The great tradition of religious tolerance in Catholic parochial schools in New South Wales is under fire. Many thousands of children of all faiths have been educated in a system often chosen by parents due to a complex perception of superior education outcomes rather than as a response to the promulgation of faith within the schools, and many non-Catholics and non-Christians remember their time at a Catholic school very fondly. But from now on such experiences may be fewer and further between than in previous generations.
Cardinal George Pell and NSW Bishops have sent out a pastoral letter which bemoans the trend for more non-Catholics to attend Catholic schools and for more Catholics to send their children to public schools, and announces methods which the hierarchy wishes to implement to reverse these trends – a four way selection process giving preference first to children from the school’s local parish, then to Catholics from other parishes, then to other Christians and finally children from other religions. They also plan to move into preschool education in order to “foster the spiritual development” of younger children, which would at least be a welcome addition to the chronically short supply of pre-school places. The Cardinal and Bishops also want recruitment of staff to favour more practising Catholics and to actively encourage the school population to participate in Catholic events outside the school.
Here’s the doozy – acknowledgement that they actually considered barring non-Catholics altogether:
The Church will not ban non-Catholic students from enrolment – it says it considered, but rejected, plans for a formal “downsizing to accommodate only those who are committed to the faith”.
The SMH prefers to describe the decision against barring non-Catholics as “dismissed suggestions”.
Of course, the Catholic education system would be perfectly within its rights to limit their schools to Catholic students only: that’s certainly the line taken by the Daily Telegraph editorial – Protecting and raising a flock –
In short, what the Bishops are suggesting is a greater emphasis on the core tenet of Catholic education – which is that the teachings of the Catholic Church should be at the foundation of what is offered in Catholic schools.
Why should that come as a surprise to anyone?
This truculent editorial makes no mention that the Bishops considered closing Catholic schools to non-Catholics, and makes no mention either that most of the Catholic families choosing to send their children to non-Catholic schools are poorer families, despite longstanding efforts to attract them by discounting/waiving fees for poorer families etc. The Bishops’ preferred methods all advocate an increased emphasis on religious identity, but what if increasing religiosity is exactly what is driving the poor, long the mainstay of the Church, away? (teh wealthy are increasingly preferring elite independent schools, too.)
The current Catholic school student body composition, trending towards 20% non-Catholic students in NSW, enables better understanding of Catholic traditions and teachings outside the Catholic community, and fosters tolerance and ecumenical co-operation. That over 50% of Catholic children attend state and non-Catholic independent schools also leads to better understanding between Catholics and families of other religious beliefs. Closing the schools to non-Catholics, or even merely making non-Catholics feel less welcome there, will only lead back to the bad old days of suspicion and prejudice that once led my grandfather to forbid my mother from dating Catholic suitors.