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Cardinal William Conway (1970) 'Catholic Schools'

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Text: Cardinal Conway ... Page Compiled: Brendan Lynn

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The Catholic Communications
Instutite of Ireland
8 December 1970


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Segregated Schools?

The question of ‘segregated schools’ as they are called, has been flickering across the screen in Northern Ireland fairly constantly during the past few years. Politicians’ speeches, television debates, the correspondence columns of newspapers, have all made their contribution. Very often the message conveyed is quite simple - that ‘segregated schools’ are one of the basic causes of trouble in Northern Ireland and that for this the Catholic Church is to blame1.

So far as I can recall, this message first began to go forth about five or six years ago. At that time the voices raised against discrimination in Northern Ireland, in jobs, housing and the local franchise, were beginning to be heard. It was suggested that while Catholics were being asked to participate in community life they were largely ignored when it came to local government jobs or even appointments to non-salaried posts on statutory bodies. It was this policy, the argument went, which effectively cut Catholics off from participating in the life of the community.

Then someone had an idea - it was the Catholics themselves who were cutting themselves off by their "voluntary apartheid" in the schools. This was evidently thought to be a good political line - it was simple and clear and it put the boot on the other foot. As a political tactic it has had some success but by now people generally recognise that, at least in the mouths of right-wing politicians, it is somewhat lacking in sincerity. As one of the leaders of the New Ulster Movement said early in 1970:

"Many of those who clamour for integrated education would be the first to object if someone waved a magic wand and produced it. Protestant extremists would obviously resist the prospect of nuns and Christian brothers teaching their children in integrated schools"2.

And a correspondent from the Times Educational Supplement who visited Northern Ireland a year ago summed up his own impressions in a single sentence:

"At the moment the only people who are professing wholesale desegregation are extreme Unionists who believe that this is as good a stick as any to beat the Catholics with"3.


For Reasonable People

This booklet, however, is not written in reply to anything which extremist politicians—either left or right—have said about Catholic schools. The person I want to talk to is the reasonable man or woman, Protestant or Catholic, who genuinely believes that there is a good case for integrated education, particularly in the context of Northern Ireland, and who would like to hear the case on the other side. I have often met such people and have had long discussions with them. I particularly remember one such discussion with the late Jack Sayers, then editor of the Belfast Telegraph, and I still recall with pleasure the remark which he made as we parted. "Do you know," he said, "I think I am beginning to see your side of the case." That is all I hope to achieve in this booklet - to help honest enquirers to begin to see the Catholic side of the case.


Preparing for Life

Some time ago Lord Ritchie Calder, the well-known secular humanist, said in a television programme that he had brought up his children in the belief that they must be kind to others. Now, coming from Lord Ritchie Calder, this was an interesting statement. As a secular humanist, Lord Calder has no religious beliefs. But he accepts, quite rightly, the principle that he ought to rear his children in a belief which he holds very strongly and very sincerely—that one should be kind to others.

In acting according to this principle Lord Calder was, of course, doing what conscientious parents do almost instinctively. They realise that their duty as parents is not just to feed and clothe their children; they must ‘prepare them for life’. They prepare them for life firstly by developing their physical, mental and other powers to the full and secondly by training them in certain principles of life which they believe to be true and important - for example, the principles of self-control, of concern for others, of responsibility for the future, and so on.

When the parents themselves are persons of religious belief this principle obviously takes on wider implications. For such a person the most important thing about life is that we have been created by a God who loves us. And the most important principle of life is that it should be lived for the love of God "who first loved us". We must love our fellow-man, not because of some kind of herd-instinct, but because "every man is my brother", a child of the same Father who loves us both.

Obviously a parent who believes in these truths will feel bound to transmit them to his children and to rear his children in accordance with them. Just as Lord Calder felt bound to teach his children when they were toddlers to be kind to the kids next door so the Christian mother will feel bound to tell the children at her knee about the good God and how He came to this earth to show us that He loved us and how He died for us all, including the children next door. She will feel bound to train them to talk to God in their own words, and as they grow older she will explain that we must live our lives according to the teaching of Our Lord and the law of God.

