Here to stay, contradictions and all;Opinion

19th June 1998 at 01:00
Pop pickers may recall a favourite from the Fifties whose name I cannot remember, but which had the chorus: "Put him in a box, tie it with a ribbon and throw it in the deep blue sea." There is something appealing about having things wrapped up, preferably tied up with no loose ends hanging around to give the whole thing a bad look, and if they are offensive we want rid of them.

As the session wears over in the El Nino of recurring loose ends, sensitive instruments can detect a more significant tilt than usual towards the perennial issue of Catholic schools, as we now savour the heady bouquet of a Scottish parliament, devolution, independence and even the millennium. Cred is essential for those who would tie loose ends, and questioning the continuing existence of Catholic schools is a good ratings grabber.

The Liberal Democrats reached for the trailing tabs a while ago, conceding uneasily that in a democracy people cannot be forced into giving up their rights, but falling naturally and easily into the definition-position that Catholic schools are prejudiced, and that their supporters must be persuaded, consensed and agreed into giving them up. The Labour Party at prayer - the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland - went one further, with calls to commit itself to getting rid of Catholic schools when the Scottish parliament convenes. Carefully sidestepping hot-blooded appeals for instant action (exactly what escapes me), further discussion was called for.

Now the Educational Institute of Scotland is contemplating discussion of the lawfulness of the 1918 legislation that allows denominational schools to make appointments according to religious belief and character. All consenting parties to the Dump Catholic Schools vogue surely know full well that the Church is not going to do a flip-flop, put its paws in the air and ask shamefacedly to turn in its educational dinner pail just because some establishment luminaries strike some subtly modulated critical poses. I thought that everyone had grasped by this time that any questioning of the existence of the Catholic school, any chipping at the system, is terminated by reference to its legal position. There is no flexibility of perspective in this, no easy-oasy let's talk this over. On Catholic schools, it is a full-stop position.

While I have tried to hint that tidying up the perceived loose ends of society, like Catholic schools, may be some kind of "millennium chic", have I got bad news for the targeteers. Recently the Congregation for Catholic Education sent out a letter, the Catholic School on the Threshold of the Third Millennium. Though couched in the obscure Vaticanese beloved of such congregations, its message is quite clear. Catholic schools are here to stay. It is no head in the sand effort, but on the contrary reminds readers that Catholic schools have God at their heart. They can have targets, aims, objectives, whatever the flavour of the moment is, but they are places of faith and formation. They are an organic part of the Catholic community, and the letter echoes the concern felt in that community that partnership of home, school and parish must be strengthened. The Catholic school has and transmits values, not least of which is the preference for the poor, to whom society offers little.

It suggests we are all in it together, stressing that it depends on the Catholic teacher whether the Catholic school achieves its purpose. It encourages parental participation at every level. There is a kind of gutsiness about this missive that puts into perspective the insipid indifference or the echoing spuriousness of Jock Tamsonism that I think would take the place of Catholic schools if their earnest opponents had their way.

One feature of Catholic schools isn't mentioned. Like all things Christian are supposed to be, they are a "sign of contradiction", and as such will always be a loose end destined for a box, a ribbon and a watery grave.

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