This article first appeared in the Scottish Catholic Observer on 7th February 2014.
Did you know that Catholics in Scotland belong to “an outpost of a foreign power – the Church of Rome”? And did you also realise that the Catholic Church’s legal right to appoint representatives to local authority education committees is “a direct affront to core public values in contemporary Scotland”?
These words are taken from a submission of the Edinburgh Secular Society (ESS) to the Scottish Parliament’s Public Petitions Committee, arguing for an end to the right of Churches to be represented on education committees. Sadly, such hostile language is typical of the aggressive intolerance which this group displays against religious faith and its continuing presence in public life. More worryingly, though, I fear that it may indicate a dangerous inclination towards the anti-Catholic rhetoric of Scotland’s recent past.
Ironically, in its submission ESS tried to claim that the very requirement that education committees must include both Catholic Church and Church of Scotland representatives (described as “sectarian appointments”) endorses “division between Roman Catholics and Protestants” and contradicts the Scottish Government’s stand against sectarianism. Yet they themselves are responsible for inflaming hostility towards Catholics in their deliberate use of this shocking language. Such irresponsible behaviour must not go unchallenged.
We must acknowledge that, with this issue as with some others, we have tended to keep our heads below the parapet out of concern, perhaps, that we might “draw fire” and attract even more hostility. Yet, in the absence of opposition, the secularist groups have been working hard to get attention for their causes and the press and broadcast media have been happy to give them space and airtime. The risk we run in not raising our voices is that the decision-makers – politicians whom we have elected – may be encouraged to believe that there are no opposing voices. MSPs might conclude that the views of the secularists are reasonable and compelling when, in fact, frequently they make inaccurate and misleading assertions, unsupported by evidence of any substance.
The other cause which the secularists have been pursuing is the requirement for all schools to provide experiences of “religious observance” from which children and young people can be withdrawn by parents. (The secularists want this to be changed to an “opt-in” system.) Despite clear statements from the Scottish Government that it sees no need for a change, the Petitions Committee of the Scottish Parliament has allowed the Petition to continue to take up their attention. You might care to approach your own MSP to express your views on the efforts of these groups to dismantle the hard-won rights
On this latter issue the waters were muddied recently with the surprise announcement that the Church of Scotland and the Scottish Humanist Society were calling for a change in the arrangements for religious observance. While the Humanists thought that this would result in a change in the nature of religious observance (ie making it less religious), it appears that the Church of Scotland were only considering a change of language – ie they wanted to call it “Time for Reflection”. Since the first announcement of this joint approach, the agreement between both bodies seems to have unravelled somewhat.
While speaking on radio about this issue I was anxious not to intrude in this argument, but I had to make it clear that, whatever happened, Catholic schools would not be taking God out of the equation. Our approach to “Religious Observance” (which is not a term in common use in schools) is built on the liturgy, prayer and devotions of our Catholic Christian tradition. That will never change.
The Humanist argument is that because fewer people are Church-goers nowadays religious observance is no longer relevant in schools. Thus, it should be replaced by “reflection” on important life issues and significant human experiences, untainted by any religious tradition. They fail to recognise the significance of God in our lives and the wisdom of God’s holy Word or, at least, they don’t see its relevance to what children should learn in school.
Ironically, ‘Curriculum for Excellence’ – the new curriculum framework being followed in Scotland’s schools – was designed to enable young people to address the big questions in life. Which questions are ‘bigger’ than: WHO am I? WHERE did I come from? WHAT am I doing with my life? WHY am I here? WHO gives me life? All of these questions have “religious” significance. They all relate to my spiritual development – ie my relationship with God. So, in schools today , it is all the more important that young people benefit from good experiences of religious observance, well planned and well delivered by teachers and chaplains.
For the Humanists and the Secularists (who don’t have the exact same aims) the common purpose is to mute the voices of the Churches and to marginalise the influence of people of faith in public life. When we remain silent, in the face of their concerted and relentless campaigns to dominate the agenda on social, moral and ethical issues, we encourage them to believe that they represent what everyone else thinks and we allow politicians to think that we have lost interest in these issues.
I was recently encouraged by the number of parents and others who, outraged by attempts to change arrangements for religious observance and to remove the presence of Church representatives from Local Authority education committees, had written to MSPs to express their concerns. Hopefully this is a sign of people becoming alert to the dangers of complacency and silence. It may even be a sign that we are becoming what Pope Francis has called “missionary disciples”, ready to take personal responsibility for proclaiming the Gospel in whatever circumstances we find ourselves, despite the name-calling we may face.
30 January 2014