With freedom for Catholic education uncertain, English diocese charts a path

Credit: Bill Erickson via Flickr. (CC BY-NC 2.0).
Credit: Bill Erickson via Flickr. (CC BY-NC 2.0).

.- Catholic schools in England could face problems under both a new “British values” government mandate and demands to approve same-sex relationships. But in the Diocese of Portsmouth, new education guidelines focus on Catholic fidelity, love of neighbor, and the love of Jesus Christ.

Bishop Philip Egan has written a letter introducing the diocese’s guidance on sex and relationship education. He said the document aims to “articulate the Christian vision of human happiness in a life lived in fidelity to Christ with love and respect for neighbor.”

The June 29 guidance was issued because the bishop and the diocese’s trustees recognize “the need for Catholic schools to navigate carefully through the current statutory landscape whilst critically engaging with its requirements.”

He said that everyone faces challenges in living up to Christian ideals. Those who fall short of these ideals or view them differently should be shown “genuine pastoral sensitivity.” At the same time, Catholics must also recognize that God gives the grace and help to “grow in human maturity and to aspire in practice to what Christians profess.”

Bishop Egan’s letter did not mention specific regulations. However, the British Department for Education has required schools to teach “fundamental British values.” The requirements were created after reports that extremist Muslim groups were trying to infiltrate schools.

The education department’s November 2014 guidance added stronger language that requires schools actively to promote what it sees as British values. The rules require all schools to promote equality and diversity, as defined by the education department’s guidance.

This requirement includes “challenging opinions or behaviors in school.” According to the British newspaper The Guardian, these rules are likely to conflict with Catholic, Jewish, Muslim, and other religious schools because they require them to prioritize secular law over religious teachings.

Last year government inspectors criticized a highly ranked Catholic school in Suffolk for allegedly failing to prepare pupils for modern life in Britain. The school filed a formal complaint about the investigation. The school said parents complained that the inspectors asked children as young as ten about same-sex sexual acts and transsexualism, the Catholic Herald reports.

Some U.K. leaders have strongly criticized the “British values” mandate, including Conservative MP Sir Edward Leigh, president of the Catholic Union of Great Britain. In a March speech, he said the requirement is “damaging Christian schools.” He charged that the British education standards office, known informally as Ofsted, “appears to be guilty of trying to enforce a kind of state-imposed orthodoxy on certain moral and religious questions.”

Others leaders, such as Labour Party leadership front-runner Andy Burnham, have said that religious schools must teach about same-sex relationships. In an interview with the LGBT newspaper Pink News, he rejected Catholic schools’ claims that it would violate their religious freedom to force them to teach about same-sex couples in schools.

Burnham said the Catholic schools are “straightforwardly wrong.” He called for more action to counter “homophobic bullying,” including teaching all relationships on terms of “absolute equality.”

Bishop Egan’s introduction did not mention specific rules or political figures. He said the diocese’s guidance “addresses some of the difficulties arising today both in transmitting the Church’s teaching and in living up to it.”

For the Diocese of Portsmouth, sex and relationship education (SRE) is “an education in love and responsibility.” This means that the moral dimension must always be incorporated in education and consciences must be formed so that students can recognize the value of their peers.

The guidance said that all Catholic school staff’s daily dealings with students are expected to support Catholic teaching. This is “especially important” concerning personal relationships and sexual morality.

Classes should refer to God’s Word as revealed through the Bible and Church teaching, with an emphasis on teaching the love of Jesus Christ.

Alternative views about non-marital sexual relations, contraception, homosexual acts, and artificial reproduction “should not be presented as neutral or value-free information, but always in relation to Church teaching on marriage and loving relationships.”

At the same time, because students come from a variety of families, SRE must be “taught in the context of God’s unconditional love, with mercy and compassion” so that parents and students feel supported. The guidance voiced respect for the presence of communities from other faith traditions in Catholic schools, while acknowledging that it might not be able to support these religions’ teachings.

The guidance said students should be encouraged to grow towards maturity and responsibility to realize the Christian life. For this goal, it is essential for students to have “constant prayer, frequent confession, receiving the Holy Eucharist, along with the cultivation of self-discipline and virtuous habits.”

SRE teaching must help assist students with the physical and emotional changes of puberty and encourage them to think “about the sacredness of their body.” SRE class content must not offend against modesty or privacy.

“Purity and the virtue of chastity must be promoted. We must help students recognize that the proper place for sexual relationships is within the loving and permanent relationship of marriage,” the diocese said.

Tags: Sexual Education, Bishop Egan, Diocese of Portsmouth