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William Oddie FAITH Magazine March - April 2008


No sooner had I finished my piece for Faith magazine’s last issue (in which, my readers may recall, I encouraged Polish Catholics to keep themselves at arms length from the secularised and indifferentist ethos of many English dioceses) than news emerged that one English bishop at least had done something to try to address the problem, and that he had in the process aroused the kind of secularist hostility which is, I strongly suspect, – certainly in this country – the only really reliable sign that the Catholic Church is being faithful to its vocation.

I refer, of course, to the document Fit for Mission?: Schools, published in December by Bishop Patrick O’Donoghue of Lancaster, the actual text of which many of you will already have acquired, the reaction to which, however, – both hostile and the reverse – needs also to be registered as part of its necessary import: for, there is not much point in being a Sign of Contradiction if nobody notices, and the secular reaction to a subversive religion like Catholicism is part of its authentic meaning. Fit for Missionhas undoubtedly been noticed: reactions range from extreme secularist hostility to an overwhelmingly positive response from the Catholic faithful, not only in the bishop’s own diocese and throughout the English Church, but in several other countries too. His office has receivedrequests for copies of the document from dioceses in the United States, Canada, Australia, France (interesting), and Malta following a public endorsement by Archbishop Mauro Piacenza, Secretary for the Congregation for Clergy, who sent Bishop O’Donoghue the Congregation’s congratulations on his ‘courageous examination of the state of evangelisation and catechesis in the diocese of Lancaster’s schools and colleges’ and for developing a positive programme for action in harmony with the ‘operative Magisterial documents’.

It is, indeed, something of an unusual event that an English bishop should base himself so firmly, not merely on the odd bland quotation here and there from whoever the current pope happens to be, in order to camouflage the true nature of some firmly secularist initiative, but on the spirit as well as the letter of entire magisterial documents, not least the Catechism of the Catholic Church itself – which, it will be remembered, we were all told by Bishop David Konstant was not for the likes of us, but for the bishops to read so they could tell us what was in it. The Lancaster document’s approach to this key text is very different, and is worth some attention. ‘The most important book published by the Holy See in this generation for Catholic education,’ says Bishop O’Donoghue, ‘is theCatechism of the Catholic Church, and its summary, the Compendium of the Catechism of the Catholic Church’; he says that ‘it is vital that both the Catechismand the Compendiumare used by teachers in our schools and colleges, who can guide pupils in how to make best use of them’; that ‘the key to unlocking this treasury of Church teaching.... lies in the Catechism itself’; and that ‘It is important not to pick and choose which doctrines of the Church to teach children, particularly very young ones. It is not acceptable to take an approach to the teaching of the faith that reduces it solely to the simplest, easily assimilated concepts’.

The point about Fit for Missionis that even this is not considered enough: having established the general principle, this admirable bishop now lays down the practical detail, so that nobody has any excuse for ignoring his clearly expressed wishes. This is what his words mean in practice: and this is what a diocesan inspection will presumably expect to find: ‘As bishop, it is my express wish that all primary and secondary schools will have copies of the Catechism of the Catholic Church and the Compendium of the Catechism of the Catholic Church: A complete copy of The Catechism of the Catholic Churchis to be given to every teacher in the school... and at least one copy of the Catechism of the Catholic Churchis to be available in the School library. In primary schools, there should be atleast one classroom set (say, 30 copies) of The Compendium of the Catechism of the Catholic Church. In secondary schools there should be at least one full classroom set of The Catechism of the Catholic Churchand at least one full classroom set of The Compendium– and these books should be regularly used in Religious Education’.

No wonder that Rome is astonished and gratified. ‘The Congregation, wrote Archbishop Piacenza, ‘is especially pleased as your pastoral plan is precisely that which was called for in the General Directory for Catechesis after the release of the Catechism of the Catholic Church’. But there is more to it than that: this is not some bureaucratic response to a Vatican document that most Catholics have never heard of (the General Directory), but an insistence that the entire teaching of the Catechismitself should be at the heart of everything that happens in Catholic Schools. The document begins by asking what Catholic Schools are actually for (a question some of us had been asking ourselves), and addressing the question of whether, if they are not actually achieving what they are supposed to,we should have them at all: ‘Are we losing sight of the uniqueness of Catholic education?’, the bishop asks (the answer, of course, is that too often we are). ‘Have we forgotten’, he continues, ‘that Jesus Christ is the true centre of all that we do because we have become too focused on other demands of school life? [answer: Yes]. Is the Catholic faith a living reality at the heart of every diocesan school and college? [answer: No]. Are our pupils having a rich and living encounter with our Risen Lord? [Answer: don’t even ask]. Are we transmitting the fullness of the faith in an exciting and creative way to our pupils and their families?’ These are, it is made plain, real questions, not the usual empty diocesan rhetoric. And the consequence of these answers is real, too: ‘If we cannotanswer a confident “Yes” to the last three of these questions, the point of keeping our schools is lost and the project of education in our diocese has failed’. No flannel about academic standards or good manners or citizenship or Catholic schools being attractive to non-Catholics: ‘Is the Catholic faith a living reality at the heart of every diocesan school’? Yes or no?

