The debate surrounding Catholic schools in Scotland is back. A former senior police officer, a famous football commentator and prominent figures in the media have called for the abolition of the Catholic state sector as part of the fight against sectarianism.
It all began in September, when Tom Wood, who served as deputy chief constable of Lothian and Borders Police, argued that sectarianism could not be defeated simply by banning marches by Republicans and Loyalists. “We also need to look at the roots of the problem and question what divides us,” he said. “And if we do that then we simply cannot escape questioning our system of religiously segregated education.”
Then the football pundit Archie Macpherson called for an “open and bold” discussion about church schools. “What sort of education system do we want in an increasingly secular society?” he asked.
In the ensuing media debate several facts were overlooked. Many commentators failed to take into account the distinctive religious history of Scotland. They also failed to consider the impact that Catholic schools have had on thousands of people, and the positive difference they still make today.
Following the Reformation, Scots who practised Catholicism did not have it easy. Churches were burned down. Practising the faith was banned. A Catholic king was exiled. Battles were lost. Gangs were created with the sole purpose of stamping out Catholicism. As a result, Catholics suffered deeper levels of poverty than the rest of the Scottish population.
But over time things slowly improved. The ban on practising Catholicism was lifted (though there was a backlash). Churches were rebuilt (though there remained stiff opposition). Then in 1918, the Education Act was passed which saw Catholic schools transferred from diocesan to state control. Yet again, this was an unpopular decision among some sections of the population.
Allowing Catholic education to be included under the state’s control was a historic moment. It was the shift that finally allowed Catholics to feel that they were being classified as equal citizens by the authorities. It was the moment when the state started to assist and support the celebration of the Eucharist, rather than suppress it.
The decision to incorporate Catholic schools into the state’s education programme was always going to make them unpopular in some quarters. Ever since, there have been calls for their abolition. Yet they have not only survived but also thrived, thanks to the passion and commitment shown by earlier generations. It is important that we do not forget this.
Calling for the removal of Catholic schools, however, is a sign that some people have forgotten Scotland’s history. Banning Catholic schools would remove the symbolic value of the equal treatment of Catholics overnight. More than 100 years of progress would be reversed.
This would actually deepen the sectarian divide.
I believe this because I remember fondly the values that my Catholic education taught me: the importance of loving your neighbour, showing forgiveness, embracing humility and undertaking charitable works. Aren’t these the precise values that Scottish society needs to end the sectarian divisions which have stained our society for too long?
Non-denominational schools may well also teach these virtues. But that does not undermine the argument for Catholic schools. They offer a proven way of teaching children these virtues and it would be an unnecessary risk to abolish them.
It would be easy to get caught up in the historical and political debate, while ignoring the impact such a policy change would have on those who benefit from Catholic education.
I can say with confidence that I speak for thousands of people when I state that my Catholic education benefitted me. I was brought up in an environment in which we were encouraged to let “Christ shine through you”. We were taught to show love, forgiveness, charity and humility.
We were shown the importance of taking part in the sacraments of Confession and Holy Communion. We were able to attend Mass every day. At the time I did not realise it, but my schooling nurtured a spiritual life which continues to this day.
Catholic schools in Scotland, therefore, are very important. They have a wholesome impact on people throughout the country. They allow parents to have a choice in their children’s education. They are a symbol indicating that Catholics are equal citizens in Scotland. They teach children the virtues that we need to embrace to end sectarian divisions.
That is why we should stand up for Catholic schools and the positive role they have played, and must continue to play, in Scottish society.
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