GCSE RE: Education or Indoctrination?
Stan Wocial FAITH MAGAZINE March - April 2015
Can Catholic parents presume that Catholic schools will teach their children the Catholic faith? Concerned that his two daughters were not receiving such an education, Stan Wocial set out to discover the truth about GCSE RE. This is what he found.
“I doubt whether we are sufficiently attentive to the importance of elementary textbooks.” C S Lewis, The Abolition of Man
In conclusion to an article in this magazine on GCSE religious studies (Faith, Nov/Dec 2011), Fr Hugh MacKenzie reiterated the poor state of Catholic schools in terms of passing on the faith and especially their general inability to present adequately the Church’s teaching on sexual morality. He suggested that one response might be for dioceses to produce authentically Catholic text books to act as a primary resource for teachers, as long as they did not “compromise the principles and syllabuses of public examining boards”. Given the current Ofqual subject criteria and exam board specifications, there is no need for these principles and syllabuses to be compromised.
There is an understandable secular bias to the exam board specifications related to controversial issues. They reflect the attitudes of society as a whole, while conforming to political requirements on topics such as equality and discrimination. Although the Ofqual subject criteria are necessarily generalised, the exam boards translated them into a concrete syllabus with specific content which contains a degree of bias and unacknowledged assumptions. However, the Roman Catholic module exam questions almost invariably allow the Catholic view to be stated; therefore it is important to teach a robust apologetic for the Catholic world view, while also critically presenting the opposing arguments of contemporary society and liberal Christianity.
The Value-Neutral Approach
The Ofqual requirement for learners to “reflect on and develop their own values, opinions and attitudes in light of their learning” has been interpreted as having to present both sides of an argument without appearing to favour either side. However, this apparent neutrality can also be a form of indoctrination into relativism. An honest apologetic that presents rational arguments for a particular religious world view is less likely to indoctrinate then a superficially neutral presentation that contains hidden assumptions and bias. A student can rationally engage with the former and be free to agree or disagree, but he or she may easily be deceived by the latter.
This is one of the hardest points to convey to those who just look at the content of the text books. It is natural to take the books at face value and consider the balance of “facts” they contain. What can be wrong with that? Surely the students must be presented with both sides of the argument? It is true that Catholic students need to be faced with the beliefs and arguments of those opposed to Church teaching. However, it is essential that they are given a thorough grounding in what the Church teaches and especially the reasons why it does so and with what authority.
In the official course books, any social norms which are opposed to Catholic moral teaching are treated as “controversial” and presented with a range of views for and against. The presentation of each viewpoint may have varying degrees of bias, but the fact that each viewpoint is presented uncritically leaves it without any intrinsic moral value beyond the impact it has on the emotions of the student. The act of presenting different Christian views, for and against, subconsciously tells the student that it is acceptable to choose whichever they prefer since they are all “Christian” views. On the topic of abortion, this approach is intrinsically pro-choice, because you are pro-choice, even if you are personally pro-life, so long as you don’t impose your beliefs on others.
There is also a strong tendency to equate what is legal with what is moral. For example, the official course books feature an uncritical presentation of the 1967 Abortion Act. This in itself sends a pro-abortion message, even though it is just a factual presentation of the conditions for a legal abortion. There is no suggestion that some people believe the Act should be repealed; at most there is reference to the debates about lowering the age limit, since some babies could survive if delivered before 24 weeks. Thus the apparently balanced presentation of abortion is not neutral at all, but profoundly pro-abortion.
Other life-related issues such as euthanasia, artificial insemination, IVF and surrogacy are all presented as controversial issues with widely differing opinions among Christians. The situation is similar for most aspects of human sexuality, including sex before marriage, contraception, homosexuality, cohabitation, civil partnerships and divorce. Many of these are reinforced by group activities based on values clarification, which tend towards rejecting external moral restrictions and setting up the individual as the judge of what is right and wrong for them. A typical question might be:
What do you think a Christian should think about when deciding whether abortion is wrong or right?
The Ofqual requirement to teach Catholicism in the context of the beliefs and practices of other Christian denominations further undermines the presentation of Catholic teaching in the official course books, especially when other denominations concur with secular society against the Catholic position.
