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William Oddie FAITH Magazine May-June 2010

The White Flag of Silence

Did we witness, only weeks away from the General Election, one of the greatest betrayals of the Catholic tradition by the English hierarchy, not merely in this century (of which after all there hasn't been much yet) but in the history of the Church? If that seems a little hysterical, consider The Catholic Herald's account of an interview given by Ed Balls on the Today programme, a few hours before the House of Commons passed, by 268 votes to 177, its Sex Education Bill (against which, Catholics should note, the Tories voted):

On Tuesday morning Ed Balls gave an interview to BBC Radio 4's Today programme in which he again insisted that the amendment [i.e. that negotiated by the Catholic Education Service] did not "water down" the Bill.

He said: "If you are currently a Catholic school... you could choose to teach only to children that contraception is wrong, homosexuality is wrong. That changes radically with this Bill.

"A Catholic faith school can say to their pupils: 'We believe as a religion contraception is wrong.' But what they can't do is therefore say that they are not going to teach contraception to children, how to access contraception, or how to use contraception. What this changes is that for the first time these schools cannot just ignore these issues or teach only one side of the argument.

"They also have to teach that there are different views on homosexuality. They cannot teach homophobia. They must explain civil partnerships. They must give a balanced view on abortion. They must give both sides of the argument. They must explain how to access an abortion. [My emphasis] The same is true on contraception as well."

He added: "To have the support of the Catholic Church and Archbishop Nichol [sic] in these changes is, I think, very, very important, is a huge step forward."

The Catholic Education Service -surprisingly only to those without any knowledge of their exceptionally dodgy track record - as the Herald recorded, "hailed an amendment to the Bill that it said it had secured after 'extensive lobbying'." A mixture of naivety and deeply-engrained sixties liberalism is probably the explanation of how the CES could "hail" as a victory rather than an ignominious defeat for the Catholic cause an amendment allowing Catholic schools to teach the Catholic view as well as the Labour secularist pro-abortion and pro-gay compulsory agenda. For, let there be no doubt. This was a crushing defeat, whatever the ultimate fate of Balls' legislation. We have been forced to witness the authorities of the church, led by the Archbishop ofWestminster himself, actually celebrating the secularist relativism - according to which the Catholic view is not the God-given truth but simply one view among many -which Pope Benedict has so eloquently and repeatedly condemned. To argue that the CES compromise was at least better than not to be allowed even to teach the Catholic view on these matters is nonsense. For at least, then, we would have known where we stood. Catholic schools, told they were not allowed to teach the Catholic view, would have known that they could only disobey. But now that the authorities of the Catholic Church have made it clear that if a Catholic school did disobey such a law, their bishops would not support them they do not have a leg to stand on.

It was already becoming clear that actual support for the Bill would be the official (though cravenly unexpressed) Catholic line, even before the Bill was voted through the Commons. How was this made clear? Why, by the (I hope, literally) shameful silence of those concerned. As Damian Thompson asked in his Telegraph blog, "where was the Catholic spokesman to put the Church's side of the story?":

"Archbishop Nichols": not available.

Bishop Malcolm McMahon, who holds the education brief in the Bishops' Conference: not available.

Oona Stannard, head of the Catholic Education Service (CES): not available.

There is a conspiracy theory [alas, it proved no mere theory] doing the rounds that the CES and other Church spokesmen are deliberately lying low, in order to help Balls get his amendment through. But the amendment is worthless. In its final weeks, this dying government is forcing Catholic schools to provide information on how girls can kill the babies in their womb; it is boasting about how St Thomas More School in Bedford is already providing "non-judgmental" information about abortions. And the reaction from the Church, and the head teacher of the school in question?

Silence.

The example of St Thomas More, Bedford, is a chilling one, for the Department "for" Children, Schools and Families presented it as the exemplar of what all Catholic schools will now be forced to become if Labour has its way. This is what Balls' DCSF had to say about it:

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.... By combining the pastoral and RE teaching, the essential knowledge component of SRE is provided to students but within the school's values.