In all this the Christian mother is doing nothing that a humanist could conceivably object to. She is simply applying his own principle to her own beliefs. While Lord Calder would not agree with her beliefs he would be the last person to deny her right to have them or indeed her duty to rear her children in accordance with them.


Home and School

Let us follow the career of the young Ritchie Calders one step further. I do not know what school they went to but of one thing I am certain - it was a school where children were taught and trained to be kind to others.

In other words I am quite sure that their father accepted the principle that it is not enough to inculcate certain principles of life into the children at home; it is necessary to ensure that they grow up in an environment where these beliefs and principles are accepted and acted upon.

The thing is obvious. No parent in his senses would ignore the character and atmosphere of the school to which he sends his children. He would never say, for example, "The discipline in that school is awful, but we are quite happy to send our children there because we teach them sound principles of discipline at home". Everyone knows that the home and the school have a vital influence on the formation of the child for life and that the influence of the home can be greatly weakened, and perhaps even cancelled out, if it is not reinforced by the influence of the school.

The curious thing is that the humanists will agree with all this - but in another context. Thus in pointing out, quite correctly, that a child from an irreligious home will not normally become religious merely by being sent to a Church school, the British Humanist Association says:

"…religious education given at school will be ineffective unless it is strongly supported by the home"4.

But is the reverse not equally true? Can one not say, with equal force:

"religious education given at home will be ineffective unless it is strongly supported by the school"5.

The fact is that the child’s basic formation for life, whether social, moral or religious, is likely to be gravely affected if the two great formative influences, home and school, do not corroborate and support each other. The formation of the child is a continuous process between the home and the school; the one should be, as far as basic truths and principles are concerned, a continuation of the other and if it is not the preparation of the child for life may be greatly weakened, if not rendered schizophrenic. There are those indeed who see one of the roots of the present ‘generation war’ between youth and their parents in the United States in the tension between the religious beliefs they learned at home and the purely secularist education which, the law insisted, they must be given in the State schools.


Shared Attitudes to Religion and Life

Perhaps this is the place to consider an argument which is often made, with great sincerity, by those who cannot see the need for Church schools. They will say:

"But you can have your religious instruction at a State school. A definite period can be set aside each day for religious instruction and the children can be separated into different classes according to their different denominations and the religious classes can be taken by teachers of their own denomination. What more do you want?"

What more, indeed. One must reply, with equal goodwill, that to argue in this way is to misunderstand completely what religious formation is about. Religion is not something Which is just learned, like the multiplication table. It is a way-of-life which has to be lived. It involves a basic attitude to life which affects all one’s other attitudes. Later on the child will have to live in a world of many religious beliefs and, increasingly, of no religious belief at all. But while he is growing up he has to learn to live his faith and he will do this with much greater security and confidence if he spends his school day in a place where this way of life is seen as something shared between parents, pupils and teachers alike.

Moreover, you cannot pack children off into different class-rooms for half-an-hour a day - "Catholics to the left, Protestants to the right, Agnostics in the centre" - without making them wonder if the difference between various religious beliefs, or between religion and no religion at all, is not just a matter of taste or practical usefulness, like the difference between French, Irish and German, for which they are also sent into different class-rooms. If the parents want their children to absorb deeply a certain religious attitude towards life then that attitude must be present, like background music, in the school in which they spend so much of their young lives. It does not mean that the school must be talking religion every hour of the day, any more than that the parents should be talking religion all the time at home (which would probably be the worst possible religious formation). But it does mean that the children are living their school-day in an atmosphere where the religious attitude to life of their parents is taken for granted and where it is reflected, even if only beneath the surface, in the approach to life of the teachers themselves.

