What will happen in Britain’s Catholic schools if the Government’s plans for same-sex marriage go ahead? Will they be told that they must teach that same-sex marriage is normal and right?
Catholic schools in Britain are publicly-funded. Under the 1944 Education Act the Catholic Church and the Church of England were guaranteed funding for schools and freedom to teach according to their own religious systems. Today, the basic premise established by that Act still exists although there have been a number of new Education Acts and, of course, massive social change. Church schools are very much part of the educational scene.
Across Britain, there are Catholic primary schools (for ages 5-11) and secondary schools (11-18), publicly funded and therefore free for pupils, no fees. The schools are popular and often over-subscribed. Priority is meant to go to the baptised children of practising Catholic families. The aim is to support parents in their task of raising their children in the Faith. Parents who are disappointed in getting a place for their child can apply to an appeals procedure.
Catholic schools are meant to be centres of Catholic faith and community: prayer, celebrations of Mass, religious education, a spirit of service and charity, a sense of being part of the Church. Of course, things don’t always work out quite that way. Some parents don’t mind a bit – they may be only nominally Catholic, and/or may disagree with the Church on some major issues.
A school may have its crucifixes and statues, its celebrations of major feasts and its sense of being part of a great tradition. But how many of the children attend Mass regularly on Sundays? How many of the teachers? What is the religious education like? How close are the bonds with the local Catholic Church? With the wider Church?
And these general problems are just background. There are new issues. Schools of all types, Catholic and non-Catholic, are overwhelmed with paperwork. Bureaucratic jargon seems to be omnipresent. And there is pressure to “achieve” in very tangible ways. “League tables” of exam results are published, and there is a strong temptation for schools to get as many exam passes for as many pupils as possible. Where does the Catholic faith fit into this? A school can produce a “mission statement” emphasising Catholic values and the fostering of a sense of a caring community – but the reality might remain exam-pressure, a struggle to find practising Catholics as teachers, a lack of enthusiasm for the Faith among parents who may or may not live according to the Church’s teachings. And the media, especially the Internet, brings its own pressure: complaints about a school can become worldwide news – a disaffected pupil or parent, for example, could be used by campaigners to denounce religious instruction as unfair “indoctrination” and presentation of the Church’s moral teachings as “homophobic”. Something that is normal for Catholics – for example, welcoming a pro-life speaker to address older pupils – could result in angry headlines about teenagers being offended by one-sided moralising.
The issue of same-sex marriage is a crucial one. A Catholic school must teach the Catholic faith, in its integrity. That includes the teaching on marriage and family life. So far, debates and discussions about same-sex marriage have not produced any sort of Government guarantee that Catholic schools will be fully free to do this. And Catholic schools will need clear and courageous leadership to ensure that they keep their integrity intact, and see their mission as proclaiming the truth and helping the rising generation to live it with fidelity and joy. On this, as on so much else for Catholics today, there is a real challenge to recognise that major issues are at stake. Time for a New Evangelisation: “Do not be afraid”.