Yesterday, I spent rather too many hours considering this conundrum: the British Humanist Association is, yet again, in the media criticising Catholic education. The BHA, is naturally, allowed to say whatever it likes. I am, after all, a ‘bit of a leftie’. But I do wonder why the BHA chooses Catholic schools, not notable for their high profile, as its regular target. The BHA chooses to think of faith schools as fostering religious and racial segregation, apparently. It is a powerful organisation: it is far from shy about taking legal action against central and local government on matters of religious education and faith schools.
I am confused on these matters. State-funded Catholic education in the UK is the result of a historical settlement, under the terms of the 1944 Education Act. The BHA seems to wish us to start from some kind of Year Zero, in which history never happened. With regard to its accusations around religious and racial segregation, it also seems to want to impose upon the good citizens of this country some form of compulsory uniformity of attitude and thought, whilst at the same time championing ‘diversity’. It seems to me that these people like the ‘right’ kind of diversity: their kind. But, fine. They have the right to speak and operate in the public square and to advance their cause.
What I started to think about, while my blood was still boiling, is what lies behind the idea of Catholic education ( à la Newman’s ‘Idea of a University’). Catholic education, surely, is not simply about faith; in theory, our schools, part of the wider community and part of the church community, are about fostering a particular and specific culture, about morality, behaviour, compassion, charity, family, discipline and understanding. We have got ourselves into such a weak and defensive state that we can barely articulate what the culture might be. I have worked with several ‘faith groups’ in the past: I am struck by the confidence of Muslims, observant Jews, Sikhs and Hindus and other groups and by each group’s strong cultural and religious identity – and diversity within those identities. Catholics should be less weak; we should stop perhaps trying to seek approval from a secularist culture which does not like us very much and in which the required attitudes change with the wind and alter when they alteration find. We should think of Catholic education as a major component of a ‘civilisation of love’. And we should have the temerity to celebrate and communicate what we do, what we are and what we believe – because in these days of confusion about and discussion of our ‘national identity’, we have a great deal to contribute to wider society.