The news pages of The Tablet this week present an interesting and in some ways puzzling juxtaposition of stories. Next to the News from Britain and Ireland leading story, “Receptions hit a six-year low”, is another, also about figures. This tells of another “low” but of a very different kind: the numbers of pupils given places at Catholic schools is small indeed, compared to the numbers who want to be admitted.
Supply and demand are out of kilter. In London, there seem to be five or six applicants for every place on offer at the most popular schools. Mass-goers and those with siblings in a school are usually given preference, so these figures suggest that many people who don’t go to Mass would still like a Catholic educational experience for their children. Some of the less scrupulous parents attend Mass simply in order to give their children a better chance of admission to their targeted Catholic school, but we shouldn’t carp: we can rely on the Holy Spirit to do his work on them as He does on the rest of the congregation.
For a significant section of the population with no professed faith, when it comes to the most critical and far-reaching choice they may ever make – that regarding the influences they want to be brought to bear on their children – they would like those influences to include Jesus Christ, the Son of God, Mary, the Mother of God, and all the saints.
Perhaps they would not defend their choices in these terms. Perhaps they would even object to this terminology. But whatever reservations they might have, when it comes to the education of our children, we want to be dealing, as near as is possible, with certainties. So parents in this group can be assumed to be certain in their own minds that the influences that will be brought to bear on their children will be properly instructive, healthily formative, socially desirable, and will contribute significantly to their overall project, the pursuit of happiness for their offspring.
There can surely be no greater trust than the act of trust implied when a parent hands over a child for a time to the care of another.
How does the Church read this situation? Are there any attempts to discern what is happening in terms of the spiritual state of our nation, or is reflection limited to: how do we make this as fair as possible and keep the “admissions police” off our backs?
There are two equally important things that the best Catholic schools do: they provide an excellent academic education, and a community nourished by the Christian faith. The person who emerges is “rounded”, that is sensitive to the dignity of all human beings, confident in their own abilities and beliefs, able to see right from wrong almost instinctively, and wise enough to see truth and lies for what they are and know the difference.
So why are fewer people coming forward to be received into the Church?
Is it possible that the Church has become mundane, in the sense that it has forgotten how to emphasise and project, outside of its small frontiers, what it offers to the whole person? Intimations of immortality are for many, most powerful in childhood and tend to fade under the increasing weight of our years on earth. Perhaps the determination to find a Catholic school place for a child reflects a hunger for that lost sense of the immortal on the part of the parent. Perhaps the Church could pay a little more attention to how to restore that lost sense in our adult population.
James Roberts is The Tablet's Assistant Editor (Foreign News)