Mr Justice Warby fired a shot across the bows in a High Court judgment in November when he said that schools should put secular humanism and other non-religious beliefs into the Religious Studies curriculum. This, unsurprisingly, caused a fuss. But the ruling did not apply to faith schools. Sigh of relief? No, of course not. Catholic schools should study non-religious beliefs, and in some detail. Secular humanism as presented by the British Humanist Association, or its informal counterparts, surrounds us in our society. Indeed, in 2008 the Catholic Herald gave Terry Sanderson, president of the National Secular Society, a feature page to express his uncensored views.
It is really a matter of conscience. The philosopher John Stuart Mill tells us that the best title to maintain an opinion is that it has been exposed to every objection that can be thrown at it, and survived. But there are practical reasons too. Until we have listened to the best case from those who disagree, we will always be vulnerable to our secular culture. It means that considering and discussing these questions at secondary school is an important part of Catholic education. In that way we may hope to promote our moral grasp from obedience to an internal understanding of the good.
I recall a conversation with a young lady in Year 10 (14 to 15 years old) at an excellent convent school. She was bright, and she had a good grasp of Catholic moral teaching. But she appeared to keep this in a mental box. Outside was real life – and that was what she was living. She had not had the opportunity to discuss the pros and cons of morality under the guidance of a teacher. She knew what the Church taught. She could even trot out the reasons. But she had never internalised them.
I am not naïve about this. I remember, back in 1972, when my wife and I wrote a little book titled Choices in Sex. It was born from our experience of working with young people. It had been no surprise to us that laying down the law to adolescents, pulsating with new hormones, was received with mute indifference. But they did react positively to discussion that looked at all the issues in a thoughtful and constructive way. Although the book was very well received, and sold out speedily, we ended up being accused of forging the imprimatur, and were styled as “corrupters of youth”. Our critics made no bones about quoting out of context, or inventing a quotation when necessary. The Catholic Herald carried the story, from accusations to retractions, over three issues.
I choose abortion as an example of a subject that might be studied at secondary level, since it is a relatively clear-cut issue and because various surveys tell us that a substantial minority of Catholics do not support the orthodox doctrine. The Church’s teaching is clear but, in view of my last paragraph, I should say that I accept it wholeheartedly. Yet there are issues to consider.
The first is to establish at what point the conceptus becomes human. Is it at the moment of DNA exchange or at some future point of development? A second would be the rights of the mother over her own body. Then come issues such as rape or a damaged foetus. And there are cases when the presence or position of the foetus endangers the mother’s life. I am not going to discuss these here, but we know that our young people will meet such issues in the public forum, so it is better that they think these things through with teachers who are ready to listen, and know their stuff. Even if pupils do not accept the teaching at that time, they will hold in their minds the possibility of a better way.
So I return to secular humanism. In looking at the best case, pupils will recognise many excellent values, and they will understand how these were inherited from centuries of Christian humanistic culture. The similarities and differences in Catholic social teaching can be examined. They will spot some misunderstandings of religion, as well as criticisms which may have weight. They might perhaps debate whether such values are on the brink of a slippery slope in a wholly secular society, and attempt to visualise what effects the removal of religious values from public life would have on freedoms of religion and conscience. Examples might be Catholic adoption societies, and the increasing campaign against faith schools.
An analogy with inoculation is pertinent here. Inoculation introduces infection at a reduced level which stimulates the immune system to recognise the attacker and to strengthen defences against a more dangerous version. Helping the young to explore moral issues critically, and against a background of facts and opposing views, protects them from the idle thinking and the self-serving influences they meet everywhere today.