16 that strongly opposed the idea of introducing quotas for schools which would oblige them to accept a certain number of non-religious pupils.

The statement explained that the role of schools should not be endangered by experiments in social engineering. Catholic schools are set up first and foremost to educate children in the Catholic faith, the CES declared. In addition, they also contribute to society at large, through promoting such values as humility, integrity, compassion, peacemaking and justice.

“In what has become known as the ‘Faith Schools debate,’ it is erroneously suggested that faith schools are something to be wary of, as if the blame for a lack of community cohesion can be laid at the door of Church schools — nothing could be further from the truth,” the CES maintained. “Schools with a religious character are part of the solution for society, not part of the problem,” the declaration added.

This is a position not accepted by Martin Samuel, an opinion writer for the Times newspaper. On Oct. 17 he wrote: “It is mad to expand faith schools, which encourage separateness.” Moreover, he warned: “We are turning the clock backward, to a time of blind faith, intolerance and superstition.”

A contrary opinion was expressed Oct. 20 by Stephen Beer, writing in the Guardian newspaper. “The state needs to treat all religious people, indeed all people, equally while engaging with faith perspectives,” he argued.

The Catholic Archbishop Vincent Nichols of Birmingham wrote an opinion article for the Telegraph newspaper Oct. 24 defending Christian schools.

Catholic schools already have a higher proportion of pupils from minority ethnic groups than other schools, he pointed out. Moreover, on average, around 30% of their pupils already come from other faiths, or from no religious background at all.

Spiritual vacuum

Archbishop Nichols also criticized the government’s policy of multiculturalism for ignoring the moral values and beliefs of groups. “This has left us with a spiritual vacuum at the heart of life, illustrated in the poverty of so much religious education in state schools,” he noted.

In the end the government was forced to abandon its plans to introduce a formal quota for Christian schools, reported the Telegraph on Oct. 27.

The decision did not, however, put an end to criticism of Church schools. On Dec. 24 the Sunday Times reported that former Education Minister Sam Galbraith spoke out, claiming Catholic schools are the “root cause” of sectarian bigotry in Scotland and should be eliminated.

The newspaper also published a statement by Peter Kearney, director of the Catholic Media Office in Scotland. The idea that educating children in religious schools will lead to conflict in society is both “staggeringly intolerant” and “simplistic,” he said.

A week later, Lord David Steel, a Liberal Democrat peer, wrote an opinion article for the Sunday Times on the same issue. He also argued that providing separate schools for Catholics and Protestants in Scotland perpetuates religious divisions.

Reorganization in America

Meanwhile, in the United States, Catholic Schools Week was held from Jan. 28 to Feb. 3.

In a press release published Dec. 20 to prepare the week, Karen Ristau, president of the National Catholic Educational Association (NCEA), spoke of the good work carried out by Catholic schools.

“In addition to learning reading, writing and arithmetic, students also learn responsibility — and how to become persons of character and integrity,” she commented.

According to information on the NCEA Web site, there are nearly 8,000 Catholic schools in the United States. In the academic year 2004-5, there were a total of 2,420,590 Catholic school students. Of those, 1,779,638 are elementary and middle school students, and 640,952 are secondary school students.

Catholic schools are, however, facing considerable challenges, as the Chicago Tribune noted in a Feb. 27 report on the local situation. Cardinal Francis George, archbishop of Chicago, recently held a meeting with education officials.

One of the topics was how to cope with a downward trend in enrollments. Statewide, the number of Catholic schools in Illinois has dropped from 215,000 to 170,000 over the last decade.

One of the main problems is a rise in tuition costs. This is largely caused by the fact that the schools have fewer priests and religious to choose from to fill teaching posts. In the past, schools paid these teachers much less than what they now have to pay lay teachers.

The Chicago Tribune also reported that Cardinal George said that while the Church values diversity and welcomes students of different religions, it cannot and will not divert from its core teachings. “If we downplay who we are … we betray our mission,” he said.

Boston Catholic schools are also reorganizing in the face of fewer students, explained the archdiocese in a Jan. 29 press release. The archdiocese announced details of a plan to revitalize Catholic schools in the Brockton region as part of the 2010 Initiative.

The 2010 Initiative, launched in August 2005, is meant to strengthen and revitalize Catholic schools. Some schools will be consolidated and there will be a new management structure. Between financial pressures and hostility to religious teaching, Catholic schools are facing a challenging time.

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