WHY do we have Catholic schools? There are many answers to this startlingly simple ' question. We have them because, for only vaguely understood and remembered religious and historical reasons, they are there.
We have them because most of us were born to the heavy financial commitment of Catholic schools. Perhaps we believe they exist to teach our children the Catholic Faith. Doubts may arise when we remember that there are many Catholic adults who have not been to Catholic schools.
So perhaps a Catholic school trains better Catholics, or a different type of Catholic, or instills the faith so strongly that it is never lost? Certainly Catholic schools provide paid employment for our Religious in a "protected workshop" atmosphere. Sometimes the money the Religious earn is used to provide further schools for them to staff. Perhaps the chief function of a Catholic school is to provide a "Catholic atmosphere" — alas, so difficult to define.
It is understaable that the schools are there. Or is it? Some Catholic schools are standing — but only enough to provide some of our children with places. Sometimes the percentage provided for is as low as 40, though 75 per cent of Catholic children seeking Catholic education are provided for nationwide.
Strangely, preference is often given to those children who least need it — children from good Catholic homes. The logic behind this decision is puzzling. It is the children whose faith is weak who need the religious aid a Catholic school is presumed to give. The parents who send their children to Catholic schools cannot even be assumed to be the ones who give most to the Catholic schools fund.
Thus, in some parts of the country, a minority of Catholic children use the buildings provided. Rut the buildings are often not paid for. Indeed Catholics in England are in debt to the tune of about £25 million. Parish levies are meant to deal with this. Some parish priests take this levy out of the "General Fund" and thereby deprive many of the right to refuse to pay.
Even the belief that Catholic schools exist to teach the Faith is open to doubt. Surely the parents exist to teach the Faith? If the parents are lax in their beliefs I do not believe that their children will he "good" Catholics simply because they attended a Catholic school — example is what counts.
Of course the reverse is constantly being proved : good parents, with deeply held religious convictions produce "quality" Catholic children who have never been to a Catholic school. Why has no nationwide survey on the efficiency of Catholic teaching been held? "Quality" is difficult to measure, but "no longer practising" is not so difficult.
Difference in atmosphere
Before we are further involved in heady and hard-toimagine expenditure, let us make some effort to find out if Catholic schools "work" or have ever "worked."
Certainly Catholic schools provide paid employment for Religious. Often this money is put to very good use. It could be put to just as good use if it were earned by teaehing in a non-denominational school, of which more later. In any case, non-Catholic teachers are often employed in Catholic schools.
Is this because so many Catholics, finding promotion blocked by the appointment of Religious, have been forced to leave Catholic education? These ambitious teachers might be assumed to be professionally the best. Is there any great difference between being taught by a non-Catholic in a Catholic building, and by a Catholic •in a non-Catholic building?
For many people the answer would be: Yes. A great difference in atmosphere.
Here is a great hurdle, difficult to dismantle because so nebulous in form. A "Catholic atmosphere" seems to be a view of life so charged with faith that it colours one's whole vision. it certainly was in my case. As I grow older. I am more and more ashamed to learn that my ideas on certain historical events are, at best, biased, and at worst bigoted.
I hope that after teaching for ten years in Catholic schools and before that in the Army, that I have never been influenced by the "party line," even if one exists. Every teacher must teach the truth as he sees it, and be prepared to discuss openly and frankly all sides of a question, whether it is the colour bar, reproduction, or Shakespeare's sonnets.
Perhaps yeu have been lucky. Perhaps your child is already at a good Catholic school. But what of the child at a Catholic school where the academic standards are below those in surrounding State schools? What of the child transferring to secondary school, from Catholic primary school?
Should he (or rather, his parents) choose a Catholic secondary school in preference to State grammar school where that is the only choice, or would it be immoral to pressurise him into doing so? Must we, gladly for Christ, sacrifice our children to our religion, or should we seek to educate our young to lead and influence and take their full statistical share in tomorrow's "top jobs"?
If we are not providing schools for all of our children — and it seems that we can't more than double the financial strain — it is urgent that we should consider the alternatives.
