Separate school education has two fundamental characteristics. The first is presence and the second is permeation.
As church attendance falls, there are fewer and fewer churches being built (by the Roman Catholic Church as well as by others) and some of those that have been open for many years are closed. For the Roman Catholic Church the operation of separate schools provides a very significant counter-balance to the retreating presence of churches. With public funds, Roman Catholic separate schools are built in neighbourhoods that will not likely ever see the construction of a Roman Catholic church, and the Roman Catholic faith community can use the school for religious functions. In small rural communities across Alberta, as Roman Catholic churches are closed, the Roman Catholic separate school remains as a manifestation of the faith, and as a symbol to locals of the enduring nature, and power, of the Church. (Speculatively, one of the reasons for the expansion of separate school education in Alberta has been to counter the closure of Roman Catholic churches in the same or similar communities.)
As far as the Roman Catholic Church and the Alberta Catholic School Trustees’ Association are concerned, the purpose of separate school education is to ensure ‘permeation’ of the Roman Catholic faith into the lives and very being of students. Separate schools do not simply provide courses of religious instruction. They encourage religious examples and religious connections in all courses of study, as well as in extra-curricular activities and casual inter-actions on the playground or in the hallway. This permeation is not of non-denominational (or pan-denominational) Christianity: it is of Roman Catholic doctrine.
Separate schools prepare students for First Communion. They conduct Mass for all students.
Separate schools also limit the books that are studied in literature classes and carried in the library. They limit the issues that are discussed in social studies or health and personal development classes. They limit the application of democratic theory and practices. The limits are not those of a civil democratic society: they are the limits created by the doctrine of the faith.
The current example relates to the establishment of ‘gay/straight alliances’ by students in junior or senior high schools. Separate schools are likely to oppose this particular form of self-actualization (or democratic self-organization) by students, on the grounds that it is contrary to the doctrine of the Church, and the doctrine of the Church is more important than the circumstances of students.
It is certainly true that many Roman Catholic separate schools will allow many non-Catholic children to enroll, provided that the parents accept the Roman Catholic spirit of the school and accept that this spirit will permeate the education of their children. (Permeation can become proselytizing.)
Permeation is so important that the position of the Roman Catholic Church and of the Alberta Catholic School Trustees’ Association has, for many years, been one of rejecting shared facilities. Shared facilities are few in number and where they exist, there is ‘neutral territory’ (such as a recreation facility) between the separate school node and the public school node. Libraries are not shared; playgrounds are not shared. Until recently, transportation was not shared (and it is still rare), since to have Catholic and non-Catholic students on a bus would compromise the cause of permeation.