This is a point which Mr. Harold Macmillan, former Prime Minister in Great Britain, emphasised very much in a speech last year in support of Church schools.

"Church schools", he said, "mean something more than the teaching of Scripture and the Bible. They mean something more than religious instruction or attendance at Church. They mean an opportunity for the children to be brought up in a religious atmosphere which is something precious and in which they can consciously or unconsciously absorb the traditions of Christian life and civilisation"6.


The Attitudes of the Teachers

Probably the most important factor in preserving this "religious atmosphere" of the school is the attitude towards religion of the teachers, Their faith, or unfaith, will breathe into the air of the school. It may be just a gesture of the teacher, like blessing himself at the sound of the Angelus bell, or an incidental remark, like asking the children to pray for his wife who is ill; or it may be simply the teacher’s way of commenting on a few lines about religion in a text-book of English or history. Whatever way it shows itself the teacher’s religious faith is bound to seep through and it will be borne in on the child that he is living in a world which accepts the same basic truths and attitudes to life as he is used to at home. The world of the school links up with the world of the home; home and school are helping each other.

And the reverse is also true. If the child spends much of the most important years of his life, when his very character and personality are being formed and developed, in a world where religious belief has no influence and is perhaps never even mentioned, then an invaluable strengthening of the influence of the home is lost. If the teacher under whose care the child is placed for a whole year, or perhaps several years, is an atheist or an agnostic, then one can be certain that the child will eventually perceive this and some of it may well rub off on him7. This is patently true of children at secondary or grammar school; it is only slightly less true of the older children at a primary school. The eyes and ears of these children are much more perceptive of their elders than they generally reveal. In a school where this ‘religious atmosphere’ is absent the religious influence of the home is left unsupported and may even be negatived.


The Background of the School

The character of the teachers, from the point of view of religious belief, is probably the most important factor in a ‘Church’ school. It is not, of course, the only factor. A crucifix in the class-room, an ‘altar’ to Our Lady decorated with flowers in the month of May, a Christmas crib, the recitation of the same familiar prayers in the school as the children are used to at home and at church on Sunday - all these and similar ‘little’ things contribute to the background of the school8.

Now this background or atmosphere, this continuity between home, school and church, cannot be maintained in a State school. Many people, I know, will suggest that ‘Agreed Syllabus’ Christianity should be enough. But a lowest-common-denominator religion as between Catholics and Protestants, while it would stress many important religious truths, would be an utterly lifeless thing as far as the deep religious formation of the child is concerned. It is true that there is a certain common denominator as between the various Protestant faiths which may make some kind of agreed syllabus tolerable for them - although even on this point complaints are widespread about ‘watered-down Christianity’. For Catholics such an agreed syllabus would be bereft of some of the richest strands in their doctrinal and devotional life. All sorts of subjects would be taboo - the Mass, the Rosary, praying for souls in Purgatory and, of course, the Pope; so also would Catholic moral beliefs on such subjects as abortion and divorce. I realise that many people will find it hard to appreciate that for Catholics a Christian education pared down to the bone would be just that, a thing without flesh or blood. I can only ask them to believe that it is true.

I remember hearing of a small incident a few years ago which, in an oblique sort of way, may illustrate this type of difficulty. It was a school for tiny tots (under-fives) and while it was owned and staffed by Catholics a number of Protestant parents in the district were anxious to send their under-fives there since it was the only school of its kind in that particular district. As it happened, the school in question, like many Catholic schools, was built alongside a Catholic church. During the play-break in the morning the Catholic toddlers used to love to stomp into the church "to make a visit". They would splash their hands into the holy-water font, march up the aisle in the way that only children ‘making a visit’ do, genuflect before the tabernacle, bless themselves, say a few prayers, and then march out again. After some months one of the Protestant parents called at the school, a most polite and friendly woman - but a worried woman. She asked very gently whether it was part of the regime of the school that all the children make visits to the church. The puzzled teachers made enquiries and to their horror discovered that many of the Protestant children were now ‘making visits’, were blessing themselves with holy water with as much abandon as the Catholic children and were marching up the aisle, genuflecting and going through the whole routine - and thoroughly enjoying themselves. The teachers realised that the Protestant mother’s anxiety was perfectly justified. One of them thereafter was detailed to stand at the door of the church to keep the Protestant children out - to the children’s deep and tearful disappointment. This was obviously not a solution so in the end they had to prohibit all the children, Catholic and Protestant, from ‘making visits’.

