In case you didn’t know, this is Catholic Education Week in Ontario. On Wednesday, hundreds of thousands of students and teachers at the province’s publicly funded Roman Catholic schools attended an obligatory mass to mark the event. They even received official greetings from Pope Francis.
Attendance was lighter than it might have been, however, in the wake of an Ontario Superior Court ruling that confirmed the right of parents to exempt their kids from religious classes and activities at Catholic high schools. Since last month’s ruling, more parents appear to be exerting this right, further underscoring the incoherency of Ontario’s bicephalous education system.
After all, what is the point of maintaining separate public and Catholic school systems if an increasing proportion of Catholic school students opt out of the religion part? It seems like a costly indulgence for a province staring at a $12.5-billion deficit and almost $300-billion in debt.
But don’t expect Catholic school funding to come up during the provincial election campaign that’s just begun. The three major party leaders will avoid the issue like the plague. Only the Green Party, which has no chance of winning, has the guts to propose a single public system.
This silence is especially surprising on the part of Kathleen Wynne. As a gay woman in a same-sex relationship, the Premier is persona non grata at many Catholic schools. Her lifestyle could even prevent her from speaking to students, according to rules followed by some boards.
Justin Trudeau isn’t even gay, but his support for same-sex marriage and abortion rights created such backlash among some parents that they forced their local board to revise its policy for screening guests after the federal Liberal leader spoke to their kids at an Ottawa-area Catholic school last year. Ironically, the topic of Mr. Trudeau’s talk was bullying.
“If you Google anything about Justin Trudeau, it comes up very clearly that he is strongly against some important Catholic teachings,” one parent told the Ottawa Citizen.
Dismal voter turnout in school board elections ensures that a minority of activist Catholic parents elect trustees who, like themselves, are more hard-line dogmatists than the Pope himself. Indeed, Francis is making some conservative Catholics uncomfortable with his openness toward homosexuality and emphasis on compassion over doctrine.
In the wake of the Trudeau “scandal,” the Ottawa Catholic School Board revised its policy for entering “partnerships” with outside organizations and individuals “to ensure respect for the distinctive nature of Catholic education and adherence to Roman Catholic tradition.”
You’d think incidents like this might discourage non-Catholic or non-practising parents from sending their kids to Catholic high schools in the first place. But it’s an open secret that thousands of parents choose Catholic schools for everything but religious reasons.
Many believe Catholic schools provide better education, structure and discipline than public ones, and in many cases, they’re right. Teachers in the public system have succeeded in creating a growing clientele for Catholic schools among parents who are fed up with unions that put themselves first. By suspending extracurricular activities to put pressure on the Ontario government for a better contract, the public unions showed where their priorities lay. Many parents have decided that the Catholic system is a better bet for their children, despite the obvious contradictions.
Many even tolerate the religious indoctrination their kids face, since applying for an exemption from faith-based activities has been such a gruelling challenge. Kyle Naylor started a website to guide parents through the process after being stonewalled by his local Catholic board when he sought an exemption for his daughter. Countless parents have shared similar stories with him.
Last month’s court ruling has made it harder for Catholic boards to resist such requests. As more parents exert their rights, Catholic schools may come face to face with their own mortality.
“They have already conceded there are significant populations of non-Catholics in Catholic schools,” Mr. Naylor notes. “If they were all to take advantage of the exemption, the next logical question is, why are we funding [Catholic] school boards in the first place?”
Politicians will cite the Constitution as an excuse, although other provinces have cleared that hurdle and there is no constitutional obligation to fund Catholic high schools. What they’re really afraid of are the militant Catholic trustees and parents who could vote them out of office.