The Church risks the loss of state-funded religious schools unless it vigorously upholds the right to teach the Catholic faith even when it clashes with the ideology of the state, a former top-ranking diplomat has told educators.
Francis Campbell, the former UK Ambassador to the Holy See, now vice-chancellor of St Mary's University in London, warned staff and students of the School of the Annunciation at Buckfast Abbey in Devon, that there was no guarantee that governments would continue to support Catholic education.
Rising levels religious illiteracy combined with the "absolutist" claims of militant secularism to hold the single neutral and objective belief system might tempt policy-makers to roll back religion from public life, he said.
But instead of attempting to survive by downplaying the Catholic faith or compromising with prevailing ideologies, Church schools must find the courage and conviction to uphold the ethos that makes a distinctive contribution to society, he argued.
The Church must be prepared to make the case for state-funded faith schools as an essential freedom of a functional pluralistic society, said Mr Campbell. Any retreat by the Church from education would weaken democracy and even contribute to totalitarianism, he said.
"How faith communities are treated can often be the litmus test for the broader freedom of society and the place of the individual vis-a-vis the state," Mr Campbell said. "One can think of the French Revolution or the creation of the Soviet Union."
He added: "We must retain conviction about the offer of Catholic education and its purpose and contribution to society and not apologise for that conviction."
Mr Campbell made his remarks on November 21 as guest speaker at the first ever presentation of certificates to students who have completed two-year, part-time, distance-learning courses at the School of the Annunciation.
The School was founded at Buckfast Abbey, Devon, in 2014 to equip adult Catholics for the "New Evangelisation", the great project of the Church to preach the Gospel afresh in often heavily secularised Western democracies.
When the School of the Annunciation was set up, it was expected that just 20 students would study Diplomas in New Evangelisation and related courses but about 40 students were the first to receive their certificates.
Addressing the students and their guests, who included Auxiliary Bishop John Wilson of Westminster, and visiting professors of Santa Croce Pontifical University in Rome, Mr Campbell praised the School for "reinvigorating the Church's contribution to wider society by ensuring a thriving and vibrant educational offer".
Bishop Mark O'Toole of Plymouth also paid tribute to the accomplishments of the School of the Annunciation, adding: "How precious a jewel it is for us."
Mr Campbell was clear that the struggle for the Catholic Church to confidently retain a place in public life was a fight for freedom itself.
"Critiques by faith communities can reinforce democratic processes in the liberal states by ensuring that alternative perspectives are heard and crucially that 'group-think' is avoided," he said.
"A faith perspective not just helps the state through the provision of services but helps to ensure that very plurality that keeps the state liberal, that is, open to challenge.
"Without challenge, ladies and gentlemen, democratic states run the risk of becoming illiberal and fostering a culture of uniformity which can be unhealthy for the future of democracy itself."
He continued: "We must never be complacent about our pluralism and we must protect and promote it with intellectual rigour because of the wider freedoms it supports in society and one of those freedoms is the offer of a faith-based educational system.
"That offer helps to keep our society's pluralism open and that is in all our interests."
He said: "We must avoid the temptations to be complacent about the future of Catholic education or smug about its achievements or even to retreat.
"We must remain vigilant and need to constantly integrate the ethos of the prevailing educational philosophy so that all will be reminded of the broader goals of Catholic education," which included the formation of the whole person, he added.
"The Catholic school and university needs to be attentive to its ethos and identity as it is to the essential professional methods otherwise it runs the risk of cutting itself off from its roots and ... drying up.
"To succeed in re-embedding Catholic education in the public square we must also set out the argument in its widest context to show that it is not only about state funding for the faith schools, as important as it is for the Church and society, but that it goes much broader than that and touches the very notion of freedom within our society."
Mr Campbell was a policy adviser to the Labour Government of Tony Blair for seven years before he became British Ambassador to the Holy See in 2005, a post he held until 2011. He then served as Deputy High Commissioner to Pakistan before joining St Mary's, widely regarded as the oldest Catholic university in England, in 2014.