Saturday, 20 February 2010

Catholic schools: have we reached the endgame?

Photo: Mazur/

Recently, the Government introduced an amendment to the Children, Schools and Families Bill, allowing Faith schools to teach Personal Social and Health Education (PSHE) "in a way that reflects the school’s religious character." The Catholic Education Service (CES) claimed credit for this, citing its "extensive lobbying." As we have now come to expect, according to a wearily familiar pattern, the purported concession is worthless, allowing the Government to be seen to appease Catholics, and then reassure the secularists and gays who protest loudly.

Under pressure from humanist and homosexual activists (e.g. NSS and Pink News) but focussed particularly as a response to the Accord Coalition, the Department for Children, Schools and Families (DCSF) has issued a response. In a "Let's be absolutely clear" statement, the DCSF specifies that faith schools will not be able to opt of statutory PSHE and SRE (sex and relationships education) lessons, and that they will be required to teach the lessons "in line with the principles outlined in the Bill including promoting equality and encouraging acceptance of diversity."

Perhaps the most important part is the following:
Schools with a religious character will be free, as they are now, to express the views of their faith and reflect the ethos of their school, but what they cannot do is suggest that their views are the only ones.
This is woolly language designed to hide a totalitarian agenda. The DCSF is obviously not suggesting that Catholic schools simply make their pupils aware that others disagree with Catholic doctrine. We could easily do that in a course of apologetics which demonstrates that Catholic doctrine is true. That is not what the Department has in mind. Schools are being told that they have to present Catholic doctrine as one of a range of views, any of which would be a valid choice.

As always, this kind of relativism is only going to go so far. I doubt whether you would get Healthy Schools Status if you taught that there was a range of views on the advantages of smoking tobacco; and I don't suppose there is meant to be a valid range of views on the pros and cons of nazism as a system of government. The relativism of Ed Balls and his friends who are setting the agenda for secular Britain is actually only applied to the "views" they disagree with, such as Catholic moral teaching on the sanctity of life, marriage, and the procreation of children.

Even more disturbing is the Question and Answer section of the response which gives the example of St Thomas More School in Bedford as a model. The school's approach is described as follows:
The school has developed a very successful balance of providing students with accurate information within the faith ethos of the school. For example, sex within marriage is promoted as the ideal of the Catholic faith, but the school explicitly recognises the reality that some young people may choose to be sexually active and, if that is the case, they need the knowledge and confidence to make an informed choice to protect themselves from pregnancy and STIs.

The school nurse provides students with clear accurate information about the full range of contraception and STIs and details of local services. Chlamydia screening is also offered to students in Years 11 to 13. Pregnancy options, including abortion, are also discussed in a non-judgemental way with the RE syllabus requiring students to understand the spectrum of views in favour of and against abortion. By combining the pastoral and RE teaching, the essential knowledge component of SRE is provided to students but within the context of relationships and the school's values.
It may be that the DCSF has misrepresented St Thomas More school and if that is so, I am sure we all look forward to the school's robust denial. Nevertheless, the model as given is, sadly, not surprising. Many Catholics today regard the Church's teaching as only an "ideal", and accept that young people, some of whom will have "chosen to be sexually active" must be taught about contraception to avoid pregnancy and STIs. Such Catholics think that contraception will achieve these goals because that is what the propaganda tells them. They look suspicious when pro-lifers point out that despite decades of intrusive sex education the teenage pregnancy rate has continued to rise, as has the incidence of STIs - and perhaps explain the mechanism of risk compensation, and the actual failure rates to show why both statistics have risen.

Once contraception has been accepted, abortion then comes into play: if you have been led to believe that contraception will infallibly prevent pregnancy, it just seems so shockingly unfair when it fails to do so. The Good Counsel Network report that the vast majority of their clients give contraceptive failure as the reason for wanting an abortion. It is also instructive to talk to a friendly midwife about the proportion of women who give birth despite using one or more methods of contraception.

Faced with a "contraceptive failure" in the form of an inexorably developing human embryo, the average liberal Catholic will want to be "non-judgemental". This is actually a cowardly get-out. It means that you don't have to risk the professional consequences of saying that you really think that abortion might be the most sensible thing - you present the range of options and then leave a poor, frightened 16 year old girl to make her own choice from among the "spectrum of views". When she has come to the conclusion, against all her natural instincts, that abortion is the only way out of the mess she is in, you can feel terribly virtuous because you haven't been dogmatic.

Ed Balls and the DCSF have expertly exploited the weakness of the Catholic Church in England and Wales in its witness to the teaching of the magisterium. The constant support of the CES for its legislation, and the availability of examples such as the school described, enable the Government to take credit for preserving Catholic schools while effectively outlawing Catholic moral teaching in those schools. The bit that HMG possibly fails to understand is that the Holy See might intervene and say that, actually, abortion may not be presented as one of a range of options in a Catholic school, and Catholic schools may not invite the nurse in to promote contraception and abortion services. Which is where the secular-liberal government-compliant Catholic school ideal hits the buffers.

Many dioceses are engaged in planning processes to cope with a Church with fewer priests. Perhaps the plans need to be extended to include the possibility of a Church without maintained Catholic schools?

Damian Thompson: Government praises Catholic school for 'non-judgmental' approach to abortion

John Smeaton: Catholic teaching forbids schools from implementing government's sex education plans
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