Survival of Catholic education faces new challenge

By 
  • October 15, 2007
{mosimage}On Oct. 10, Ontario brought a bruising provincial election campaign to a close. On Oct. 11, Ontario Catholics faced the beginning of what could be an even more wounding battle over the very existence of their publicly funded schools.

We have been here before, many times in our history. But in recent years, it looked like the Catholic school system was finally accepted by Ontarians, once and for all. It appears this was an illusion.

A perfect storm of political developments conspired to make our Catholic schools a target for all those who believe religion has no place in the public square. A handful of one-man operations in various parts of mostly rural Ontario - ideological descendants of that old Protestant Orange anti-Catholic element that once marred provincial society — joined forces to push for the elimination of government funding for Catholic schools.

This campaign would have made little headway, however, if John Tory had not decided at that point to commit his Conservative party to extending funding to religious schools other than Catholic. Though entirely defensible as public policy, Tory's proposal re-ignited all those latent fears of religious difference that lie just beneath the surface of Canadian society.

Liberal Premier Dalton McGuinty knew a gift horse when it was handed to him. For short-term political advantage, he cynically focused his entire re-election campaign on demonizing Tory's plan. While self-righteously proclaiming himself the saviour of public education against division and intolerance, he cleverly left it to others to name the actual enemy. His influential friends in the media, and even some in his own party circles, did just that. Inevitably, Catholic education was at the top of their list.

One of McGuinty's education policy advisors, professor Michael Fullan, went on CBC Radio to say the Catholic school system has outlived its purpose. The Toronto Star and Globe and Mail formed a Greek Chorus for this line, along with Alan Borovoy of the Canadian Civil Liberties Association and a bevy of like-minded secular humanists. Ontarians were treated to the spectacle of small-town anti-Catholic zealots joining forces with sophisticated urban dwellers who both fear and disdain any public expressions of religion.

This is not a pretty sight. Ontarians pride themselves on being not just tolerant but welcoming of difference, whether it be ethnic, cultural or religious. But the election campaign exposed this as mostly a pose; our approval of multiculturalism stops at colourful festivals and spicy foods. When real differences arise that challenge our own smug assumptions about how society should work, we recoil in fear.

If Ontario is to avoid a tragic public fight that will tear apart our social cohesion, much work lies ahead. For starters, Premier McGuinty has some fence-mending to do with the Catholic community; every time he attacked faith-based education, he implicitly attacked Catholic schools.

We Catholics must be prepared for serious introspection about what our own schools really mean to us, as well as what contribution they make to larger society. Then we must be prepared to make our case in the public square. How badly do we really want our schools? We're going to find out.

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