Speaking for myself, and a lot of Catholic parents I know, we are still wondering what’s not to fear from the Children, Schools and Families Bill, a Bill which says that pupils must be taught how to access abortion, and removes the right to withdraw children at 16, the very age at which this figures in the curriculum.
I am wondering why it is good to negotiate with a Government which has a large Commons majority when that Government ignored the findings of its own consultation showing that 70 per cent of parents did not want sex education to be mandatory, a Government which is overturning a fundamental principle of European human rights legislation, let alone a mainstay of Catholic social doctrine, which says that parents have the right to determine what is best for their children’s education. I fail to see that there is anything to celebrate in the fact that a “concession” has been granted to teach sex and relationships according to the ethos of a Catholic school, unless fundamental rights like those of conscience and association are somehow now at the concession of the ruling party. I will cheerfully shut up when we receive an unequivocal assurance from the Catholic Education Service and the Hierarchy that this Bill will not require that Catholic schools teach how to access abortion or artificial, abortifacient contraception, since Mr Balls seems to think they must. I am also wondering where this “negotiation” leaves Catholic teachers.
I love Robert Bolt’s play A Man for All Seasons, about Thomas More’s attempts to stay true to his sovereign and the law at a time when the state seeks to claim rights over conscience. I mention the play because of the advice More gives to Richard Rich.
“Be a teacher, Rich; you’d be a good teacher, perhaps even a great one.” “And if I were,” says Rich bitterly, “who would know?” “You would know,” comes the answer, “your pupils would know and God would know. Not a bad audience that.” When we speak of Catholic teachers having a vocation we can sometimes have a slightly nebulous view of what that means. More sums up the vocation of the Catholic teacher to Rich by saying that what he does has implications for our pupils, our true self and God. To call teaching is a vocation is another way of saying that such a person has been given the means to conduct light between those three centres of personhood: God, my pupils and my truest self; and the light conducted is truth.
The Catholic teacher can lead pupils to God inasmuch as he or she has discovered Him and his truth, inasmuch as he or she is motivated by a search for God’s truth. Sometimes like the harmonics of a chord all sounding true or the perspectives of a colonnade suddenly lined up, those three things come together perfectly – the relationship with God, with pupils, with one’s true self.
Such teachers teach pupils the value of order, congruence, of how to connect, because of something deep in the nature of being human; the fact that we are made for truth and truth is not merely a construct, a inductive opinion, but a congruence of my life with things as they really are. For that reason I do not accept that it is possible to retain a Catholic ethos and teach alternatives to the proposition that abortion is the taking of innocent life and artificial contraception is an intrinsic moral evil. It is not credible to say that you can continue to teach this truth but you must show pupils how to gain access to these evils any more than it serves truth to say that smoking is harmful for your health and, by the way, here’s where you buy cigarettes if you’re under-age. What moral person could be happy with such doublespeak?
The best Catholic teachers build their lives on this search to connect, to make congruent who it is when I am with God, when I am with my pupils and when I am with myself in my conscience. To teach how to access an abortion, even as a “bad choice”, is not teaching with a Catholic ethos; it is teaching pupils to sin; it is corrupting them and destroying the fundamental congruence on which the vocation of a teacher rests, the correspondence of what I teach with what is true.
If, as a Vatican document on education for the third millennium says, the Catholic school is directed towards the “human person in his or her integral, transcendent, historical reality”, then it can only achieve its task if it is encouraging teachers and pupils alike to live lives which respect those realities; in which there is a true connection between the Gospel and how those who teach and learn it are believing, living and behaving.
Teaching, the same document reminds us, is not mere functionality, it has an extraordinary moral depth and is one of man’s most creative activities since the teacher “does not write on inanimate material but on the very spirits of human beings”. They should not be told what they must write there by Government policy. The obligations of Catholic teachers are to the service of truth in love. Vatican II’s declaration on education says that freedom is the hallmark of Catholic education, that authentic freedom which “is experienced as a definitive response to God’s ‘Yes’ to humanity, calling us to choose, not indiscriminately, but deliberately all that is good, true and beautiful”.