From the editor's desk
From the editor's desk > End of the ethos

15 May 2014

End of the ethos

Due to population shifts, a Catholic primary school in Blackburn has found itself with 99 per cent of pupils who are Muslim, a phenomenon by no means unique in modern Britain. The unusual solution promoted by the diocesan authorities in Salford is the transfer of the school to the Church of England. What does this say about the purpose of Catholic education establishments in general? Do they exist primarily to educate Catholic young people, and lose their raison d’être when there are not enough of them around? If the much-vaunted “Catholic ethos” makes such a distinctive contribution, on what basis is it justified to withdraw that benefit from non-Catholic students? Fundamentally, what makes a school or college Catholic?

All over the world, Catholic educational institutions are grappling with that question, not least in North America where Catholic universities are such a feature of the campus landscape. The answers differ widely. There are successful schools in Britain where a large majority of both staff and pupils would call themselves Catholic. They see themselves as engaged in the production of the next generation of the faithful, though cynics might say they are in fact mainly ­producing the next generation of the lapsed.

But in India, say, there are many Catholic-run schools and colleges, often the best in the area, where the great majority are Muslim or Hindu. Parents obviously do not fear their children will be “converted”. They greatly prize whatever it is the Catholic ethos can bring, which may include, apart from the excellence of the education, resistance to the increasing sexual free-for-all that they fear is pervading Indian society.

Catholic educationalists are familiar with the idea of educating the whole person and respecting every facet of human dignity, expressed in the phrase - from Pope Paul VI’s encyclical Populorum Progressio – “integral human development”. Many schools in the non-denominational sector may claim to have a similar goal but may differ in what they mean by it, specifically in the area of moral and spiritual development. It is precisely because they respect the importance of religion that Catholic schools have proved popular in Britain with Hindu, Muslim and Sikh parents, even though the religious basis of the school does not match their own.

There is even a perception among some Muslims that a Catholic school would be safer than a Muslim school, not least because of the risk that a more fundamentalist brand of Islam might predominate in a particular school. This is a fear which has surfaced in Birmingham in connection with the alleged “Trojan horse” plot by hardliners to take over some schools, which is being officially investigated and which may yet turn out to be not what it seemed.

All this strongly suggests that the decision in the Blackburn case was the wrong one – and all credit to the Church of England for showing greater wisdom. The decision is inward-looking and against the common good, and a betrayal of what Catholic education ought to be about. It also suggests there is a policy vacuum in the Catholic Church, as the chairman of the Blackburn governors, Nicolas Kennedy, suggests in an article in The Tablet today. As he says, a Catholic school ought to be regarded as a gift to the local community, not as a walled-off place of privilege for a minority. And the bishops should say so.

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