Right-wing Catholics are up in arms after President Obama made comments highlighting the extreme segregation between Catholic and Protestant schools in Northern Ireland.
The president visited Northern Ireland this week in an effort to encourage the removal of “peace lines” in the country, which are barriers set up between divergent religious neighborhoods, usually between a Catholic and a Protestant neighborhood, to ease sectarian tensions.
Obama made the comments Monday in Belfast, hitting on a dangerous and historically volatile topic for Northern Ireland. In the country, state schools differ according to religion, which has laid the ground for a great deal of social tension. For example, it is common for neighbors, one family Catholic and the other Protestant, to send their kids to separate schools.
“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,” 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 and resentment are allowed to harden, that encourages division. It discourages cooperation,” he said.
Right-wing Catholics have since used Obama’s comments to attack the president’s perceived attack on Catholic education. As the minority in Northern Ireland, many Catholics do feel they must strongly and vehemently defend their way of life, and their fervor has renewed American Catholics’ anger as well at the president.
In the U.S. many Catholic organizations are embroiled in legal battles against the administration’s health care laws mandating that employers provide coverage that includes birth control for their employees. Stringent Catholic teachings believe using contraception is a sin, but many Catholics opt to use it anyway.
Catholic figures have publicly criticized Obama’s comments as an attack against Catholic education, arguing that he is simplifying a complex social issue in Northern Ireland.
"Catholic education is not the source of ‘division’ in Northern Ireland, nor are [Catholic schools] a source of division anywhere in the world. Catholic schools educate children without regard for race, class, sex, origin or even religious faith,” said Brian Burch, president of CatholicVote.org, a nonprofit advocacy group.
More moderate Catholic leaders, however, are not as angry with the president for what they see as a practical assessment of a contentious social issue in the foreign county.
“President Obama’s comments are directly on point and in no way disparage Catholic education. Obama has been a consistent supporter of Catholic schools and has held multiple events honoring them at the White House,” said James Salt, Director of Catholics United, a more progressive religious group. “The real story here is how far the Catholic far right will go to disparage this president. Simply put, Obama’s detractors have taken an innocuous yet important comment out of context as a way to score cheap political points.”