Catholic Education is not Divisive

James Tolhurst FAITH Magazine January-February 2007

In a largely neglected series of letters, John Henry Newman wrote to The Times in February 1841 about Sir Robert Peel’s support of a new library and reading room in his constituency of Tamworth in Staffordshire. At first sight there is nothing remarkable about a Member of Parliament being in favour of (and contributing financially to) a means of educational advancement for the masses. In principle, Newman himself was in favour of “a kind of neutral ground, on which men of every shade of politics and religion may meet together (women were not meant to engage in politics…), disabuse each other of their prejudices, form intimacies (i.e. get to know each other) and secure co- operation.”[1]

But this endeavour was influenced by Lord Brougham and other luminaries of the new non-denominational University College in London. There was to be no denominational basis for the library and reading room at Tamworth. Members of the Church of England could gain admittance if they produced “a ticket of proficiency in Christian knowledge from their minister of religion” but there would be “no controversial divinity” in the Library.[2] Newman’s objection was that you could not exclude the religion of the vast majority of the country in a general scheme for imparting knowledge. He would return to the theme in his lectures on university education which he gave in Dublin in 1852 where he argues that theology must take its place amongthe faculties of arts and sciences if a university is to be worthy of the name[3]. He would maintain that “knowledge without religious understanding, was, if not positively dangerous, at the very least worthless. “In this he only echoed the sentiments of the Archbishop of Armagh, Paul Cullen who wrote, “So far from there being any antagonism between religion and science, they are a mutual advantage, each reflecting upon and facilitating the acquisition of the other.” [4] This has long been the authentically Catholic position.

In view of the current educational debate, we should consider the role of religious education in society and the arguments being put forward by the present- day followers of Sir Robert Peel. Since the 1850 government provision for state provision of secular based education for children generally, there have been a series of concessions to denominational based schools, terminating in the 1944 education act. As Catholics we contribute to the cost of the school building and maintenance and in return we have a majority on the governing body of the school. This guarantees the Catholic ethos of the school and its majority Catholic membership.

There have always been those who have argued that somehow this is exclusive - in the same way that our public schools cater for a narrow section of the community. There can be no doubt that Catholic schools are exclusive in that they serve the Catholic population who pay for them in addition to the taxes that they pay for general secular education. They must necessarily be exclusive because, as Newman pointed out in the case of the Catholic University of Ireland, “To be a university at all, it must be strictly Catholic. It must teach the faith and ‘nothing else.’[5] Pius XI made clear in his encyclical on education, “when the faithful demand Catholic schools for their children, they are not raising a question of party politics,but simply performing a religious duty which their conscience rigidly imposes upon them.” [6] These words were written the year before Adolf Hitler became the head of the National Socialist Party, which would in its turn move to end purely
denominational teaching.

Alan Johnson has said “We must be careful that, rather than driving people into defending their faith, we instead encourage an open celebration of our diversity. Schools should cross ethnic and religious boundaries, and certainly not increase them, or exacerbate the difficulties in this sensitive area.”[7] This was very much the argument of Sir Robert Peel whose aim was the peace and good order of the community. He, and his friends reached the opinion that religious differences were synonymous with “party feeling” and that “faith, once the soul of social union, is now but the spirit of division.”[8] The pressure of Islamic extremism like the pressure of violence in Northern Ireland,has called forth the same response as in 1841 (when there was a threat of Fenianism): if we lessen the impact of religion, we will contribute to overall peace and harmony

But there is no evidence of this. In fact, where Catholicism is taught we find good citizenship and tolerance, as OFSTED has consistently testified. If denominational schools were so divisive, why do so many people who do not share our faith want to be admitted? They see the advantage of a Catholic ethos which pervades all the teaching. Religion is the climate in which education takes place, it is not something like French dressing which you put on the curriculum as you would on a salad. For Christians, and to some extent for Moslems, there is a further dimension to education. We do not regard our children as simply citizens of the State, but also citizens of the kingdom of God. For this reason, Pius XI argued, “If the whole purpose of education is so to shape man in this mortal life thathe will be able to reach the last end for which his Creator has destined him, it is plain that there can be no true education which is not totally directed to that last end.” [9]

It is only right that people “should be disabused of their prejudices” [10] but we need to be convinced that religion itself is not a prejudice but a fundamental right which the State must support (8). To insist that denominational schools should become multi-faith is a direct infringement of that fundamental right. It has been tried before and has not worked. It should be strongly resisted. Fr James Tolhurst is the General Editor of the Newman Birmingham Oratory Millennium Edition.

[1]. Discussions and Arguments on Various Subjects. Gracewing. Leominster 2004 p. 256
[2]. Discussions and Arguments p. 280.
[3]. Idea of a University p. 21
[4]. Quoted in Colin Barr : Paul Cullen, John Henry Newman and the Catholic University of Ireland 1845-1865. Gracewing. Leominster. 2003 p. 78.
[5]. Quoted in Fergal McGrath: Newman’s University: Idea and Reality. Longmans. London 1951 p. 170.
[6]. Encyclical Divini lllius Magistri (1929) p. 103.
[7]. To the National Children and Adult Services Conference. Guardian 18 October 2006.
[8]. The Tamworth Reading Room in Discussions and Arguments ... pp.283.285.
[9]. Divini Illius Magistri n. 7.
[10]. Discussions and Argument p. 256.

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