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Catholic schools need a surer faith

The election of a new pontiff resurrects hopes of a Church in touch with the young, says Jennifer Baker

The death of John Paul II has brought sadness to many. He was a Pope who travelled the world to spread a message of justice and peace instead of closeting himself in the Vatican as most of the previous Popes did. His motives, I am sure, were of the highest. But he was also a Pope whose reign saw an exodus of the faithful from the churches.

He alienated thinking Catholics with, among others, his proclamations on birth control, the role of women in the Church, homosexuality and the continuing ban on the use of condoms in countries stricken by Aids.

It has been uplifting to watch the pictures from St Peter's Square - the cameras homing in on the tear-stained faces of young men and women, there to be present at a historic moment. These same young people have been interviewed sharing their grief with viewers around the world.

But it is true to say that the Catholic teaching they have received in schools since the late 1970s has been dominated by outdated and dangerous proclamations on many issues, at a time when they are seeking guidance and a way to deal with the responsibility of being a grown-up in a post-millennium era.

I taught for many years in Catholic schools and my children were educated in Catholic schools. I even taught RE for a year. I confess I made no attempt to convince my classes that contraception was a sin or homosexuality an abomination. The department I taught in was enlightened.

It encouraged students to think for themselves, while at the same time stressing rigorous morality. Indeed, it was this department and those students who started Homeless Action in the town and gave shelter to homeless people over the Christmas period.

But this was the 1980s and the curriculum has tightened up considerably since then. Catholic religious education, and particularly that of sexual morality, has failed almost two generations of adolescents as their sexuality cannot be discussed with them; instead they get a list of "don'ts". That worked for the generation before. We were terrified of becoming pregnant because the social stigma was such that any who did were regarded as pariahs by parents, teachers and priests alike.

Contraceptives were not easily obtained so everyone was just very, very careful. For some, of course, the inevitable happened and the rest of us looked on with sympathy and a lot of "there but for the grace of God". Most of us married young for obvious reasons but, even then, the Church followed us into our marital beds (How Far Can You Go?, by David Lodge, is worth a read). Homosexuality, for the most part, we knew nothing about.

We wanted better for our children and, briefly after Vatican II, we thought it was coming. As parents and educators we were excited, but patient and willing to wait because we knew that the wheels of change grind exceeding slow in the Vatican. When at last, in 1978, an actor, skier, footballer, non-Italian Pope was elected, we thought the time had come. We were mistaken. On the contrary, the wind of change that had threatened to blow through the Vatican died to nothing and religious education was becalmed.

Things became worse. Divorced Catholic teachers were sacked when they remarried; children were and are exposed to sexual incontinence which is glorified in the adulation of celebrity as never before and have been given no help at all other than "don't" (not a useful word when dealing with teenagers). Paedophile priests are not condemned loudly enough. Even now, in 2005, Bishop Joseph Devine, president of the Catholic Education Commission in Scotland, has declared that homosexual teachers should not be employed in Catholic schools.

What message is being transmitted to our young? "Love your neighbour" is certainly absent and is replaced by paranoia. The basic and very simple tenets of Christianity have been lost in a tangle of theological mumbo-jumbo. The exclusion of women from any position of influence within the Church is medieval and sends a message to young girls that conflicts with the education that they are receiving in all other areas.

So, forgive me, Holy Father. I liked you, I admired your stance in all sorts of political conflicts but I don't like what is being taught in Catholic schools. Once again, I hope . . .

Jennifer Baker was formerly faculty head in a secondary school and now teaches part-time in the west Highlands.

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