It’s not an exact illustration of what I was trying to say a few paragraphs back but I think it is not entirely irrelevant. Take it as a parable.


Secularising State Schools

In the Catholic view, therefore, a State school - even with the existing provisions for religion - is a poor substitute for a school which preserves full continuity with the religious life of the home. What people do not always realise, however, is that even these provisions are being heavily criticised and it is quite likely only a matter of time until religion is banished from State schools altogether.

The campaign in Britain to secularise the State schools completely is growing in strength every year and the Department of Education there is increasingly having to pay attention to it. As far back as 1966 the Times Educational Supplement said editorially:

"Times have changed when a Minister of State for Education (Mr. Redwood) can admit that his department is ‘watching carefully’ the movement of public opinion towards secular education and the abolition of religious education in schools"9.

Some time later the then Secretary of State for Education, Mr. Edward Short, himself a committed Christian, uttered what sounded very like a cry of alarm at the growth of the movement:

"This is the point at which all who care about the preservation of the Christian character of our country must man the barricades".

Last year both Twenty-four Hours and The World at One mounted special programmes on what David Lomax described as "the growing campaign to abolish religious education in the schools".

Does anyone believe that this movement will not go on gaining strength? Religious belief is declining in Britain. The number of people - and therefore the number of teachers - who are committed christians is getting less and less every year. Already there are complaints about professed agnostics having to take religious classes in order not to place an unfair burden on their colleagues who do believe. At the moment, indeed, the only thing which appears to be giving religion a foothold in the State schools in Britain is the fact that public opinion polls indicate that the majority there, while not committed christians themselves, evidently feel that a little religion in the schools is "good for the children". Would anyone call this a firm foothold or feel confident that it will be retained for another generation?

Once the State schools are secularised in Britain it will not be long before the movement for a similar change gathers strength in Northern Ireland. In fact it is already with us. Last year the Belfast Humanist Group sent a 10-point memorandum to the Minister of Education seeking to have sections 21-27 of the 1947 Education Act rescinded10. This year Alison Jordan, writing in the Belfast Telegraph on "integrated schools", concluded:

"One of the first essentials for a twentieth century attempt at integrated education must surely be the complete exclusion of all religious instruction"11.


Importance of Religion in Education

By now the reader may feel like saying "I think perhaps you may be attaching too much importance to the religious element in education. And, in any event, in a Northern Ireland context, surely community harmony should come first". These are two understandable reactions and I shall conclude by commenting on them.

As to the first point, I do not think the Catholic position attaches too much importance to religion in the schools. On the contrary, I believe that attaching too little importance to religion has been one of the root causes of the deep-seated crisis which is overtaking Western civilisation at the present time. People in the Western world who have lost all religious belief are, consciously or subconsciously, coming to realise that without God life is meaningless - and they are frightened. The "motiveless murders", the escape into the world of drugs, the growing obsession with sexual perversion, may be seen in this context. If there is no God then the human race is simply so much moss growing on a lump of matter hurtling through space - and all our high hopes are mockeries. Camus was perfectly logical when he said "Because there is no God, life is absurd". Only religious belief can give life an ultimate meaning. And nothing can be more important than that. To regard the nurturing of a religious interpretation of life as something secondary or peripheral in education is a position which no thinking believer could accept, particularly at the present time12.

Viewed against this background I do not think it can be sustained that the Catholic Church attaches too much importance to the religious element in education.


