Obama Misrepresents Catholic Schools

Recently visiting Northern Ireland for the G8 meeting at Lough Erne, President Obama said this during his now-traditional speech to local young people:

If towns remain divided—if Catholics have their schools and buildings and Protestants have theirs, if we can’t see ourselves in one another and fear or resentment are allowed to harden—that too encourages division and discourages co-operation.

Northern Ireland has been plagued with sectarian resentment for over a century, and on first inspection one can understand, for a moment, the President’s point. Without a degree of assimilation between children at school, future peaceful co-existence between Catholic and Protestant is perhaps not made easier by living parallel lives in the community.

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But the President chose his words carefully: they were not off the cuff but rather part of a prepared speech that had been through repeated iterations (one hopes) where his advisors and speech writers honed and crafted his words to give effect to the intentions the President sought to get across—and it is this that gives cause for concern.

Obama is a bad friend to Catholics, particularly in his own country: the contraceptive mandate in the Affordable Care Act famously threatens the freedoms of conscience and religion of faith-based organizations as well as private businesses that oppose artificial contraceptives and abortion.

As with healthcare, so with schooling: both are trumped and squashed by the President’s socialism—at least if you are Catholic. Contrast his recent comments to graduates at the historic black college Morehouse in Atlanta:

Be a good role model and set a good example for that young brother coming up. If you know somebody who’s not on point, go back and bring that brother along—those who’ve been left behind, who haven’t had the same opportunities we have—they need to hear from you.

No criticisms about African-Americans having their schools and buildings and white Americans having theirs, then. The President is silent about the need for diversity when his own interest groups consider it harmful.

I wonder, as a Briton, whether his staffers had been doing a bit of Googling before drafting his Belfast speech. It is no coincidence that a new campaign to end state-funding of religious schooling was launched just before his visit. The so-called “Fair Admissions Campaign” pledges to “open up all state-funded schools to all children, without regard to religion.” Prominent in its list of supporters are trade unions, anti-religion campaigners and the Liberal Democrats—pretty much the British equivalent of the President’s own Democrat party.

The disingenuousness of the FAC’s motley crew, of unreconstructed Marxists and über-liberal self-hating religious who seek to hollow out the content of any restrictive religious practices in their desire to be as committed to their idea of “social justice” as possible, is breath-taking.

Take the “Inclusive Schools” Campaign in Richmond (‘RISC’), a leafy suburb in South West London. In response to over 1100 parents petitioning for two new Catholic schools to be built, the Diocese of Westminster agreed and put together the necessary proposals.  Rather than oppose the idea outright, the British Humanist Association and RISC sought an expensive and time-delaying judicial review on the grounds that schools which could “only” select 50% rather than 80% Catholic pupils would be within the law.

Mercifully, the backwoodsmen lost to the will of the local community.

Unlike the US, the British state funds religious schools. Most are Church of England and about 10% of all state schools—some 2150—are voluntary-aided primary (elementary) and second (high) schools run by the Catholic Church.

It’s not hard to fathom why Catholic and non-Catholic parents alike demand more Catholic-run schooling. Ofsted, the independent inspector of all schooling in Britain, produced data showing that, between 2005 and 2009, teaching and learning outcomes, curricular and extra-curricular activities, and the quality of care, guidance and support are all likely to be better in faith schools than non-faith schools.

Catholic schooling performed particularly well across the board in the personal development and maturation of pupils. Eight out of ten Catholic primary schools were likely to be judged “outstanding” in their overall effectiveness, compared to seven out of ten nationally. For secondary schools, the numbers were eight out of ten compared to only six out of ten nationally.

Not only are the standards better in Catholic schools than state-run secular schools in Britain, but they are more diverse: 27% pupils in Catholic schools are from ethnic minority backgrounds compared to 22.5% in other schools—but Catholics permanently expel almost a third fewer children (00.9% compared to 0.11%).

The data show Catholic schools promote diversity and tolerance in children beyond their state equivalents, and studies repeatedly show religious schooling as more conducive to building social cohesion and contributing to their community.

So President Obama was grasping for a familiar trope when he described religious schooling as particularly divisive. He wasn’t actually speaking to the Northern Irish people; he was stating his Administration’s line on religious schooling and its mistaken belief that confessional teaching fragments rather than binds.

The truth is, every child needs a robust, deep and nourishing standpoint from which to view all other viewpoints. Christian schooling emphasizes in its ethos the virtuous and responsible person, imbued with dignity and capable of reasonably and respectfully engaging with others. It produces citizens, not subjects.


  • Peter Smith

    Peter Smith is a lawyer living and working in London. He has previously worked in Parliament for Sir Edward Leigh MP.

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