President Barack Obama angered some proponents of Catholic education during his visit to Northern Ireland this week when he told a Belfast audience that towns will remain divided “if Catholics have their schools and buildings, and Protestants have theirs.”
An article, which subsequently appeared in the Scottish Catholic Observer, carried the headline, “U.S. President Undermines Catholic Schools After Vatican Prefect Praised Them.”
The article said Obama “made an alarming call for an end to Catholic education in Northern Ireland,” and quoted from recent remarks of the Vatican’s Archbishop Gerhard Müller, who had said that Catholic education was “a critical component of the Church.”
Dr. Matthew Bunson, senior correspondent for Our Sunday Visitor and author of the new book “Pope Francis,” tells Newsmax the president should have chosen his words more carefully, and he pointed to the contribution that Catholic education has made to bringing about the 15-year-old peace in the once-troubled region.
“While I understand the background — the backdrop of his remarks in terms of the painful history of the religious strife in northern Ireland — it is unfortunate that his remarks could be construed by some as an attack on religious education,” Bunson explained.
“It’s an opportunity I think, though, to make note of the very significant role that religious education — especially Catholic education — has played in ending the strife in Northern Ireland, in particular the role of Catholic educators in helping to raise new generations in Ireland, who recognize the importance of cooperation, of peace, and that is something that’s worth celebrating.”
Conservative website Breitbart.com was quick to label Obama’s remarks as a “gaffe” based on the “fact that Obama did not consider the sensitivities of his audience — or that he inadvertently revealed his own anti-religious prejudice.
“To travel to a city troubled by conflict, and to then insult the members of at least one of the two communities, is not only a gaffe, but a serious diplomatic error,” according to the website.
Obama arrived in Northern Ireland Monday morning after an overnight flight from Washington.
Following his speech to about 1,800 students and adults, he flew to a lakeside golf resort near Enniskillen, where he met with other leaders of the Group of 8 industrial nations on Syria, trade and counterterrorism.
The president also told the Belfast audience that peace in Northern Ireland is a “blueprint” for those living amid conflict around the world, while acknowledging that the calm between Catholics and Protestants will face further tests.
With respect to Catholic education, Obama said “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.”
Ashley McGuire, a senior fellow with The Catholic Association, also viewed Obama’s remarks as an attack on Catholic education.
“Catholic education is a longstanding tradition and a gift to society at large,” she said. “Why the president chose to attack that tradition is beyond comprehension and represents his continuing effort to relegate religion to the private sphere.”