Community Harmony

What then of the second point - that, important though religious education may be, community harmony should come first?

This argument assumes that separate schools for people of different religious beliefs is a divisive factor in a community. In fact all the evidence points the other way. In addition to Great Britain, there are many European countries with a mixed Catholic-Protestant population where Catholics have their own schools. In none of them, Great Britain, Germany or Holland, for example (where the proportion of Protestants to Catholics is roughly the same as in Northern Ireland) has the existence of separate schools created a divided community. The same thing is true of the United States and here the question is particularly interesting in that it has been the subject of a very detailed sociological study. In 1964 the National Opinion Research Centre in the United States began a nation-wide survey, financed by the Carnegie Corporation, into "The Education of Catholic Americans". Among the questions studied in depth was what was described as "the most frequent criticism levelled at Catholic schools—by both Catholics and non-Catholics"—namely (and the indictment might almost have been written in Northern Ireland):

"that they (Catholic schools) restrict interaction between Catholics and adults of other religious faiths, that they lead Catholics to a non-involvement in community activities, that they develop rigid and intolerant attitudes…etc."

The investigation was based on a scientifically-chosen sample; it lasted over two years and the results on this particular question of divisiveness fill eight detailed tables. Here are the conclusions of the official report:

"We could find no evidence that the products of such a separate system were less involved in community activities, less likely to have friends from other religious groups, more intolerant in their attitudes, or less likely to achieve occupationally or academically. On the contrary we found that they were slightly more successful in the world of study and work and, after the breaking point of college, much more tolerant. The achievement, and perhaps even the tolerance, seems to be related to the degree to which a young person was integrated into his religious subculture during adolescence".

"There is no trace of any divisive influence. Catholic-school Catholics are just as likely to be interested in community affairs and to have non-Catholic visitors, friends, neighbours and co-workers as are public school Catholics". "We could find no evidence that parochial schools tend to alienate individual Catholics from their communities … Parochial school Catholics were as involved in community affairs as anyone else of comparable occupational position".

"Are Catholic-school Catholics more rigid and intolerant than those who did not go to Catholic schools? The answer once again is negative. Catholic-school Catholics are actually more tolerant with regard to civil liberties and are no more anti-negro, anti-Semitic or anti-Protestant"13.


Causes of Division

The general impression which one gets by looking at countries like Great Britain, Germany or Holland is thus confirmed when the situation in one country, the United States, is put under the microscope - Catholic schools are not of their nature community-divisive.

Since this is so it would seem logical to conclude that the divisions in the community in Northern Ireland are due to other causes. This is, of course, something which everybody knows already. The divisions in the Northern Ireland community are due to deep historical, social and political causes and specifically to two which still exist:

(a) the fear of many Protestants that Catholics, if a curb is not put on them, will eventually become a majority of the population and vote them into a united Ireland;
(b) the anger of many Catholics who believe that the curbs which are put on them, specifically on jobs, housing and local government franchise, are essentially unjust.

I am convinced that these two causes can be eliminated, with time and patience. What I am anxious to stress here, however, is that these are in fact the real causes of the divided community in Northern Ireland - not separate schooling.


Towards Mutual Respect and Goodwill

It is not just a question of people "getting to know each other". To put the matter more directly - sending the children to the same school will not produce the houses or the jobs or revise the local government boundaries. It is for that reason that the "reform programme" is so vitally important. If it is carried through with sincerity and momentum it will produce a new climate of harmony and goodwill - perhaps not as soon as legislation is passed but when the fruit of such legislation begins to appear on the trees. In such a community of mutual respect and goodwill separate schools will no more produce a divided community than they do today in Great Britain, or Holland or Germany or the United States.

