Teach what he preaches

11th October 1996 at 01:00
Radical teachers in Catholic schools have faced a dilemma for months: shut up or get out. Their silence over the Bishop Wright affair reflects the suffocating power of traditionalists and the Section 13 'Catholic police', says Ian Feely. When Bishop Roderick Wright became the latest cleric to lose patience with the celibacy laws of the Catholic church, there was a strange silence from thousands of radical Catholic teachers over the issues raised by his case.

Are we to assume that they are all happy with the celibacy laws, that they have no views on married clergy, women priests, contraception, authority, women's and children's rights?

The truth is more disturbing: their silence could be based on fear, for there has been a reactionary backlash throughout the Catholic church and its schools in the past decade.

As headteacher of one of the biggest Catholic comprehensives in Britain, I used to begin talks to prospective parents by emphasising our commitment to equal opportunities: "We want our young women to leave at 18 with the skills and the ambition to become the captains of industry, the scientists, the surgeons, the lawyers and the politicians of the future. We want them to play a major part in the leadership of the Church. It is my hope and prayer that one day one of our students will become the first woman Pope."

Most parents and a few parish priests would smile and nod approval. One year, a plump young cleric scowled disapproval, distancing himself both from the levity and from this heresy. Last November, the Pope gave our grim cleric and his zealot allies the ammunition they wanted to stifle decades of radicalism in Catholic comprehensives.

The Pope ordered Catholics to give "irrevocable assent" not only to infallible statements, but to all statements related to revealed truth. He decreed that there would never be women priests in the Catholic church. He underlined rulings against a married clergy, against any form of artificial means of contraception, against any abortion and against any divorce. On these matters his authority was final and infallible.

This was a massive extension of authority, without consultation, that put radicals in Catholic schools in a dilemma: shut up or get out. I couldn't express my hopes about women priests today. The Catholic Times stepped up the pressure: "There are some who feel that they can remain within the Church whilst denying much of what she teaches." The paper criticised radicals and quoted Bishop Jukes as demanding that if radicals can't accept authentic Catholic teaching they "must be sacked". Teachers were intimidated.

This backlash against radical Catholic schools is doubly effective because the Government has extended opportunities for traditionalists to inspect and dominate our 2,600 schools. Their agenda is enforced by "Section 13" inspectors under the 1992 Education Act, which requires governors of Catholic schools to ensure that religious education is inspected every four years. Officials from the Department for Education and Employment admit that they have handed over the right to appoint and train Section 13 inspectors to the Church. After issuing dogmatic guidelines drawn up by the National Board of Religious Inspectors (NBRI) and the Catholic Education Service (CES), the hierarchy passed implementation on to dioceses. Inspectors are hand-picked to "follow Peter". They turn up alongside OFSTED teams and police Catholicism.

Section 13 inspectors investigate the percentage of non-Catholic students and teachers in each school. On average, more than 40 per cent of teachers in RC schools are Anglican and Nonconformist. Most were appointed in the tolerant Eighties when inspections were supportive and ecumenicism a serious objective.

One diocese, concerned about the increase in non-Catholic teachers and pupils, commissioned a report in 1991 which commented: "Although there are no national guidelines on admissions policies, there is a view that a School's Mission is impaired when it admits more than 10 per cent non-Catholics."

Similar scrutiny is applied to teachers: "The national survey and the diocesan figures show that the proportions of Catholic teachers continue to decrease and that special measures need to be taken locally and nationally to redress the balance."

Some dioceses use a formula: "The diocesan commission, in its excellent guidance on the appointment of teachers, includes specific advice on questions and techniques relating to the Catholic ethos of the school," states the report, which seems to encourage biased interviews.

A recent survey by Oxford Brookes University reveals that headteacher vacancies have reached a six-year high. Catholic schools find it much more difficult than other schools to fill vacancies for headships, with one post in three being re-advertised. According to the survey, candidates are alienated because they fear "excessive meddling from parish priests". Section 13 inspections systematise that meddling.

