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Did Obama diss Catholic schools in Belfast?

June 20, 2013|By Michael McGough
  • Oresudebt Obama delivers a keynote address at Waterfront Hall in Belfast, Northern Ireland.
Oresudebt Obama delivers a keynote address at Waterfront Hall in Belfast,… (Paul Faith / AFP )

As a grateful product of 12 years of Catholic education, I would be bothered if President Obama heaped abuse on Roman Catholic schools. According to some critics, that is exactly what he did in some recent remarks to teenagers in Northern Ireland. One blogger linked the president’s comments about separate Protestant and Catholic schools there to his admistration’s requirement that Catholic colleges and hospitals offer contraceptive services as part of their employee health insurance programs. 

Here’s what Obama said in remarks to a Belfast town hall meeting with Protestant and Catholic youngsters:

“Because issues like segregated schools and housing, lack of jobs and opportunity -- symbols of history that are a source of pride for some and pain for others -- these are not tangential to peace; they’re essential to it.  If towns remain divided -- if Catholics have their schools and buildings, and Protestants have theirs -- if we can’t see ourselves in one another, if fear or resentment are allowed to harden, that encourages division.  It discourages cooperation.”

On the TownHall.com website, Carol Platt Liebau complained that Obama “chose to analogize education by Catholics and Protestants to segregation” in his remarks at a Belfast meeting with youngsters.

Liebau continued: “Of course, it's ironic that the most divisive president in American history should go to Ireland and condemn division. But it also raises questions: Does this signal hostility to Catholic education in America -- or hostility to religious education in general? It's clear -- from his Obamacare abortifacient/contraceptive mandate to his efforts to cut charitable deductions -- that the president sees government as the only really legitimate actor in civil society.  But his willingness to characterize education by religious orders as enabling division and discord is an unpleasant reminder of his hostility to any social force with potential to check the power of Big Government.”

Put aside the wing-nut notion that Obama is the “most divisive president in American history.” Was he disparaging Catholic schools in general or equating them with racially segregated schools (Liebau’s clear implication)?

 I don’t think so.

 Context matters here.  Northern Ireland is not the United States. Even in my childhood, when Catholic kids were encouraged to attend Catholic schools and there was an arguably Protestant ethos in many public schools, Catholics and Protestants weren't as isolated from (or as distrustful of) one another in this country as they continue to be in Northern Ireland.

Today,  thanks to Vatican II and the relentless asssimilation of Catholics, it’s common for Catholics to attend public schools (where teachers no longer recite from the Protestant King James Bible).  But it is also common for Protestants, Jews and others to attend Catholic schools. And a lot of children, Catholic and non-Catholic, will attend both public and Catholic schools over the course of their education.

Society in Northern Ireland is much more stratified, and the role of religiously defined schools more problematic.  You can be perfectly comfortable with the role of Catholic schools in the American context and worry about their contribution to estrangement between Protestants and Catholics in Northern Ireland.

As for the notion that Obama is hostile to private schools with a religious character, that seems unlikely. His own children attend the Sidwell Friends School, a Quaker  institution. Of course, Obama's detractors will say that simply proves he's a hypocrite.

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