Unquestioned Secular Values
While the official course books treat topics like abortion and euthanasia as controversial issues for which there is no definitive judgement of right or wrong, they all have a range of topics which are presented as moral absolutes. These include opposition to prejudice or discrimination against anyone based on age, religious belief, disability, gender, race or sexual orientation; promotion of equality and social cohesion; opposition to climate change and the obligation to protect the environment.
The list above is intended to make the point that the course books endorse several unquestioned moral commandments and explore how to put them into practice. This is not to question their merit, although several are debatable, but to emphasise that contemporary culture, as influenced by successive governments and the mainstream media, has its own set of moral absolutes, usually underpinned by legislation.
In effect, the course books map out areas of commonality and division between secular society and the Catholic faith. All of them use the current values of secular society as the point of reference against which to present the moral teachings of the Catholic faith. Values that are held in common are treated as moral absolutes; values that are opposed by certain Christians are presented as controversial, and a neutral stance is adopted regarding which view is right or wrong. This approach is especially poisonous when examples are given of Christian views on both sides of the argument, as this leaves the impression that you can be a Catholic and support either side, because Catholics are Christians.
A Catholic Approach
Nothing in the GCSE religious studies subject criteria explicitly mandates a secular perspective, so it would seem reasonable to suggest that authentically Catholic course materials could be produced using the Catholic world view as the point of reference rather than the values of secular society. For example, abortion would be treated as an absolute moral evil; the reasons supporting that belief would be presented, while reference would be made to those who support abortion and their arguments critically appraised. Such a resource would be specifically for Catholics, but anyone could use it to follow the arguments given and be free to agree or disagree.
Producing an independent Catholic text book to support GCSE religious studies on contemporary issues would be a difficult and politically sensitive undertaking. However, the 2012 Religious Education Curriculum Directory (3-19) from the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of England and Wales strongly encourages the use of apologetics to support Catholic students in exams. There would appear to be a clear opportunity for a Catholic publisher to provide materials to address this requirement identified by the bishops of England and Wales. For example, there are CTS booklets which already cover many of the topics and could be used as a resource for teachers. The content of the booklets could be consolidated into a format that more closely matches specific course specifications, such as the popular Edexcel Unit 3, and supplemented with topic summaries, sample questions and exam tips, as in the current course books.
The internet offers the possibility of a low-cost alternative to printed material. It also provides an opportunity to present an in-depth critique of the secular course material, which would not be viable any other way. There is a need to draw attention to the bias and hidden assumptions contained in the text books – and not just in religious studies, but in subjects across the curriculum where political indoctrination is taking place. Examples include misinformation regarding the alleged danger of overpopulation in geography; a negative presentation of the medieval period and the role of the Church in history; and the various attempts to promote sexual licence and undermine the family under the guise of sexual health education. The internet also provides the opportunity to set up a religious studies revision notes website; this could present a Catholic apologetic in an easily accessible form, while also providing a critique of the various counter-arguments presented in the course material.
Not Just for Catholics
Catholic moral teaching is not just for Catholics. It flows from a proclamation of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. It corresponds to the deepest stirrings of the human heart and offers guidance for genuine growth in holiness and virtue. Such terms may be alien to the secular mindset, but they fit perfectly with the aims of the current Ofqual subject criteria in religious studies, which are to enable students to engage with religious beliefs intellectually and respond personally, and to enhance their spiritual and moral development.
Catholic schools take a risk in covering moral and philosophical issues at GCSE, since they are constrained by the secular agenda. Nevertheless, it is vital to accept the challenge of teaching the controversial aspects of the Catholic faith, while it is still legal to do so. The Catholic faith needs to be handed on in its fullness and integrity, without compromising under the pressure to conform to the standards of contemporary secularism. Catholic moral teaching is not an arbitrary moralistic code, but an integrated expression of what it means to be fully human, as revealed in Christ. It presupposes a sound formation in the fullness of the Catholic faith, nourished by the liturgical and sacramental life of the Church.
Stan Wocial is a recent MA graduate in pastoral and educational studies (apologetics) from the Maryvale Institute. He has been married to Patricia for 21 years. They have two teenage daughters.