I have tried to show that the position of the Catholic Church14 on schools is based on the most serious religious grounds and that it is reasonable and logical and of enormous value to children entering the world of today. The most precious gift which parents can give their children to-day is a deep-seated commitment to a Christian faith. For parents - or for the Church - to place that gift in jeopardy would be to take on a very grave responsibility.15

+ William Cardinal Conway
8 December 1970



(1) I sometimes wonder why it is always the catholic Church which is singled out in this regard. The Protestant Churches are very determined (rightly so, I believe) to retain their own schools in the Republic and to hold on to the very considerable rights which they have over ‘transferred’ county schools in Northern Ireland.

(2) Mr. Brian Walker, January, 1970.

(3) "Times Educational Supplement", 28 November, 1970.

(4) "Religion in the Schools", The British Humanist Association, October, 1970.

(5) It is not suggested that this will invariably happen in every case. There are many individual cases of outstanding Catholics who did not go to a Catholic school when they were young. One is speaking of what is likely to happen in the generality of cases.

(6) At the opening of an extension to a Church of England secondary school, April 1969.

(7) Here the argument is sometimes advanced that since the child will be living in a pluralist society of atheists, agnostics and persons of various religious faiths, he should be prepared for this by being sent to a school which is a miniature of this kind of world.
But surely this argument ignores a fundamental principle of education - that a child is like a young plant which needs some shelter from harsh elements until it has grown strong. No parent in his senses would argue "we know that our child will have to live in a very naughty world and therefore we propose to send him to a naughty school to prepare."

(8) It cannot be said, therefore, that a school in which even the majority of the teachers and pupils are Catholic, but where the teaching and atmosphere - outside the religious instruction class - must be ‘neutral’ as regards religious belief, is a Catholic school in the real sense of the term.

(9) "The Times Educational Supplement", 22 April, 1966.

(10) "The Belfast Telegraph", 12 April, 1969.

(11) "The Belfast Telegraph", 10 August 1970.

(12)The importance of a satisfactory religious education from the point of view of morals scarcely needs to be stressed. In an editorial on 4 April 1969, "The Times Educational Supplement" said: "Religion is the most powerful support morality can have, stronger than reason, which is easily swayed by self-interest, because religion places morality in the solemn context of man's higher nature and destiny. When Christians consider the moral failure of society, amounting to what in historical terms can rightly be called decadeance, they rightly associate it with a wholesale defection from religion".

(13) "The Education of Catholic Americans", Greely and Rossi, Chicago, 1967.

(14) Needless to say this policy is not peculiar to Northern Ireland; it obtains throughout the Catholic Church. The whole question was debated by the Second Vatican Council which affirmed the duty of Catholics to send their children to Catholic schools, when and where this is possible. The following is an extract from a Pastoral Letter to his people issued by Cardinal Frings of Cologne (generally regarded by the media as one of the most ‘liberal’ of the bishops at the Council) some time after the Second Vatican Council "The Catholic school gives to teachers possibilities of upbringing that only a Church school is able to give. Here Catholic children are brought up by Catholic teachers in the spirit of the Catholic faith. Here the children receive not only a grounding in the catechism but the whole atmosphere of the school can convey the stamp of the faith . . . If you have children that are to be enrolled in school during these weeks, then enrol them in a Catholic school . . . Don’t be led astray into transferring your children from the Catholic school to another type of school, just because here and there the school-building is nicer or the way there a bit shorter" (Pastoral Letter, 10 August, 1966).

(15) That catholic schools do in fact have a consolidating and strengthening effect on the commitment of the children to their faith is borne out by several sociological studies, including Greeley and Rossi, whose conclusion (on the influence of Catholic schools on subsequent religious behaviour) is: "Indeed it seems to us that, all things considered, the schools had done a reasonably adequate job at what they had set out to do" (op. cit. p. 113). The effect is particularly noticeable in the case of children—as is the case with most Irish children—who come from a strong religious home background. See also "The Tablet", 16 December 1967, for a report on an Australian survey. It is not suggested, of course, that the effect of Catholic schools on religious commitment is something which can be accurately measured by these external tests.


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