In an interview published Sunday, former sports commentator Archie Macpherson called for a national debate on the future of parochial education.
Contemplating the possibility of phasing out Catholic schools, Macpherson argued: "I think the discussion of it should be open and bold. It should be discussed. One of the aspects of our society is we acquiesce. We don't question enough. What sort of education system do we want in an increasingly secular society?"
"How do we educate people?" Macpherson asked. "How do we bring them together? How do we have social cohesion? We separate children at the age of five. We've got to look at that."
Peter Kearney, director of the Scottish Catholic Media Office, was quick to respond.
Blasting the assertion that Catholic schools are to blame for social tensions in the Protestant-majority country, Kearney wrote: "Around Europe, and across the world, Catholic schools exist and prosper in societies bereft of the bigotry and intolerance found here. The historical religious divisions that still leave us tainted with sectarian bigotry, pre-date the existence of Catholic schools, so cannot have been created by them."
"The right of parents to educate their children in accordance with their religious beliefs is a universal human right," he continued. "Suggestions that Catholic schools somehow contribute to sectarianism are unfounded, deeply unhelpful and offensive. There is not a shred of empirical evidence to back up such claims."
"Since sectarian anti-Catholicism long predates the existence of Catholic schools in Scotland, the schools cannot be the cause of it," Kearney added. "Catholic schools exist in dozens of countries around the world, including England, nowhere else are they charged with being the engine of intolerance."
Macpherson's comments were the latest in a rash of recent calls to shutter Scotland's Catholic schools.
On Sept. 16, leading newspaper The Scotsman published a provocative column by Tom Woods, former deputy chief constable in Edinburgh's regional police service.
Faulting Scotland's Catholic schools for inciting sectarian strains, Woods called on his countrymen to "look at the roots of the problem and question what divides us," adding that "if we do that then we simply cannot escape questioning our system of religiously segregated education."
The ex-constable made no mention of Protestant, Jewish or Islamic schools — all of which exist in Scotland. Instead, he suggested that Catholic schools are the cause of division.
"I have no doubt that the provision for separate Roman Catholic education as enshrined by The Education (Scotland) Act 1918, was a good idea 100 years ago," Woods wrote, "but is it acceptable that in the 21st century, we emphasise differences by separating five-year-old children based on their parents' religion?"
"As Scotland moves forward with equality as our watchword, our century-old practice of segregated education is contradictory to say the least," he argued, adding that "if we really want to dig out the roots of sectarianism, we must do what's difficult, and have the courage to tackle the historical anomaly of religious segregation in our schools."
In a Sept. 18 article for The Herald, columnist Rosemary Goring backed Woods' assertions: "It is Tom Wood's contention, however, that in order to eradicate sectarianism we need to abolish Catholic schools. These, he believes, are the root of the problem. With some reluctance, I have to agree their time is up."
"By all accounts, the education students receive in Catholic schools is impressive," Goring conceded. "Yet existence of this archaic system of schooling is tangible evidence of a problem that refuses to wither."
"From early childhood, separate schools reinforce the idea of difference, segregation and distinction," she wrote. "Whatever side of that school fence you walk, you are made aware from Primary One onwards of the concept of Them and Us."
Goring went on to suggest that Scots should look to leading atheist Richard Dawkins for wisdom:
Dawkins's new book, Outgrowing God, which is aimed at young readers, tries to help "break the cycle" of indoctrination. That word will be offensive to those who think they are doing their best by their children in instructing them in their own religious beliefs and culture, be they Catholic, Protestant, Muslim or Jew. But, even when done with the best intentions, sending a child to a school affiliated to a church is a form of intellectual and emotional programming.
Scotland's Catholic schools were brought into the state education system a century ago under the 1918 Education Act. Commemorating their contribution to the country's moral, cultural and intellectual life, last year, Nicola Sturgeon, first minister of Scotland, declared:
2018 is the centenary of the legislation that brought Roman Catholic schools into Scotland's state education system. In that time, Catholic schools have made a tremendous contribution to Scottish education, and this is something we want to see continue. We value the contribution that Catholic schools make to modern Scotland. We want that contribution to continue in the years ahead.
But anti-Catholic sentiment runs deep in Scotland, at one time a stronghold of Calvinism. After Protestant fraternal groups clashed with Catholics during a series of weekend marches earlier this month, commentators were quick to pounce on Catholic schools, portraying closure as the solution to sectarian strife.
Data do not support these claims, however.
In a Sept. 21 article for The Herald, journalist Kevin McKenna noted: "The independent Advisory Committee on Tackling Sectarianism set up by the Scottish Government has produced several wide-ranging and exhaustive reports. These specifically and unequivocally stated that Catholic schools were not even remotely a cause of sectarianism in Scotland."
"Catholic schools don't cause sectarianism. They cure it," he wrote.
Continuing, McKenna exposed the motivation underlying calls to shutter Catholic schools:
So, in the absence of any evidence that Catholic schools contribute to sectarianism and in spite of counter-data that they actually foster multi-culturalism and tolerance what lies at the root of these attacks? Let's speak frankly here. The people who are most vociferous in their hostility towards Catholic schools also purport to cherish diversity and equality. Yet they want these only within the bounds of a narrow and illiberal agenda. It is group-think that relies on old and discredited tropes that were once used to alienate and target minorities.
"These people simply don't like the idea of Catholic schools but have nothing to justify their hostility," McKenna added. "Each year they are reduced to scanning Scotland's cultural horizon looking for any little wrinkles that can be swollen into false outrage."