To dominate the whole curriculum they demand dogmatic mission statements. The NBRI, in its Handbook on the Inspection of Catholic Schools, insists that the report "should include an assessment about the quality of the mission statement as an expression of the Catholic faith at the centre of school life". The management team must identify precisely what it does to enhance the traditional Catholic ethos: "There is little evidence of how the Catholic nature of a school is evaluated by the senior management, department, or pastoral staff, " says the CES in a review of Section 13 reports. Heads of department are quizzed about what they do to enhance the Catholic ethos. The whole school curriculum is to be assessed in terms of the way in which it reflects the mission statement and the aims and objectives of the school in terms of its Catholic purpose and identity, says the NBRI Handbook.

Inspectors urge that RE departments should be staffed by specialists. "The number of non-specialist teachers and the wide range of rooms in which RE is taught impose problems of organisation and management," grumbles one report. There is pressure to get ordinary Catholic teachers out of RE departments and replace them with specialists in doctrine. This sounds plausible until it is realised that the Vatican's version of Catholicism is often remote from city adolescents.

Section 13 reports allow no deviation from traditional dogma. "The content of RE must be based on detailed knowledge of the teaching of the Church . . . The point of reference is the catechism of the Catholic Church," says the Handbook. The word Christian, which used to dominate, is replaced by Catholic. RE is now so inflexible and unpopular that there is a chronic shortage of gifted teachers.

Section 13 inspectors closely monitor sex education courses. The CES spells out its expectations: "Catholic faith has a distinctive understanding of the human person," it intones. Inspectors are required to identify if this distinctiveness is emphasised in schools: "Is there a programme for sex education?" Once that has been found, "How does the school ensure that the content of the programme is always set within the Catholic context?" How indeed? Heads use traditional courses because they want to survive. One startling example of reactionary power illustrates the pitfalls radicals face.

In the early Nineties, an educational pack, HIV Prevention: A Christian Response, was being used in RC schools with the approval of Archbishop O'Brien (the man now standing in for Roderick Wright). It was enlightened, practical and unfettered with any diktats against condoms. Outraged traditionalists informed Cardinal Ratzinger, who leads the Pope's Holy Office. He cracked the whip in a letter to Archbishop O'Brien. The cardinal, on behalf of the Congregation for the Faith, "requested" the archbishop to withdraw his imprimatur from the pack.

The archbishop submitted. In a letter to the Tablet on December 30, 1995, his episcopal vicar for education fell over backwards to appease Cardinal Ratzinger and the pack was banned. "There is no mention of the role of tradition and the Church's teaching authority in the formation of conscience." The pack "didn't evidence much conviction in telling young people to forgo sexual involvement. Implicitly the pack . . . favours the use of condoms". The archbishop's spokesman added: "Catholic schools are called upon to make their own contribution to the prevention of Aids in full fidelity to the moral teaching of the Catholic church without engaging in compromises which may even give the impression of condoning practices which are immoral, for example the use of condoms."

Most parents and teachers keep quiet. Few dare risk zealot wrath. Secretly, a grim struggle rages. The row that erupted over the successor to Derek Worlock for Liverpool archdiocese symbolises the conflict between Left and Right. Catholic radicals are now advocating Christian or multi-faith schools, because zealot sectarianism alienates teenagers, insults women and divides communities. Radicals have learned to challenge this streak in Catholicism which makes it susceptible to the notion that simple people and young people can be inspected, inquisited and intimidated into believing.

The zealots are not only wrong, they are unyielding. Their intolerance has already alienated thousands of teenagers from city churches. Now youngsters spiritually drift away from implacable schools whose tolerance and compassion used to nurture the last flickering light of faith and love in their lives. The supreme irony is that laws designed to bolster the power of the clergy are now blighting not only the young but also the mandarins themselves. Clearly, in the Nineties "irrevocable assent" is incompatible not just with children's rights but also with human dignity.

Ian Feely was a deputy and headteacher of a Catholic mixed comprehensive in East Sussex for more than 20 years

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