LONDON — Some Catholics in Great Britain are concerned the government’s push for “British values” in schools, meant to counter Islamist extremism, could instead harm sincere religious believers and burden Catholic schools.
In a July 20 speech at Ninestiles school in Birmingham, the British prime minister, David Cameron, said, “We believe in respecting different faiths but also expecting those faiths to support the British way of life. These are British values. … Our freedom comes from our parliamentary democracy.”
The speech was intended to lay down his administration’s strategy for tackling Islamist extremism in the country but could be construed so as to limit the ability of any religious believer to exercise their freedoms of speech and religion.
“The government needs to avoid classing anyone who takes their religion or faith seriously, especially Christians, as potentially harmful extremists. Catholics must not be forced to act against their religious conscience, either in schools or in the workplaces,” Caroline Farrow, a member of Catholic Voices UK and a columnist for the Catholic Universe newspaper, told CNA July 24.
She said Cameron, who is leading the anti-extremism push, should remember to protect freedom of speech.
“He needs to take care that the British way of life does not come to mean that those of a religious persuasion are silenced out of fear.”
The British government has begun to require the promotion of “British values” in all schools. The actions follow reports that extremist Muslim groups were trying to infiltrate schools.
In his July 20 speech, the prime minister spoke about “the threat of extremism and the challenge of integration.”
Cameron specifically addressed the “far right” and Islamist extremism, though he also acknowledged the “profound contributions” of non-extremist Muslims.
He did not limit his speech to attacking violent extremism. He also criticized non-violent support for “certain intolerant ideas, which create a climate in which extremists can flourish.” He listed ideas “which are hostile to basic liberal values, such as democracy, freedom and sexual equality,” and ideas “which actively promote discrimination, sectarianism and segregation.”
Farrow voiced concern that some definitions of British values can pose problems for Catholics.
“While Catholics believe in the equality of the sexes, the term ‘sexual equality’ is also applied to matters of sexuality. This could be applied so broadly that it could include things that Catholics do not agree with, such as, for example, the country’s recent redefinition of marriage, which allows for same-sex weddings.”
She noted that the promotion of “British values” has already posed risks for Catholic schools. These schools face censure by the U.K. schools’ inspectorate Ofsted “if Catholic teaching, especially on sexuality and marriage, is deemed to be undermining British values and promoting so-called extremism,” Farrow said.
The high-performing St. Benedict’s Catholic School in Suffolk was downgraded because its students allegedly were not aware of the dangers of extremism. The school was “blacklisted” for failing to promote British values, according to Farrow.
The Catholic Education Service of the Bishops’ Conference in England and Wales demanded an apology for the move. The school said parents complained that the inspectors asked children as young as 10 about homosexual acts and transsexualism, the Catholic Herald reported.
The British Department for Education has implemented requirements for teaching “fundamental British values.” The department’s November 2014 guidance added stronger language that requires schools actively to promote what it sees as British values. The rules require all schools to promote equality and diversity, as defined by the education department’s guidance. This requirement includes “challenging opinions or behaviors in school.”
Farrow voiced concern for the future of Catholic schools.
“Catholic schools will be increasingly singled out for criticism and potential closure if they fail to uphold and promote British values in direct contravention of their faith,” she warned. “We have already seen the closure of the Catholic adoption agencies in the U.K. for failing to conform to government-imposed ideals and values; it is not inconceivable that schools could be subject to the same pressure.”
Farrow noted that some religious denominations which do not agree with gay marriage or women clergy are already portrayed as extremists.
“A failure to give approval to or validate certain ideas is interpreted as ‘harmful’ or ‘intolerance,’ and certain secular special-interest lobby groups already campaign that certain religious beliefs ought therefore to be outlawed or suppressed.”
She faulted the prime minister for expecting religions to uphold “the British way of life” without having explicitly defined it.
“The British way of life could be interpreted as supporting a number of practices and beliefs which run wholly contrary to the Catholic faith, such as, for example, the supposed right to abortion on demand. Faiths cannot reasonably be expected to alter their doctrine to fall into line with the view of the prevailing political party,” she said.
Farrow suggested a definition of British values based on the “the intrinsic dignity and value of every human life.” She said this principle ought to be something that finds unanimous agreement, and it is also a “core principle” of the Catechism of the Catholic Church.
At the same time, she saw some merit in the prime minister’s speech.
“David Cameron is at least recognizing that our society has become incohesive due to a lack of shared faith and accompanying values,” she said.
“The problem is that this is an inadequate response: People’s moral values cannot simply be imposed by diktat from central government. By attempting to define what constitutes British values, David Cameron is effectively imposing a set of moral values on the British population, regardless of whether or not they subscribe to them.”
She said it is understandable that the government would work to curb violent religious extremism.
“The uncomfortable truth is that it is a particular type of Islamic extremism which gives rise to violence; and, therefore, the government is using rather a broad brush to tackle a problem which could have undesirable repercussions, not only for Catholics, but for a pluralistic society as a whole,” she said. “Rather than focus on values such as sexuality or what is taught in schools, the government would do much better to engage with Muslim communities and scholars.”
She said a better indication of radicalized, violent extremism come from measuring expressions of hatred towards Jewish and Christian communities and Western civilization in general.
Other Catholics have commented critically on the British government’s values advocacy.
Bishop Mark Davies of Shrewsbury, in his Easter Sunday homily, said the effort to regulate British values has left many people uneasy and that “our values cannot be arbitrarily formulated by any passing generation of politicians, even if they have the best intentions.”
Citing the words of Pope Francis and Benedict XVI, Bishop Davies said secular rationality and religious belief are both necessary to secure “the good of our civilization.”