A RIPPLE of consternation swept across some sections of the Catholic Church with the announcement that Nicola Sturgeon had been invited to deliver the annual Cardinal Winning lecture in Glasgow in June, 2018. This occasion, named after the late leader of Scotland’s 700,000 Catholics, has become a significant fixture in the Church’s calendar.

In 2018, the Church was celebrating the centenary of the 1918 Education Act which provided for the establishment of Catholic schools in a visionary agreement with Scotland’s secular authorities. By then, dozens of Catholic schools had already been established by local Catholic communities, mainly among the immigrant Irish in the west of Scotland. They had built them with their own sweat and toil on land purchased by public subscription.

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Essentially, the Catholic Church was now handing them over to the state in return for a small – but significant – philosophical and religious indulgence: that they retained their ‘Catholic’ character and that the bishops of Scotland would determine what was taught in the realm of religious and moral education.

The Church would ensure strict adherence to Scotland’s education syllabus in every other subject. The arrangement also sought to address a fundamental economic injustice: that Irish Catholics, then mainly living in ghettoes defined by abject poverty, were paying for the maintenance of state schools as well as for the upkeep and wage costs of their own schools. Their faith was a defining characteristic, representing the culture and values of the land from which the Great Famine had forced them to flee.

Having their children educated within the moral framework of that faith was an essential component of their distinctive character, as well as a consolation after a century of hardship and discrimination in Ireland.

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It’s become an uncontested shibboleth that Scottish society is riven by sectarian division. Yet this graceful concordat between church and state remains a beacon of progressiveness and enlightenment which reflects well on Scotland.

The choice of Ms Sturgeon, then First Minister of Scotland, to deliver a speech marking 100 years of this arrangement, seemed entirely appropriate. In effect, she represented the bridge between Scotland’s Catholic community and secular Scotland which had held firm and been reinforced.

Some reactionary voices within the Church felt that Ms Sturgeon was just too secular, given her enthusiastic and outspoken backing for same-sex marriage, abortion and trans rights.

Her views on these issues, though, differed little from most other senior political figures in Scotland across all party lines. Yet, they also epitomised the delicate rapprochement that existed between church and state.

One former SNP minister had described it to me thus: “Basically, we’ll let you get on with it just so long as you keep doing what you’re doing academically and not filling the kids’ heads with anything extreme. And you let us get on with running the country as we see fit.”

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As it transpired, the malcontents were silenced. Ms Sturgeon’s address was the most robust endorsement of Catholic schools that any senior Scottish politician had ever delivered in public.

“When you consider the immense contribution the Catholic community as a whole has made to Scotland in the last century,” she said, “it seems to me to be inarguable that the settlement arrived at in 1918 is one which brought benefits – not just to the Catholic faith, but all of us.”

Some Catholics worry that what they see as Scotland’s curiously regressive liberal elites believe the schools are a source of sectarian division and should be dismantled. While celebrating diversity in all other areas of public life they would seek to deny it when it comes to Catholics and their schools.

Professor Sir Tom Devine, Scotland’s pre-eminent academic and himself a product of Catholic schools in North Lanarkshire, strongly rejects this analysis.

He argues that the performance of Catholic schools should be celebrated not only by the Catholic community but by Scottish society as a whole as “one of the great educational achievements of our country in the last 50 years or so”.

Pointing to recently published research, he said: “The key finding is that contrary to popular belief these schools, far from engendering social division, have been fundamental in ending Catholic social and economic disadvantage and so promoting the full integration of the Catholic community in modern Scotland.

“They have been the main engines of social mobility through education which has meant Catholics are no longer under-represented among the nation’s higher employment categories. A historic transformation has occurred and a formerly disadvantaged class, descended from Irish immigrant stock, are now more comfortable in their Scottish skins, as evidenced by the Catholic vote in the 2014 referendum [research suggested 57% of Catholics voted for independence].

“The hoary old charge of promoting sectarian division was also unequivocally dismissed by the Scottish Government’s independent Advisory Group on Tackling Sectarianism in 2015. Integration has not simply taken place in the labour market but also in the more intimate spheres of friendship, love and sex.

“The work of my colleague Dr Michael Rosie of Edinburgh University has shown how common marriage, cohabitation and friendship now occurs across the supposed divides of Catholicism and Protestantism. Catholic schools do not foster a ghettoised community.”

Yet, the Scottish Government’s controversial Gender Recognition Reform bill now threatens to drive a wedge between the Catholic Church and the state in their historic and amicable educational partnership.

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The government’s draft guidance on relationships, sexual health and parenthood (RSHP), updated from the 2014 iteration has removed all previous references to the Catholic Church’s role in this area. There is a single reference to “denominational schools” in a sprawling, multi-faceted document which some believe is dominated by the interests of the LGBTQ+ lobby.

In a statement responding to the proposed changes, the Scottish Catholic bishops have sharply criticised the Scottish Government. “We strongly request the re-insertion of the paragraphs relating to Denominational Education from the previous iteration of the guidance, which would reflect both the legal protection for schools with a Religious Character, and the previously supportive position of Scottish Government for Catholic schools.”

The Scottish Government strongly refutes such suggestions. A spokesperson said: “The draft guidance makes direct reference to denominational schools, recognising that religious authorities with a role in education provide additional and complementary guidance on RSHP education.

“It also takes into account an inclusive approach to all faiths and makes clear that educational practitioners should ensure that RSHP teaching and learning is delivered sensitively and respectfully to faith groups.

“If parents or carers feel that the content is not appropriate, they can discuss the withdrawal of a pupil from all or part of a programme of lessons.”

While the political fallout from the GRR bill has proceeded, the Catholic hierarchy have kept their heads down, perhaps adhering to the unspoken terms of their old treaty. Two years ago they produced a cautious document which reinforced traditional Catholic teaching in this area.

It said that while young people experiencing uncertainty and hurt over their sexual identity must be cared for in a sensitive pastoral environment, sex is immutable and binary. Beyond that, they’ve chosen to remain largely silent, just so long as they’re free to continue to teaching according to the principles of the faith.

There are now deep concerns within the Church that forces at the heart of government are seeking to weaponise GRR reform as a means of undermining and dismantling Catholic schools, in the knowledge that – under no circumstances – the Catholic Church will never teach much of what is being proposed by the Scottish Government.

A senior Church source said: “This has mobilised Catholics in a way we haven’t seen for some time. They’re appalled at being airbrushed from a government document like this.

“Hopefully, there will be a large number of responses to the consultation over the next few weeks, but that’s just the start – Catholic voters will want to lobby MSPs. With an election next year, this is a bad time for the Scottish Government to launch an attack on Catholic schools.”

Professor Roisin Coll, director of the St Andrew’s Foundation which trains teachers for the Catholic sector, says what’s being proposed is unacceptable. “To omit any reference to the church’s jurisdiction over the RE curriculum – where sex and relationships is often taught – is gravely concerning,” she said.

“The Catholic community in Scotland along with families beyond who have bought in to our schools, amount to 20% of this country’s parents.

“They have all consciously chosen a Catholic education for their children owing to its distinctive moral position on these issues. This seems a deliberate attempt to undermine that right to choose.

“Religion and belief is a protected characteristic in this country. Is this a blatant attempt to extinguish the Church’s vision and teaching on these matters?”

When asked about what might happen if Catholic schools refused to teach some of what’s being proposed, a Scottish Government spokesperson opted not to comment.

Professor Devine added a warning to the Scottish Government about altering the status quo: “Scottish Catholics are immensely proud of their schools and would deeply resent any political attempt – directly or indirectly – to interfere with their vital role in Scottish society.”