Well, the reaction has been instructive. The proposal that a Catholic school should take the Catholic religion seriously is being seen in predictable quarters as a new and undesirable development (which shows nothing more starkly than that until now any such idea has been unusual to say the least). All this has attracted the attention of one Barry Sheerman, chairman of the parliamentary cross-party committee on children, schools and families, who now wants to haul offending bishops (the good news is that there are at least two) in front of his committee for an inquisitorial going-over (which by the time you read this may have taken place).

Under the headline ‘MPs challenge “doctrinaire” bishops’, The Observer’s report began by claiming that ‘Roman Catholic bishops are to appear in front of a powerful committee of MPs amid fears that they are pushing a fundamentalist brand of their religion in schools. Bishops have called on parents, teachers and priests to strengthen the role of religion in education. In one case the Bishop of Lancaster, Patrick O’Donoghue, instructed Catholic schools across much of north-west England to stop “safe-sex” education and place crucifixes in all classrooms. He also wrote: “Schools and colleges must not support charities or groups that promote or fund anti-life policies, such as Red Nose Day and Amnesty International, which now advocates abortion”. Other offensive ‘fundamentalist’ ideas proposedby ‘O’Donoghue’ (not ‘Bishop O’Donoghue’, just ‘O’Donoghue’, as though he were on trial for child abuse) are: calling on teachers to use science to teach about the truths of the faith, only mentioning sex within the context of the sacrament of marriage, and insisting that artificial contraception is wrong and emphasising natural family planning.

Bishop Arthur Roche of Leeds is also singled out as one of these ‘fundamentalist’ bishops, who according to the National Secular Society are attempting ‘to introduce a Taliban-style regime of Catholic orthodoxy in [their dioceses’] schools’. Bishop Roche has, The Observerreported, ‘sent a letter to parishes warning them that Catholic education was under threat following attempts by the local council to set up an inter-faith academy’.

Barry Sheerman, chairman of the parliamentary cross-party has reacted to all this with admirable frankness: no weasel words here, simply an open suspicion of all religion when it is actually believed rather than just talked about. ‘A group of bishops appear to be taking a much firmer line’ The Observer reported him saying, ‘and I think it would be useful to call representatives of the Catholic church in front of the committee to find out what is going on.... It seems to me that faith education works all right as long as people are not that serious about their faith[my italics]. But as soon as there is a more doctrinaire attitude questions have to be asked. It does become worrying when you get a new push from more fundamentalist bishops. This is taxpayers’ money after all’.

This Sheerman, it needs to be said, is parti-pris in all this, and might even be accused of using his chairmanship of a Commons committee in order to push his own personal agenda, since he (as MP for Huddersfield) is one of the group attempting to set up an ‘inter-faith’ academy in the diocese of Leeds partly, without doubt, in order to undermine authentically Catholic education: and if this is not a gross misuse of office, I do not know what is. According to Sheerman, Bishop Roche ‘had a letter read out in every parish church in Kirklees and Calderdale, a really big area, accusing politicians of trying to dilute Catholic education. He said Roman Catholic education was under threat’. Well, precisely: since Sheerman says that ‘faith education works all right as long as people are not thatserious about their faith’, it is obvious not only that that is exactly what he is attempting to do, but also that Bishop Roche is absolutely right (other bishops please note) to resist him. And now, because Bishop Roche is opposing Sheerman’s secularising scheme for his diocese, Sheerman wants to drag him down to London in chains to appear before his Star chamber on a charge of being ‘serious’ about his faith. Well, bring it on: it is all an excellent opportunity for bishops to explain what Catholic education is really for, and to declare plainly that if the State expects our schools to abandon the Catholic faith as a quid pro quo for receiving Catholic tax-payers’ money, then that is an expectation we are not prepared to satisfy: and then, we will have to take the consequences. Thesemay be unpleasant; but at least we will know where we are. Catholics are always at their best when the battle-lines are clearly drawn.  

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