Saturday, 28 April 2012

Are we equipping young people to be pro-life against the odds?

Defending traditional marriage -
an act of politics or not?
Today the BBC reports that Education Secretary Michael Gove is to examine whether the Catholic Education Service (CES) has infringed political impartiality rules, by circulating a letter to nearly 400 Catholic schools in the state sector asking them to back the Coalition for Marriage petition against homosexual "marriage".  (As far as I can make out, this is the same letter that was read in all Catholic parishes in March.)  The CES says that reading this letter to pupils is just part of the Catholic school's legally permitted remit "to teach matters relating to sex and relationships education, including the importance of marriage, in accordance with the teaching of the Catholic Church".  The Department of Education fears that the CES has encouraged schools to infringe their "responsibility under law to ensure children are insulated from political activity and campaigning in the classroom".  (Note: the petition is only intended to be signed by those over the age of 16, so we are, I hope, talking about sixth-form pupils.)

There's quite a lot to mull over in this situation.  Firstly, I note with interest that the DoE spokesperson says "While faith schools, rightly, have the freedom to teach about sexual relations and marriage in the context of their own religion, that should not extend to political campaigning".  Is this political campaigning?  To me it sounds more like, as the CES put it, "a positive affirmation of marriage, as is the Coalition for Marriage's online petition".  It is the Government who have decided to take a socially and legally-recognised institution and turn it into something else, something it has never through the ages been recognised by anyone as being.  The definition of marriage should not be the stuff of political debate and vote-chasing; if voicing an opinion in favour of traditional marriage has become a "political" thing to do, the Government have made it so.

There is, as so often, also the implication that supporting traditional marriage is part of a package of discrimination against gay people.  It is not. The CES says, "The Equality Act 2010 applies to all schools and we are fully supportive of the Act. It is central to Catholic teaching that all individuals should be treated with respect and dignity."  Yes, you can oppose the redefinition of marriage without being homophobic or treating pupils with same-sex attraction differently from others.

This also rings of today's widespread secular dogma that religious beliefs are all well and good - as long as they do not make any difference whatsoever to the way an individual relates to the society around him.  They must remain purely "private and individual views".  No genuine religious belief can ever remain thus, of course, by its very nature.  Whilst I continue to think that the CES' actions in this case should not be described as "political", it does throw into sharp relief an attitude that perhaps many Catholics themselves are dangerously close to taking on board these days.  "Of course I believe this and that, but I wouldn't impose my beliefs on you."  Well, no, you can't impose or indoctrinate.  You can, however, witness and speak out; you have every legal right to do so; you have an evangelical obligation to do so.

What is the point of having Catholic schools if they cannot offer a clear and challenging witness to their pupils of what it means to be a faithful Catholic?  I notice that the BBC makes sure to point out that the schools in question are state-funded.  Well, they're still Catholic.  Either withdraw state funding from them or let them be Catholic.  My children have all come through the Catholic school system and I am grateful for it; they were good, supportive schools.  However, many Catholic parents these days do not see the clear benefits of sending their children to Catholic state schools and if wishy-washy catechesis is to be the only incitement to do so, then I can understand how they feel.

One school at the centre of this row is St Philomena's in Carshalton.  The BBC, in a beautifully unbiased paragraph, tells us that "Earlier this week, reported that students at St Philomena's Catholic High School for Girls in Carshalton were 'encouraged' to sign the anti-equality pledge by the school's headmistress". Apparently a sixth-form pupil remarked, "In our assembly for the whole sixth form you could feel people bristling as she explained parts of the letter and encouraged us to sign the petition... She said things about gay marriage and civil partnerships being unnatural. It was just a really outdated, misjudged and heavily biased presentation."

Now, I know very little about St Philomena's, other than that orthodox Catholic friends send their polite and very pleasant teenage daughter there.  I'm sure it's a very good school; the Headmistress evidently did speak clearly and unambiguously about the teachings of the Church; and the sixth-form pupil quoted may not have been typical in her her views. Perhaps the pupil was remarking on the mode of presentation rather than the content.

Having said all this, however, I fear that what this sixth-former said would be echoed by young people in many Catholic schools across the country.  Are our Catholic schools in fact producing well-catechised young people, who know the Faith thoroughly on the formal level and have been given every encouragement to develop their faith on a personal level?  The second I believe is probably true in most Catholic schools, but without the first - solid orthodox catechesis - that personal faith development is going to go awry.

Our society gives more evidence every day of its determination to marginalise those of religious faith and to positively strip them of any meaningful opportunity to live out that faith.  In such a society it is more vitally important than ever that Christian schools have a robust catechetical curriculum.  Otherwise the pressures on poorly-instructed young Catholics to compromise will just be too great, and they will not see any reason not to do so.  The areas in which this is most likely to happen are marriage and pro-life issues.

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