You may have seen the headlines: "U.S. President Undermines Catholic Schools After Vatican Prefect Praised Them." Or “Obama Offends Catholics in U.K.: Says Religious Schools Divisive.”
Well, let’s give the president the benefit of the doubt. He was speaking in notoriously divided Belfast, Northern Ireland, and said to his audience, “If towns remain divided — if Catholics have their schools and buildings and Protestants have theirs, if we can’t see ourselves in one another, and fear or resentment are allowed to harden — that too encourages division and discourages cooperation.”
Let’s assume that he wasn’t exactly calling for an end to Catholic schools and that he wasn’t quite blaming Catholic schools themselves for being intentionally divisive. After all, his comments were made in an area torn by sectarian strife, and it is reasonable to suppose that Obama was merely suggesting that any institutions that deepen those divisions will aggravate rather than alleviate the ever-volatile situation in Northern Ireland.
That having been said, these were rather curious remarks. How much slack can we really cut him?
The “if” of “if Catholics have their schools and buildings and Protestants have theirs …” obviously implies that strife will remain as long as the two kinds of schools remain.
Was the president suggesting that only Catholic schools should be closed? Was he saying, in effect, something like this? “Irish Catholics — get over it! The tip of your island is owned by English Protestants living on the island to your east, and that island, Britain, has an established church. Catholic schools are cells of rebellion, whereas Protestant schools are cells of patriotism.”
Or was Obama saying that both Catholic schools and Protestant schools should be eliminated, because any such “sectarian” institution “encourages division and discourages cooperation.” So … close them both and herd all the kids into purely secular schools where they can “see themselves in one another”?
But if “sectarian” institutions are the problem, then why not close the churches as well? “If towns remain divided — if Catholics have their church buildings and Protestants have theirs …”
Hmmm. Very curious.
Whatever he meant to say, Catholics should certainly be prepared to defend Catholic education against any notion that we’d all be better if education were purely secularized.
First of all, universal education was invented by the Catholic Church. The Church also invented the university. Before that, education was the preserve of the very few. But during the period from 1200 to 1500, the universities educated hundreds of thousands of students from all walks of life and from all over Europe. That universalizing of education on the upper level was the blueprint and inspiration for the universalizing of education reaching down to the pre-collegiate levels.
Catholics have a right to defend what they’ve invented.
But there’s a second, even more important reason to defend Catholic education. Catholic schools (like Catholic churches) are important intermediate institutions, that is, institutions that are able to act independently of the state and, in fact, provide a buffer that protects citizens from the state.
Just suppose, for example, that a secular state wants to affirm abortion and “gay marriage” as both legal and moral and uses its public secular schools to teach kids accordingly. Then Catholic schools could act as independent moral institutions. They could, in fact, contradict the government and teach that abortion is murder and that “gay marriage” is a morally distorted form of the only morally licit form of marriage, marriage between one man and one woman.
Catholic schools would then be — in the eyes of the liberal secular state — cells of rebellion, “encouraging division and discouraging cooperation.”
Just suppose — to take another purely hypothetical instance — that a president publicly celebrates “Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender Pride Month” at the White House. But Catholic schools aren’t celebrating along with him because the Catholic Church rejects the notion that homosexual activity is morally licit.
Or just suppose that a president wants to force Catholic schools to provide insurance coverage for contraception, abortifacients and sterilization for its employees, but those schools teach that contraception, abortifacients and sterilization are morally wrong.
In all these cases — which the reader is obviously well aware are not hypothetical — we see the importance of Catholic education, of Catholics having their separate “schools and buildings.”
If we had only secular schools, schools entirely under the thumb of the government, our children would learn only what that secular government wants them to learn.
I can see why Mr. Obama is not very excited about Catholic education. It’s too … Catholic.
Author and speaker Benjamin Wiker, Ph.D., has published 11 books, his newest being
His website is BenjaminWiker.com.