Catholic church’s fury over Obama’s speech on division

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Barack Obama has long left these shores but it is interesting to note that the row over his Waterfront Hall speech continues to gather momentum.

During his oration which was addressed to schoolchildren Obama said: “If towns remain divided – if Catholics have their schools and buildings and Protestants have theirs, if we can’t see ourselves in one another and fear or resentment are allowed to harden – that too encourages division and discourages cooperation.”

Stating the obvious, one would have thought. Obama knows a lot about racial segregation in the USA and its appalling consequences, and we all know the cost of religious segregation here.

If people are brought up separately, live in different areas, go to different schools and even play different sports that perpetuates division, contributes to misunderstanding and reinforces a sense of “us and them”.

Yet unbeknown to Obama, the Catholic Archbishop Gerhard Muller, prefect of the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith, had given a sermon during a Mass in Glasgow the previous weekend where he had said: “the Catholic school is a critical component of the church” and that it provided young people with a wonderful opportunity to “grow up with Jesus”.

So when Obama’s words were reported the Catholic Church in the USA erupted in fury. American Catholics for Religious Freedom stated that Obama’s “anti-faith secular agenda was shamefully on full display …He can’t bear the thought that Catholic and parochial schools not only teach important values but consistently produce better educational results.”

This week the Catholic Church in Ireland chipped in with Bishop Donal McKeown, who is the head of the Commission on Catholic Education, saying of Obama: “it is very passe to work on the basis of the hackneyed “Protestant v Catholic” caricature. Some 15 years ago the Good Friday Agreement showed the core problem in Northern Ireland was a political one, not a religious one.”

It is hard to know even where to start with all this. It would appear that according to the Catholic Church separate education is fundamental so that youngsters can grow up with Jesus, and that anyone who expresses misgivings about segregation is somehow attacking the church and being “anti-faith”.

Furthermore conflict in Northern Ireland has nothing whatsoever to do with religion which means therefore that segregated schools are fine – they are segregated on religious rather than “political” lines which makes them immune from criticism.

This is all fine rhetoric but bears absolutely no relation to logic or commonsense.

Firstly nobody has ever suggested that schools, controlled or maintained, encourage or foster conflict and teach young people bigotry. Quite the reverse. Nor is anyone suggesting that any religion, correctly followed, teaches people to hate one another.

So it is not what happens within segregated schools that is the issue, but the fact of segregation itself. The challenge for society – and this, Bishop McKeown is not a narrow political one – is for us to break away from being members of one community or another, and to move towards being members of the same community.

A lot of parents will want a religious education: that is their right and must be accommodated. Yet there can be no question that bringing young people together is an important part of the solution.

It is also disappointing to hear church leaders simply washing their hands of conflict.

This may be true in the sense that paramilitary organisations were neither supported by nor endorsed by specific religious organisations.

However, it is equally not in doubt that our communities are split on both political and religious lines, that religious differences were at the very heart of division from the 17th Century onwards and in that context church leaders have a moral imperative to help heal real wounds rather than claim that division has nothing whatsoever to do with them.