First steps on new road
To stop now, as we are, to build no further schools, to pay off our debts, would indeed be negative and pointless. But there are two other exciting We could form interdenominational schools. A Christian "atmosphere" would pervade. Added numbers and lobbying might increase the government's contribution to the initial building costs. In this ecumenical age the possibilities are exciting.
So you may be surprised to learn that an inter-denominational school exists in Torquay and others are talked of — but only in sparsely populated areas where nothing "better" could be provided.
Why have we heard so little of these truly Christian ventures'? Why have these exciting experiments been kept secret? Why are our Catholic teachers and newspapers not fully' informed of the success — or failure — of these first steps on a new road.
Tell us. You who are involved. Please! What difficulties and rewards have there been? Are these schools a practical possibility all over the country? Would you like to see more?
The other alternative is more profound, "shockingperhaps and obvious. Let us unite now with our brethren in the State schools. The operative words are "unite now." Don't let us wait to be squeezed out by rising costs, shortage of Catholic teachers, "creeping comprehensivisation." Now. While we are still in a bargaining position. Let us dictate our terms, come out of the ghetto, and unite.
Before you get your breath back, let me make two even more alarming suggestions. First, there is a faint possibility that those dreadful humanists are right and that there should be no religious instruction in schools. Secondly, assuming that they are wrong. that Catholicism might be even better "taught" (if One can teach it) in an all-denominational school.
In order to judge these suggestions reasonably one must abandon one's prejudices, long held beliefs and emotional strongholds, and begin at the beginning.
What are schools for? Perhaps they are there simply to educate, in the uncomplicated and efficient way that nursery schools and universities do. The vast sums of money expended on a percentage of our children could be used to benefit all children of a wide age group, by providing some form of outof-school activity for all Catholic youngsters.
Not the sad and seedy "youth clubs" which the children of conscientious parents are often forced to attend, but a modern, well-equipped building staffed by professionals, catering for the family, at weekends and in the evenings.
If we didn't have the burden of paying for Catholic schools this money could be diverted to pay for such centres and group leaders, If our schools were handed over to the government, an agreement could surely be reached either for a refund of investment to be ploughed back into these family centres, or for the use of part of local school buildings, as a community centre, as in the latest and best town developments.
Such centres could not only provide religious instruction, but family and Christian aid, as well as fun.
The suggestion that all schools should be alldenominational seems to me the natural corollary to the theory that all schools should be all-ability. Soils& very good Catholic private schools are, in fact, if not in name, these two things.
If all children went to one school, the primary school beginner would not be separated from his friends, the secondary school child would not travel long distances, the Catholic child would not be a "loner" in its home cornmunity. The religious could truly "spread the word," would be employed on equal terms and could never be accused of receiving preferential treatment.
Two "bogeys" would remain for many people; the daily assembly and the period of religious education.
Eighteen months ago I began to teach in a non-Catholic State school, after having taught for eight years in a Catholic school. On the first morning I went into assembly, diffident and unsure. We had a reading from the New Testament, a reading from the life of a more modern Christian, said the Lord's Prayer. and sang a _hymn I knew well.
I found, and still find, morning assembly a deeply moving experience, as Christian and non-Christian join in prayer. The old Catholic-Protestant barriers are simply and immediately irrelevant. The ques tion raised in the staff-room is : "Should we read from the Koran, too?"
Why not? I believe that if the schools in Northern Ireland were united now the division of nearly 300 years would be irrevocably blurred in one generation.
In an all-denominational school system, the Catholics on the staff could guard against any possible excesses — and our own pet "excesses" would soon vanish. The cheap plaster statue standing on a doyley. with a vase of flowers on each side would vanish.
Parents, through the P.T.A. and through regular visits to morning assemblies, could be vigilant and reassured. Priests could, indeed can, easily visit during a specially time-tabled "religious doctrine" period — when the basic facts of our religion could (and, I think, should) be taught. There would be nothing to stop Catholics — and especially Religious — from being appointed as religious education teachers. A pipe dream? I think not. We mustn't be left behind. No child should be segregated by race, colour — or creed. We don't need a ghetto any more. Now, when the whole educational system is in a state of change, now when the whole question of religious education in schools is due for scrutiny, now, let us come out, lobby, get what we want and joyfully unite.
Such an opportune and favourable moment may not occur again for generations.