There has been another recent burst of interest in the problem of anti-Catholicism in Scottish society.
Opinions vary on how prevalent it is and whether it is in fact a significant problem or not. Some think it is, and believe they have evidence to that effect, whilst many others disagree.
Within the context of these discussions, the existence of state funded Catholic schools has come up again as an important talking point. Questions have been raised as to why they are funded by tax payers’ money at all, and how much of an effect they have on the enduring problem of sectarianism in Scotland.
In discussing these issues, I think it is instructive to look back for a moment, and compare the way in which Catholic schools figured in public debate at the beginning of the 1900’s, around the time of the Education Act (Scotland), and how they figure in similar debates today.
It is instructive in the sense that one of the deepest roots of today’s objections to their existence may be traceable to this earlier period, during which they took a slightly different outward form; a form that could perhaps throw some light on a question I struggled with in an earlier blog – whether sectarianism is a form of racism. The merit of understanding the answer to this question is that it would help shape the type of solutions we ought to be putting forward to eradicate this type of bigotry from society.
The common objection to the existence of Catholic schools today is that they contribute to the problem of sectarianism in Scottish society by breeding a subconscious segregation psychology at an early age based on religious differences, a situation that is made worse in the eyes of the objectors because these schools are funded by the Government.
According to 2010 figures, there were 373 state funded Catholic schools out of a total of 2,722 schools in Scotland. The Scottish Government’s position on Catholic schools is positive and supportive. The view is that they play an important part in our society and parents and pupils should have the choice to attend one if they want to. They also tend to have very high achievement records.
Despite such Government support, in his Cardinal Winning Education Lecture in 2008, Alex Salmond described the general attitude towards Catholic schools in Scotland today as one of grudging acceptance at best, and outright hostility at worst:
It is an attitude that was passionately expressed by Scottish Conservative MSP, John Lamont, during a parliamentary debate on the Offensive Behaviour and Threatening Communications Bill in 2011, in which he said that our education system was effectively the “state-sponsored conditioning of sectarian attitudes”.
In his efforts to draw a direct link between state funded Catholic schools with the problem of sectarianism in Scotland, John Lamont remarked that the resulting “segregation of our young people has brought them up to believe that the two communities should be kept separate”:
Prior to the 1872 Education Act, Catholic Schools were mainly set up and paid for by Irish immigrant communities in Scotland. It was a means of teaching Roman Catholic values and instilling a strong sense of moral discipline to those born into these impoverished communities, who may otherwise have missed out on formal education altogether.
After 1872 Catholic Schools were encouraged to integrate into the wider state system. Many decided not to do so out of concern that the values being taught would be of the wrong influence. However, the 1918 Education (Scotland) Act removed this concern by making provisions to fund Catholic State Schools in Scotland. To many sections of Scottish society, this was a controversial move.
Reflecting on the type of objections to Catholic schools around this time suggests that the concern in the early 1900’s was not the fashionably moral one we come across today of claiming that their existence leads to sectarian conditioning in children – the implication being that the existence of Catholic schools aggravates and perpetuates the problem.
Rather it was that their existence was viewed as an unwanted solution to the problem of Irish Catholic immigrants in Scotland – the implication being that Irish Catholics, with allegiance to Papal authority in Rome, were believed to be a menace to Scottish Protestantism and hence a threat to Scottish culture and to the Scottish identity. There was therefore a racist undertone to the debate.
At a meeting of the Scottish Protestant Congress on the 9th October 1923, whose purpose was to discuss the ‘Burden of Roman Catholic Schools’ and the ‘Effects of Irish Immigration’, and which was reported in the following day’s Scotsman newspaper, The Rev. Dr Mackintosh Mackay spoke of the financial burden of Catholic schools on the people of Scotland and the “progress of Romanism” as a direct consequence.
It was deemed “unfair that the education of the land should be crippled in order to maintain the education of children of an alien population”. It was reported that he could not understand the psychology of Scottish members of Parliament in passing the Bill leading to the 1918 Education Act.
At the same meeting, the Rev. Duncan Cameron spoke about ‘Protestantism’ being synonymous with ‘Scottish people’, whereas those who were coming in were faithful and loyal servants of Rome. He was concerned about Scottish people having to give up the ideals and traditions of their fathers and insisted that ‘the Scottish race had a great mission…the safeguarding of Protestantism’.
Therefore, there would appear to have been a strong link between anti-Catholic and anti-Irish prejudice at this time. The concerns about the financial burden of Catholic schools on the state were almost inseparable from concerns about the threat of Irish immigrants and their children posing a threat to Scottish Protestantism and hence the identity of the Scottish race.
How much of this early twentieth century influence still lingers in the Scottish psyche today is an interesting question and it is not altogether easy to answer. But what it clearly highlights is that the problems of religious bigotry and racism are sometimes so closely interlinked that the one cannot be properly understood without reference to the other.
Perhaps the debate about the continued existence of Catholic schools today is entirely innocent. Perhaps it is simply about the financial burden on limited Government funds in a time of economic austerity and the (tenuous) link between Catholic schools and sectarianism.
Or perhaps these are just some of the objections that tend to be given in a time of greater political correctness – and possibly without conscious intent – to mask the deep rooted cultural attitude of rejecting that which is not perceived to be of traditional Scottish stock and everything that entails.