One is tempted to ask what values precisely those might be: not exactly, it would seem, Catholic values. And of course, as we all know, St Thomas More, Bedford (the irony of whose name serves to highlight its supine betrayal) is hardly untypical. As Fr Finigan commented in his blog The Hermeneutic of Continuity, "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....

Most teenage pregnancies result from contraceptive failure. And as Fr Finigan chillingly continues:

Faced with a "contraceptive failure" in the form of an inexorably developing human embryo, the average liberal Catholic will want to be "non-judgmental". 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.

The Tablet (an old enemy of Fr Finigan) naturally supported the CES in all this, noting in shocked tones that "The Catholic Education Service... is being denounced from the Catholic Right for having any truck at all with Mr Balls' proposals, with or without his concessions to faith schools." Such criticism, says the Bitter Pill, "may be misdirected". The danger, says the paper, predictably, "is not sex education as such, but sex education without moral content - that is to say, without putting it in the context of loving relationships and the Church's teaching". But "loving relationships" and "the Church's teaching" are not, according to what Mr Balls had got the CES to agree to, at all the same thing. What the CES now means by "loving relationships" is "the reality that someyoung people may choose to be sexually active". "Catholic schools" says The Tablet "will have to steer a careful course. They should be trusted to get on with it." But what The Tablet undoubtedly means by "Catholic Schools" who can "be trusted to get on with it" is Catholic schools like St Thomas More, Bedford.

This inevitably brings one back, yet again, to an increasingly depressing subject: the state of our Catholic Schools. For, the simple fact is that, more and more, St Thomas More, Bedford is ceasing to be the exception rather than the rule. Perhaps prompted by the CES's complicity in the Balls Bill, Father Aidan Nichols O.P. wrote an article for The Catholic Herald headlined "My radical proposal for saving Catholic education". The question, he wrote, "is what use to the Church, as distinct from civil society, the Catholic school network, above all in the state sector, can be said to be at the present time":

There is no difficulty in defending the record of our schools in terms of the moral and civic values they encourage, nor... their academic quality. My question concerns, rather, their contribution to forming the next generation of, precisely, believing and practising Catholics... It is simply not possible... either now or in the currently foreseeable future, to expect vocationally committed Catholic teachers to be forthcoming on the scale required - notably in religious education, but not only there.

Father Nichols' suggestion was that we ought to "for the sake of making the best use of our resources, radically to reduce the number of our schools in the state sector, so as to concentrate on

deepening the Catholicity of a realistic number". This drew an answer from the redoubtable Mrs Daphne McLeod, of the ginger group Pro Ecclesia et Pontifice, who suggested that we should, rather...look at dioceses in America and Australia where bishops have addressed this problem so successfully they now have full seminaries and churches packed with young people in stable marriages living good Catholic lives.

What these bishops did was to remove the totally inadequate religious textbooks and the advisers/inspectors who wrote and promoted them and provide the teachers with sound Catholic text-books which were not only faithful to the Catechism of the Catholic Church but which also taught the faith clearly, comprehensively and without any ambiguity.

Mrs McLeod knows what she is talking about, having successfully done precisely that as a headmistress. The bishops have attempted to marginalise her over the years by branding her as a tiresome extremist, but she is listened to in Rome, where her information about the dubious activities of some of our bishops is carefully noted; I have no doubt that the recent ad limina visit of our Bishops' Conference was as a result less comfortable for some than it might otherwise have been. And as far as the officially produced school text-books our hierarchy has provided, most notoriously (but by no means uniquely) the appalling Weaving the Web, she is now as she has been for decades past, absolutely spot on. But it may now be too late. Her vision depends on having bishops willingto implement it. But they just aren't there. And if nothing is done, as Eric Hester (another former head teacher) has predicted in these columns [in the November issue of 2006], "then in as little as five years, outside the independent sector, there could be no truly Catholic schools remaining in England." So Ed Balls and his ilk will have won, whatever his political future has turned out to be by the time these words appear.