Herman Goodden

Herman Goodden

Herman Goodden is a writer in London, Ont. His latest book is No Continuing City.

Perhaps thankfully, my propensity for racking up unmanageable debt emerged early in life. It started via the Capitol Record Club, which I rashly joined at the age of 14.

At what point did what used to be known as the “separate” school system become so flexible and indifferent to its creedal distinctions that one of its high schools would dedicate and outfit space for use as a Muslim prayer room?

Even people who aren’t particularly sympathetic — or are even antagonistic — to the Roman Catholic Church must be wondering about that after Ana Paula Fernandes, the principal of Mother Teresa Catholic Secondary School in London, Ont., announced the re-designation of an office in that school for just such a use. There are perhaps two dozen (obviously) non-Catholic students enrolled there.

Why identify a school as specifically Catholic and then carve out a space for the religious observances of people who practise another religion?

Well, according to Fernandes, you do that “to ensure that all our students feel welcome, that they feel that they belong,” she told the London Free Press.

But those two dozen students don’t want to “belong” to a Catholic school. They’re Muslims. They or their parents obviously want them to “attend” a Catholic school, probably because of the perception that, of Ontario’s two educational systems, the Catholic curriculum (in spite of government-mandated watering down of its distinct Catholicity) has significantly more rigour than the public one.

But when you “belong” to something in any meaningful sense, you commit to it. It shapes you and you are bound to it by duty and obligations. The two dozen Muslim students do not want to “belong” to any sort of Catholic institution in that way, as made clear by their request for a separate prayer room.

One wonders what Fernandes’ response will be in the probably not-too-distant future when a couple of dozen budding Wiccans or atheists or hedonists request their own sanctuary for their religious or anti-religious observances? Surely she wouldn’t feel justified to accommodate one group and not extend the same gesture (and a few thousand dollars’ worth of broadloom and paint and wiring to effect a room overhaul) to another? That would be discrimination, and that minority group might feel they didn’t “belong” in a Catholic school.

By a decidedly peculiar arrangement in Ontario, students of any or no religious affiliation are welcome to attend a public or Catholic school. With few exceptions (I’m thinking here of the Toronto school that scandalously accommodates gender-segregated Muslim prayers in their cafeteria on Fridays) schools in the public system make no allowances for the religious proclivities — whatever they be — of their students. As a school system that is open to all, that is unquestionably the fairest and most sensible way to manage things.

Public funding of Catholic schools up to Grade 10 was part of the British North America Act. In 1984, then retiring Premier Bill Davis — much to the surprise of just about everybody — extended full funding to the end of high school. Considering the changing patterns of immigration and secularization then in play, it was a highly unpopular move. A more credible case could’ve been made for withdrawing public funding from the Catholic system altogether or finding some method to allow parents to designate their tax dollars to the school system of their choice.

Realigning anything as complex as the educational structure of an entire province would be a hugely disruptive process so the hesitation to tackle that job is understandable. But the current system is patently unfair and any modifications or exceptions we make to the system in the name of fairness and inclusivity only dilute the distinct Catholic character of Catholic schools. That distinctiveness — that recognition that Catholics have different educational requirements than the rest of the population — was the raison d’être for creating a separate system in the first place.

While it might appear that Catholics are making out like bandits here and getting everything their way, there is swelling displeasure within the ranks of the faithful that true Catholic identity is being lost in our schools as the province — which is, after all, paying the bills — demands modifications that chip away at the integrity or contradict Catholic teaching. Home schooling — once the preserve of evangelicals disaffected by the secularization underway in public schools (such as the banning of prayer) — is now catching on with more and more Catholic parents who, sadly, are coming to feel the very same way about the Catholic system.

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