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The Pamphlet Collection of Sir Robert Stout: Volume 49

What the Catholic Conscience Claims

What the Catholic Conscience Claims.

1. The Catholic conscience demands, in the apt phrase of Cardinal McCloskey, "Catholic education for Catholic children." But by whom is this demand refused? Surely not by the State, which imposes on no child any particular form of religious education. I admit that the practice of Bible-reading in the public schools is a wrong and infringement upon the rights of Catholics, Jews, and all non-Protestant-Christian children; but that this practice prevents Catholics from giving Catholic education to their children, it would be preposterous to pretend. They are doing it at this very time. Certainly the demand of "Catholic education for Catholic children" is granted in advance, unless it means that the State should furnish such education. That is a very different matter. Whoever wants sectarian education is perfectly free to get it; but it must be at his own cost. The State ought to furnish education, but not sectarianism; that is his own affair altogether. The right and wrong of this matter are page 70 evident: the State should not and does not prevent "Catholic education for Catholic children;" but equally it should not and does not furnish it.

2. The Catholic conscience demands freedom of exercise, says Bishop McQuaid, and he proceeds to declare: "The majority of the people rule, by the power of numbers, that a large minority shall not be free to educate their children according to their conscience." I can only pass over this assertion in mute astonishment. The simple fact is, that Catholics are educating their children according to their consciences, either at the public or at the parochial schools, as they freely elect.

3. The Catholic conscience demands "equal rights." Very well: that it ought to have. The equal rights of the Catholics, like those of the liberals, are infringed by Protestant worship in the public schools. Equal rights will be established when the Catholics have as much right to have their religion taught in the schools as the Protestants, Jews or Radicals,—that is, no right at all. The trouble with the Catholics is that this equality of rights does not satisfy them; they feel aggrieved unless their own religion is positively taught in the schools to which their children go. But, so far as the public schools are concerned, this is to demand unequal rights; and this is to have a very unreasonable conscience.

4. The Catholic conscience demands, in Bishop McQuaid's words, "the non-interference of the State in Church or in School." On the other hand, the secular conscience requires the non-interference of the Church in State or School. To which shall the school belong, to the Church or to the State? That is indeed the clean issue. But I do not see any way to reconcile here the two consciences. I suspect they are equally stubborn, equally unable to yield; but which is the more reasonable, is a point which must prove in the end decisive.

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5. The Catholic conscience claims to be violated by a system which supports Protestant schools at the public expense; and the justice of this claim must be allowed. To make the public schools Protestant by requiring or permitting Protestant worship in them is truly a violation of all but Protestant consciences. But it is easy to rectify this wrong, and to establish a perfect equality of rights in the case, by simply secularizing the schools altogether. If this would satisfy the Catholic conscience, a permanent settlement of the school question could be effected; but the Catholic conscience is not satisfied with equality—it demands privilege, which is a very different matter.

7. The Catholic conscience claims to be still more violated by a system which should support secular schools at the public expense. Now what is a secular school? A school in which the elementary branches of an English education—reading, writing, arithmetic, &c.—are taught, and in which religion is not taught; one which teaches nothing but what all children, whether of Catholic, Protestant, or liberal parentage, alike need to know, and which is scrupulously protected from all usurpation by any class of parents in the matter of religion. To pretend that this careful exclusion of all religious worship and instruction is to teach irreligion, is an instance of unparalleled audacity. It is impossible to teach the alphabet or multiplication table and the Catholic catechism at one and the same instant; and even in the Catholic school a certain time is devoted to teaching the alphabet and the multiplication table exclusively. Is that to teach irreligion? It is undeniably to separate religious and secular education for the time being; but is that to teach irreligion? I must press this question : is it teaching irreligion to devote a portion of time exclusively to teaching arithmetic or geography? If it is, then Catholic schools also teach irreligion just so long as they are page 72 teaching arithmetic or geography, and they should be denounced just as sweepingly as the public schools. But if not,—if it is not teaching irreligion to devote in Catholic schools one or two hours exclusively to instruction in secular knowledge,—then it is no more teaching irreligion to devote in the public schools three or four or five hours to the same instruction. The Catholics may choose which horn of the dilemma they please: either the Catholic schools teach irreligion part of the time, or else the public schools do not teach irreligion at all. The sole ground of complaint against secular schools is that they omit to teach positive Catholic doctrine; and the attempt to twist this omission to teach Catholicism into a direct teaching of the contrary is a very desperate shift. Let me illustrate. I go to a carriage warehouse where buggies are advertised for sale, and order a horse and buggy. "But," replies the proprietor, "I do not sell horses; I sell only buggies." "That will do very well for those who want buggies only," I answer; "I don't believe in separating horses and buggies, and my conscience forbids me to purchase them separately." "I should be glad to accommodate you," replies the puzzled proprietor, "but really, my dear sir, I have only buggies for sale." "Then," I exclaim, "I denounce you for a violation of equal rights and for a secret purpose to outrage the community by abolishing horses. You grant all they ask to those who conscientiously want buggies alone; but you refuse what I ask, when my conscience demands a horse and buggy, one and inseparable. This is an invidious discrimination against my equal rights, a direct assault on the very existence of all horses; and now I propose to shut up your establishment altogether!" This is exactly what the Catholics are doing; they propose to shut up all State schools, if they can, because State schools can teach only secular knowledge, and not relig page 73 ion at the same time. They have profound scruples of conscience against buying buggies without horses.

7. But the gist of the claims made by the Catholic conscience is that Catholic parents ought not to be taxed for any but Catholic schools, since they cannot conscientiously send their children to any other; and, since the State cannot support Catholic schools, Catholic parents ought to be relieved from school taxes altogether, or else to receive back their own taxes from the State to be expended under their own control for Catholic schools. This is the beginning, middle, and end of the Catholic claim; all other claims of the Catholic conscience grow out of this. Bishop McQuaid says distinctly: "Catholics who are thus taxed are, to the extent of the taxes they pay, punished—persecuted for religion's sake." And again: "It must not be lost sight of in this argument that our rights go where our money goes."

It is in the name, therefore, of Catholic parents, who are taxed by the State for the support of the public schools, that the whole protest of the Catholic conscience is entered. But in truth the State deals exclusively with individuals in this matter of taxation; it deals with them neither as Catholics nor even as parents, but simply and solely as citizens. The State does not ask whether the tax-payer is a Catholic, or Protestant, or Jew, or free thinker; it does not ask whether he is married or unmarried, a parent or childless; it only asks him to pay his fair proportion of the school expenses as an individual member of the civil community. Now the question whether the State, which wholly ignores the inquiry as to the taxpayer's religion or family relations, has a right to tax all citizens indiscriminately for the support of the public school system, will presently come up for independent discussion; but I wish to point out that this general question is not raised by the Catholic conscience, which page 74 claims exemption from the public school tax for Catholic parents as such. It is the duties imposed by Catholic parentage which constitute the ground of the demand of "Catholic education for Catholic children j" and it is the rights inherent in Catholic parentage which constitute at least the ostensible grounds of protest against taxation for the public schools. The protest is essentially a denial of the general obligations of citizenship in the name of church membership and family ties. Before discussing the right of the State to tax all its citizens for public schools, I must first consider the astounding claim of Catholic parents to be treated as if they were not citizens at all, but to be excepted, set apart by themselves, and permitted to receive the benefits of the State without discharging the corresponding obligations. The Catholic claim is—not to be taxed for non-Catholic public schools; and it rests wholly on the alleged absolute rights of Catholic parents as such. These rights, it is evident, must be closely scrutinized and analyzed.