Prophets of the Future: Catholic schools and Sectarianism

In this series, 4th year primary Catholic Teaching Certificate students share the findings of their studies on an elective course entitled Prophets of a Future not our Own: Catholic Schools and Contemporary Issues.

Aimee McCallum, MEduc4 student

Photo by Markus Spiske on Pexels.com

‘All Catholic education is Christocentric’ according to Keiran and Hession (2005: 123), thus the common aim within Catholic education is for all members of the community to demonstrate a likeness to Christ.

The ‘Charter for Catholic Schools in Scotland commits all Catholic schools to honour Jesus Christ through ‘a commitment to communicate Catholic social teaching and thereby to promote social justice and opportunity for all’, and to live guided by Gospel values. Despite the centenary year of Catholic education in Scotland, 2018, focusing on the positive contribution Catholic education has had on Scotland, critics such as Tom Woods, Professor Grayling and Sheriff Richard Davidson have claimed that Catholic schools are responsible for sectarianism in Scotland. However, what evidence do critics have? Headlines such as ‘if we want to end sectarianism, we must abolish Catholic schools’ (Goring, 2019), make bold claims, but where is the evidence of Catholic schools are promoting sectarianism? If Catholic schools are to promote and live by Gospel values, there is no place for the promotion of sectarianism despite critics such as the former Deputy Chief Constable of Police Scotland, Tom Wood (2019), claiming Catholic schools foster and promote sectarianism.

What is the social concept of ‘sectarianism’, and do Catholic schools create division along sectarian lines?

Sectarianism

Stephen McKinney (2015) has highlighted there are multiple understandings of ‘sectarian’ and ‘sectarianism’, however both refer to a distinction between sects, whereby each sect is exclusive and holds a distinctive ideology shared amongst its members. Although a sect can exist within art, politics, or science, in Scotland sectarianism refers to hostility between Roman Catholics and Protestants. In attempts to tackle sectarianism in Scotland, the Scottish Government commissioned an Advisory Group to move forward from sectarianism as a society, defining sectarianism in Scotland as:

‘a mixture of perceptions, attitudes, actions and structures that involved overlooking, excluding, discriminating against or being abusive or violent towards others on the basis of their perceived Christian denominational background. This perception is always mixed with other factors such as, but not confined to, politics, football allegiance and national identity’ (Morrow et al, 2015: 5).

This working definition highlights that prejudices and stereotypes have allowed sectarianism to manifest across generations, creating a persisting issue which cannot be solved in isolation as intolerances are translated into actions at micro, meso and macro level.

Therefore, it can be argued a sect involves an exclusive understanding of religious beliefs to cultivate a shared identity, however, the connection to religion is often questionable despite claims that sects are founded in historical religious roots. McKinney argues against the validity of these claims labelling them as ‘selective, self-serving or semi-mythical’, thus highlighting sectarianism is often a front for the justification of the marginalisation, alienation and demonisation of groups stigmatised as the ‘other’.  This ultimately highlights that sectarianism, although closely connected to religion and football, is a social problem resulting in extremist behaviours that unfortunately permeates Scottish society.

To address this social problem, Fuller and Myers (2003) advocate increased awareness, policy determination and reform. As social problems are complex, there may be various causes and effects which require a multitude of solutions, therefore, by increasing public awareness, engaging in discussions to find a means to an end and reform by creating legalisation to combat the issue, in theory, attitudinal changes can occur.

Catholic Schools: Good for Scotland?

Reports by the Scottish Government (2005 and 2015) have clearly indicated that Catholic schools should not be held accountable for causing sectarianism, and there is no evidence to support claims of Catholic schools being a contributor. Similarly, Catholic schools are situated globally and educate without accusations of cultivating sectarian beliefs and attitudes, instead reflecting their specific social, cultural, local and national contexts (Flint, 2012). Thus, highlighting sectarianism as a social problem caused by Catholic schools can be a reminder of a lost Protestant culture in Scotland (Flint, 2012).

Charting a way forward

Nevertheless, as sectarianism is a social problem there will undoubtedly be individuals (including those associated with Catholic schools) who demonstrate sectarian beliefs and actions (McKinney and Conroy, 2014). If the person is an educator, the General Teaching Council for Scotland and SCES would investigate as this publicly contradicts the Charter for Catholic Schools in Scotland. Similarly, if this was a pupil, individual schools would handle the situation appropriately. However, various measures can be taken to raise awareness of sectarianism to avoid reaching this stage, and there are various projects which aim to tackle sectarianism in Scotland through government funding. Using resources devised by these projects, including a programme with focus on educational, sporting and cultural activities, can raise awareness and ultimately allow learners to question social problems, thus enabling them to be ‘effective contributors’ as they are equipped with the knowledge and understanding to question social injustice in society.

Education is the most important tool in raising awareness of sectarianism, therefore, all schools in Scotland, denominational or non-denominational, have a responsibility to educate young people on the injustice of sectarianism, by providing a curriculum where the topic of sectarianism is integrated, to create a more harmonious future where the dignity of each person is respected.

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