Prophets of the Future 3: Sectarianism and Catholic Schools

In this series, MEduc4 students on the ‘Prophets of a Future not our Own: Catholic Schools and Contemporary Issues’ elective course reflect on how a Catholic educational perspective can enhance school’s’ approach to current challenges.

Maria Haggarty, MEduc4

Sectarianism is a contemporary phenomenon with historical roots, often linked to religious antagonism between Catholic and Protestants. However, framing the antagonism purely in terms of Catholic and Protestants narrows ‘sectarianism’ to religious bigotry, whereas contemporary sectarianism is a wider societal issue. Evidence proves sectarian prejudice and activity spills beyond Christian borders; neither one specific group, nor individual solely experience sectarianism (Scottish Government, 2015), rather it embraces a wide range of issues that some pupils may have encountered: immigration, racism, intolerance and/or prejudice (McKinney, 2018).

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The changing definition of sectarianism

The term sectarianism has therefore evolved from beyond the realm of inter-denominational struggles between Catholic and Protestants to a broader definition reflecting Scotland’s more globalised and diverse society. McKinney (2015), when developing his own definition, states sectarianism is a social challenge, one that is associated with religion or ‘quasi’ religion convictions, customs, which create a specific selfhood and exclusivity, which may lead to radical mentalities and conduct. The Morrow Report, (Scottish Government, 2015), reported when attempting to determine what sectarian was in the restricted religious sense from anti-migrant, racist, prejudiced employment, and reduced societal participation was comparable to ‘unscrambling eggs.’
In contrast to this evolving and broadening definition stands the sensationalist nature of the reporting of sectarianism within the Scottish media coupled with prominent societal figures stating Catholic schools are divisive and perpetuate sectarianism, creating a problematic discourse that Catholic schools are no longer relevant within diverse contemporary Scotland (McKinney, 2015). Those voicing such comments have not substantiated their statements with either Government statements or policies regarding sectarianism, nor with academic research. Most media reporting focuses on certain rivalries within football, which is significant in shaping wider public opinion, and/or encounters with sectarianism (Scottish Government, 2015). This has implications for teachers in the classroom: our pupils of today are the technology generation, accessing social media from an early age. Therefore, exposed to widescale rhetoric surrounding sectarianism means they may arrive in class with their own unintended misconceptions, that sectarianism purely exists within Scotland between Catholic and Protestants.

Effective pedagogies and practice

The Irish-descended Catholics and the many others who make up the population of Catholic schools and their families may have encountered hostility and prejudice first-hand, either historical hostility towards their communities, or contemporary direct experience. Thus, the encompassing themes of other world religions, prejudice, racism, and immigration, can be effectively taught through both inductive and deductive pedagogies, both of which are vital to the delivering the ‘divine pedagogy’ promoted in This is Our Faith. An inductive method is based on the personal, relatable experiences of the children in their daily lives, and attempts to identify how God is always present. A deductive method, which seems more conceptual, is found within Scripture, doctrine and liturgy which calls upon children to find applicability to them in their own lives (Coll, 2015).

Inductive approaches to anti-sectarian pedagogy

Peace – one of the seven principles of Catholic Social Teaching – is one of the fundamental teachings of Catholicism, the antithesis of sectarianism. The New Testament advocates for peace ‘How very good and pleasant it is when kindred live together in unity!’ (Psalm 133:1). However, Catholic teaching does not only focus on the extrinsic concept of peace, but also in the intrinsic formation of peace within each person ‘Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. I do not give to you as the world gives.’ (John 14:27). Evidencing that Catholic education is committed to the intrinsic nurturing of holistic individuality unique to each child and supported through collaborative learning empowers children within their own identity and freedoms (D’Souza, 2012). That reflects the aims of the RERC Principles and Practice document, Education Scotland, stating RERC develops self-reflection, perceptions, criticality, the formation of conscience and morality. McKinney’s (2015), working definition of sectarianism included the words ‘intolerant, attitudes, shared by groups that fosters an identity.’ Catholic teaching challenges these beliefs. Teaching of other faiths within RERC, stated within the Principles and Practice document Education Scotland, creates tolerance and acceptance of other ethnicities within contemporary Scotland. Promoting these beliefs and behaviours of social cohesion, is the principle of Solidarity within Catholic Social Teaching, which appears for example as a theme of the Sense over Sectarianism (SOS) programme. The learning within the programme investigates sectarianism within both historical and contemporary Scotland, allowing teachers to broaden the scope of pupil learning between Christian sectarianism to wider societal concerns of equality and relationships, with a particular focus on the inductive pedagogy principle of personal experience (Education Scotland, 2022). Using the Divided City novel, (Breslin, 2011), within my last P7 placement class, who were diverse in religion, culture, and race, created a learning environment which discussed real-life experiences, through the cross-cutting themes relating to sectarianism of prejudice, hate crime, immigration, community, social class, culture, and friendship.

Deductive approaches to anti-sectarian pedagogy

Despite Divided City fostering a pedagogically inductive approach, there are also opportunities for Catholic teachers to link the novel deductively to Scripture; by teaching and having a classroom environment built upon Scripture. A classroom culture of inclusivity, built on collaboration and acceptance facilitates children learning to ‘have unity of spirit, sympathy, love for one another, a tender heart, and a humble mind.’ (Peter 3:8). As Catholic teachers we are bound to teach through and with the Catholic Faith. However, this is not a means of indoctrination: it is a way to show the love of Jesus through our pedagogies and to practice, embrace and appreciate the rich benefits that diversity within the classroom brings (Education Scotland, 2022). Therefore, Catholic teachers through their effective pedagogies and practices shape children in the appreciation of faith, suitable to their stage of development, enables children to understand that while faith is independent of culture, it inspires all cultures (Catholic Education Resource Centre, 2006).
Teaching within Catholic schools is based on love and acceptance of others, standing as a powerful rebuke to all form of sectarianism, and it in turn challenging the sensationalist discourse which would claim that Catholic schools aid sectarianism. In an increasingly diverse and globalised world, and anti-sectarian pedagogy will do no less than prepare pupils within Catholic education for 21st century citizenship.

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