This week, I’m posting a guest blog from Edmund Cartwright. We hear a lot about parents who game the faith school system to get their children places in good schools. This blog asks some searching questions from the other side of the fence – teachers who ‘convert’ in order to teach in a faith school.
In our schools, it does not always pay to be Catholic. Unless one is applying to be a leader in those schools. Then, it most certainly does.
And handsomely, too. Not only is leadership in Catholic schools as well remunerated as non-Catholic schools, there is also job protectionism: those lucky candidates who fulfil the qualifying criteria can rest assured that they will be sharing a noticeably quieter interview room than if they were applying for a similar job at a secular school.
Why? Because Catholic schools can insist that those in core leadership positions should be practising Catholics. And this narrows the field considerably.
And if there are not enough practising Catholics to fill those leadership positions? Well, here we get to the issue.
Put bluntly, our privilege, indeed responsibility, to ensure leadership of our schools is authentically Catholic, comes with some pretty disagreeable consequences. Since we often define ‘practising Catholics’ as those who go to Mass, we effectively make reception of Our Lord in the Eucharist a cheaply obtained bauble for improving career prospects in our schools.
There may well be some institutions who take to heart the spirit and intent of (now) Bishop Stock’s 2009 guidance on the wider and vocationally-minded meaning of ‘practising Catholic’; there are plenty more, with a job to fill and a dearth of candidates to fill it, who choose not to.
The tale is nothing new. Conversions conveniently occurring immediately prior to a job application (to the benefit of both candidate and school); a sudden and very public enthusiasm for the Faith (as long as it sticks to the nice, cuddly stuff); a zeal for the Mass just before an interview and an inexplicable absence soon afterward; all of these things have long happened and no doubt will continue to do so.
But one is duty-bound to ask: can we still justify intertwining Communion and career in such a way? If secularists can (and do) get angry about this, then shouldn’t we as Catholics should be furious?
And what is worse is that we know it happens. And yet do nothing. And we do nothing because it solves a problem for us.
Many diocesan education services and school governing bodies, acutely aware of the demands for candidates that fulfil (predominantly secular) accounts of strong school leadership, will simply turn a blind eye. And this includes those living publicly at odds with the teachings of the Church. Thus, we choose to exist in the grey area – knowing enough to know that we don’t wish to know any more. Confusion, hypocrisy, and inauthenticity triumphs – but at least it keeps the show on the road.
Of course, there are those who declare we are in no position to pronounce on the spiritual intent and authenticity of others. And quite right too – some of these candidates are undoubtedly excellent.
But we can at least address the system we have created and ask ourselves whether they are open to exploitation. Apathy is not an option here: the responsibility to our schools, who need authentic Catholic leaders, but also to the integrity of the Sacrament, means it is important to ask if we have unwittingly created perverse incentives. Those who refuse to do so could reasonably be suspected of much the same cynicism – picking at this thread could, after all, unravel a large part of the whole garment.
Quite what can be done is a more difficult question to answer.
Having fewer schools is one option, though one unlikely to be considered, wedded as we are to a model of presumed influence which tells us that relinquishing schools we cannot adequately staff would nonetheless be a backward step.
Secondly, we could relax the rules regarding leadership, which might rescue us from the charge of hypocrisy but which makes it more difficult to retain any vestige of Catholic identity. Foundation governors could provide support, but there is little to suggest recruitment here is any easier.
Lastly, we could require a longer lead-in time for those wishing to be considered for leadership roles – perhaps clerical references going back at least two years. This does not solve the issue – the pragmatist could just choose to be pragmatic earlier – but it would at least inhibit the opportunist in a way that current rules do not easily enable.
There will, of course, be those institutions who steer a steadier course, notably those within larger metropolitan areas with a greater pool of candidates to choose from, who would bridle at the suggestions herein. No matter. That they have the capacity to operate within the system does little to defend that system in the face of the pernicious incentives being created elsewhere within it.
Because as things stand, our school system risks incentivising sacrilege. And that is not something we can ever justify being comfortable with.