LONDON — It seemed straightforward at first. A bishop published a document calling for improvements in Catholic education and affirming that the task of a Catholic school was to pass on the Catholic faith as part of a team with local parishes.
Fit for Mission, by Bishop Patrick O’Donoghue of Lancaster in the North of England, became an instant success. Demand for copies was overwhelming, and the Catholic Truth Society — Britain’s leading publisher of Catholic booklets — published a pamphlet version which is selling well.
There were enthusiastic headlines in the Catholic press, and a commendation from the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith in Rome.
The document called for clear and consistent teaching of Catholic doctrine, crucifixes in every school, regular Masses and opportunities for confession for all pupils, and a ban on any forms of sex education promoting lifestyles not consistent with Catholic teaching.
“We in the diocese of Lancaster have been pleasantly surprised and greatly encouraged by the response from Catholics across the country and indeed in other parts of the world,” diocesan Director of Education Father Luis Ruscillo said.
“I see this as a courageous stand by the bishop, giving clear leadership, both within the Catholic community and beyond,” he said. “Catholic schools are part of the body of Christ with their local parishes. Clear and confident teaching is what is expected and needed.
“My clear task now is to see the gradual implementation of this report, working with the head teachers and others in positions of leadership in our schools.”
But then the politicians became involved.
Bishop O’Donoghue was accused by Member of Parliament Barry Shearman of seeking to impose fundamentalism on children in the schools, especially with regard to marriage and family life.
Shearman failed to return phone calls from the Register.
Catholic and Church of England schools in Britain receive generous public funding — a recognition of the fact that for some thousand years of British history, all education was provided by the Church and that many parents — not merely churchgoers — want to send their children to Church schools.
Parents sending their children to Catholic schools do not need to pay fees, and the cost of the schools is met in large measure by public funds, with additional support from the Catholic community at Sunday collections.
But it is precisely this that has caused the difficulty. Publicity over Bishop O’Donoghue’s report coincided with the annual allocation of school children moving on to secondary schools at age 11. Many disappointed parents, whose children did not gain a place at the school of their choice, feel thwarted.
There are claims that Catholic schools “cream off” the ablest children, and that children from troubled backgrounds, or whose parents are not fully practicing the faith, are disadvantaged.
Newspapers have been highlighting stories of children from Buddhist, Islamic or other backgrounds whose families wanted them to have the benefit of the spiritual or moral background offered by a Catholic school.
The irony is that for many years, concerned Catholics in Britain — as in the United States — have been complaining that Catholic schools lack clear teaching, offer immoral forms of sex education and produce pupils who when they leave at the age of 16 or 18 are not practicing their faith and are even unaware that missing Sunday Mass is a serious sin.
“I was thrilled and encouraged by Bishop O’Donoghue’s report,” said Catholic mother of five Margaret Emery, whose son Thomas has just won a place at the London Oratory School, one of Britain’s best-known publicly-funded Catholic schools. “The bishop is saying what lay Catholics and their parish priests have been saying privately for years. It’s great to have this courageous leadership and it promises real hope for Catholic youngsters in Britain.”
Dora Nash, director of religious education at a major boys’ secondary school, said that the “relief amongst sound Catholic educators is palpable.”
“To read a crystal-clear document in support of what we have been trying to do for 30 years is like suddenly turning to swim with the stream after an exhausting struggle against it,” she said. “We all know that just to teach, conscientiously, what the Church teaches, works. Now we have a bishop prepared to spell it out.”
But Bishop O’Donoghue was summoned to the House of Commons Select Committee on Children, Schools and Families, chaired by Shearman — prompting some Catholic commentators to invite comparisons with the summoning of Catholic priests to the Court of the Star Chamber when anti-Catholic legislation was passed at the start of the Reformation in England.
John Smeaon, of the Society for the Protection of Unborn Children, which has campaigned against forms of sex education that involved promoting the “morning-after” pill and abortion in schools, issued a call for prayer via the Internet the morning the bishop was summoned.
“The Bishop stood up under fire,” he said. “He pointed out that it was not feasible to expect Catholics to support organizations — despite the good they might do — if their leadership supported policies contrary to Catholic principles.”
The bishop also affirmed that non-Catholic children in Catholic schools were not subjected to aggressive proselytism or forced to become Catholics, though they would be taught the Catholic faith.
If funds are withdrawn from Catholic schools, there will be a crisis, as they educate large numbers of children, especially at the primary level, and the state would have to take full financial responsibility for these children’s education.
A bigger worry among Catholics is that the Church leadership might be tempted to “water down” Catholic content, for example in sex education, in order to ensure continuation of funds.
Joanna Bogle is based in London.