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Schools and religious freedom

In 2009, I wrote an article titled, 'Religious education in schools' on The Times. It was prompted by Fr Rene Camilleri’s anxiety over how in their Matsec exams, students of religion “were simply ‘regurgitating’ answers (…) from parish catechesis lessons. 

Then I argued that “the conflation between State and religion in schools is detrimental to that very majority which remains intransigent when it comes to the distinction between faith and ethics in education. Because there is no proper distinction within and outside schools, Maltese society is facing a higher degree of religious ignorance and intolerance.” 

In my academic career, I had the opportunity to supervise students teaching in British State schools. In England, State schools could be both secular and faith schools. In my case I had the lot — secular, Roman Catholic and Anglican state schools. 

One thing which is necessary to understand is that in the English curriculum there is a distinction across all schools between Religious Education (RE) and religious formation according to the denomination or faith involved — which in the Roman Catholic context we call Catechesis (which, as it happens, is what I as a teacher in Malta in the 1980s, had to teach in State schools.) 

The latest hysterical reaction to the teaching of Islam in Church Schools, proposed by no less than the Archbishop, unfortunately confirms that things have not changed much, and we’re pretty much where we were in 2009.

 The latest hysterical reaction to the teaching of Islam in Church Schools, proposed by no less than the Archbishop, unfortunately confirms that things have not changed much, and we’re pretty much where we were in 2009.

Actually, things seem to have gone worse. Some seem to think that Imams will be invading schools and turn all Maltese kids into Jihadis (Remember the fear of the Turk?).

Others ignore the proven fact that pluralism is a good thing for religious freedom. They deny that there could be a situation where Religious Education (RE) is taught without having to also provide catechism. 

Then there are the absolutists on both sides: some say that schools should neither provide RE nor catechism of any type, though that’s never clear cut in a State that still declares the Roman Catholic faith as its official religion. 

In the main, there are those who insist on the Roman Catholic Church being the official religion. This crowd has become very vocal against the Archbishop’s proposal that conceivably you could have an Imam teach Islamic religious formation in a school that is predominantly Catholic. 

They zealously want to defend religion in schools, by imposing a monolithic provision, which they see as being Catholic.

While I can see where they are coming from, I cannot help thinking that in their zealous passion, these parents are not even noticing that the state of affairs we have in Schools now (where RE is confused with catechesis, and catechesis is taught very badly) is actually doing more harm than good to the educational aspect of faith. 

So is there one solution? No, because one size does not fit all. 

I used to think that secularism could be a clean cut and there should be no catechism in schools while there would be RE, teaching our students the knowledge of all religions, just as we should be doing with matters like science, philosophy and history. However, these days, and given that in Malta nothing could be as straight forward, I believe in a pluralist system. 

Church Schools are in nature overseen by the Catholic Church and they should decide what to do. In my opinion the Archbishop is right to offer diversity in his Schools.

Church Schools are in nature overseen by the Catholic Church and they should decide what to do. In my opinion the Archbishop is right to offer diversity in his Schools.

I also see the place for other denominational schools, as long as they do not proselytize, they do not impose their faith on others, and they stay within the law of separation between church and state. 

Like Catholic Schools we should have other faith schools, though not subsidized by the State. (The current issue with Church School funding as agreed after the State-Church dispute in the 1980s has a very different context which would warrant a separate article to discuss). 

State schools have two choices: (a) they could either offer only Religious Education while they also teach secular ethics. (b) They do the same as in (a) but also offer religious formation on parental demand. 

In many ways, this is a major question, as many still want State schools to be, in effect Catholic Schools. Could they celebrate different festivals without privileging one? Could the State offer faith and secular schools as in England and Wales? 

So before we all go crazy on what the Bishop is proposing, we need to calmly consider the following: 

First, we need to understand the distinction between teaching children an objective study of religious ideas, whether you are in a Church School or not, and giving students a religious formation. 

Secondly, we need to be open to pluralism according to what parents need. If the Maltese Catholic Church feels that it should allow a minority of Islamic or Hindu, or Anglican, or Humanist children to have their own religious and ethical formation in their schools, then I happen to believe that the Church is being mature and open. 

I can go on forever citing different combinations and examples. However, as a schoolboy, I wanted to know more about other religions and philosophies. Unfortunately, that was never provided to me in schools.

But, beyond Maltese shores, I know generations of young people—including my own daughter—who went to faith and secular schools, but which all gave them a wide knowledge of different faiths, which also offering a sound moral formation. These young men and women got to choose and to understand all aspects of religion and none. 

So I ask: Who are we to stop the younger generations from having a wider education, even when it comes to their faith and moral compass?

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