Is it really ‘McCarthyite’ to ask teachers at Catholic schools to make a declaration of faith?

Not long after I started out as a full-time youth worker I visited my local school and innocently asked the Head of RE if they were a Christian.The reaction I received was probably about the same as if I’d asked her how much she weighed.  After the initial shock she pieced together a vague and non-committal answer that suggested that either she wasn’t or she was too embarrassed to say so.  Given that she taught Religious Education for a living, I’d assumed that the question wouldn’t be a big deal, but I was wrong and to be honest I was disappointed.  If you’re working in a job where religion and faith are a major aspect.  It should make sense for you to be able to present your views publicly in a clear way.

The Bishop of Lancaster, the Rt Rev Michael Campbell, would like Catholic teachers in Catholic schools to do just that.  He has written to clergy in his diocese about plans to ask Catholic teachers and school governors to make public declarations of belief during special masses.  According to the Telegraph, it would be part of a series of events planned in the area to mark the Year of Faith, a worldwide initiative announced by Pope Benedict to re-enthuse worshippers.

Now to me this seems a good idea.  Catholic teachers get to publicly declare their faith in front of pupils and other staff.  They get a chance to say, “I am a Catholic working in a Catholic school and I believe my faith forms my identity and impacts the way I live my life and carry out my work”.  It gives pupils permission to be open about discussing faith and religion.  If teachers are not afraid to openly talk about their beliefs then neither should they.

If I was working in a church school then I would be more than happy to let everyone know that I was a Christian.  As it is I don’t, but at the education establishment I work at I will always give an honest answer about my beliefs if I’m asked or if it comes up in conversation with other staff and the students.

So I’m thinking that what the bishop is proposing is no big deal, especially as he has insisted that it is an “invitation not an imposition” and it would not apply to non-Catholic teachers. But apparently some schools are concerned that staff might feel under pressure to conform, worried that it will affect their career prospects if they don’t.

Well this might be a potential issue, but there are plenty of teachers at Catholic schools who aren’t Catholic.  Staff will have a pretty good idea what each other believe if they bother talking to each other without having public declarations of faith to work it out.  If school heads were basing promotion on teachers’ beliefs (which they shouldn’t be) then would this really make any difference?

Fortunately for those who still believe there is some sort of conspiracy going on here, Terry Sanderson the President of the National Secular Society has jumped in and done his best to completely over egg and sensationalise this whole thing.  He is quoted as saying:

“Although the bishop is trying to offer reassurance that this is all optional, there is a suspicion that those Catholic teachers who choose not to participate may later find that there are consequences for their choice. There is a flavour of McCarthyism about it – they don’t just take your word that you’re a proper Catholic, you have to prove it to them… These people are employed to teach children, not to have their religious loyalty questioned, tested and scrutinised. Is the church trying to weed out those who might not be entirely in tune with current Catholic teaching?”

Poor Mr Sanderson has failed to discuss the issue in a calm and reasoned way and gives the impression that he doesn’t really understand what the bishop is proposing.  Of course he could be completely right and the bishop has sinister, ulterior motives, but does Terry Sanderson sound like he wants to have a considered and reasonable debate on this?

In response to Terry Sanderson’s comments a spokesman for the diocese managed to succinctly say what I suspect many people are thinking, arguing that the way in which religious groups are viewed with suspicion and contempt by secular campaigners could itself be likened to McCarthyism, where suspected communists were persecuted in the US in the 1950s.  He said:

“There is an ultimate irony here, that someone who tries to speak in the name of freedom and democracy actually, in the tactics used and the style of language, is guilty of the very thing that he claims of others.  Am I bothered? I am not bothered.”

Jesus says in Luke, “Whoever is ashamed of me and my words, the Son of Man will be ashamed of them when he comes in his glory.”  And Paul says in Romans, “For I am not ashamed of the gospel, because it is the power of God that brings salvation to everyone who believes.”

If I was a teacher at a Catholic school and it was a choice between going with the Bishop of Lancaster’s suggestion or taking Terry Sanderson’s stance, I wouldn’t even need to think about it.  The church might not be perfect, but Terry Sanderson and the National Secular Society have got a long way to go before they can demonstrate that they have the credibility to be taken seriously.

Categories: Atheism, Education, Faith in society

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