Barack Obama actually made this claim at a speech in Belfast on Monday, but it seems to be gaining traction overnight.  His claim, aimed at both Catholic and Protestant “schools and buildings,” came in prepared remarks rather than an extemporaneous response to a question.  The Scottish Catholic Observer quotes the argument accurately:

The US President has made an alarming call for an end to Catholic education in Northern Ireland in spite of the fact that Archbishop Gerhard Müller told Scots that Catholic education was ‘a critical component of the Church.’

President Barack Obama (above), repeated the oft disproved claim that Catholic education increases division in front of an audience of 2000 young people, including many Catholics, at Belfast’s Waterfront hall when he arrived in the country this morning.

“If towns remain divided—if Catholics have their schools and buildings and Protestants have theirs, if we can’t see ourselves in one another and fear or resentment are allowed to harden—that too encourages division and discourages cooperation,” the US president said.

The US politician made the unfounded claim despite a top Vatican official spelling out the undeniable good done by Catholic education in a speech in Glasgow on Saturday and in his homily at Mass on Friday.

I’ll quote the passage in its full context:

We need you to get this right.  And what’s more, you set an example for those who seek a peace of their own.  Because beyond these shores, right now, in scattered corners of the world, there are people living in the grip of conflict — ethnic conflict, religious conflict, tribal conflicts — and they know something better is out there.  And they’re groping to find a way to discover how to move beyond the heavy hand of history, to put aside the violence.  They’re studying what you’re doing.  And they’re wondering, perhaps if Northern Ireland can achieve peace, we can, too.  You’re their blueprint to follow.  You’re their proof of what is possible — because hope is contagious.  They’re watching to see what you do next.

Now, some of that is up to your leaders.  As someone who knows firsthand how politics can encourage division and discourage cooperation, I admire the Northern Ireland Executive and the Northern Ireland Assembly all the more for making power-sharing work.  That’s not easy to do.  It requires compromise, and it requires absorbing some pain from your own side.  I applaud them for taking responsibility for law enforcement and for justice, and I commend their effort to “Building a United Community” — important next steps along your transformational journey.

Because 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.  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.

Ultimately, peace is just not about politics.  It’s about attitudes; about a sense of empathy; about breaking down the  divisions that we create for ourselves in our own minds and our own hearts that don’t exist in any objective reality, but that we carry with us generation after generation.

Does that make the context any better?  Er … not really.  He’s speaking in terms of Northern Ireland, but pretty explicitly calling for that to be a model for the rest of the world.  His argument makes two very large assumptions, which is that the conflict in Northern Ireland was about religion, and that parochial schools make people inclined to violence.  The first is a gross oversimplification; the conflict in recent times was political, dealing with ethnic conflict and sovereignty issues, with religion used more for tribal identification than a core of the conflict.

The second is just absurd. Catholics and Protestants have thousands of schools in the US, and we don’t have warfare in the streets in the US between the sects.  The issue wasn’t the schools, nor the belief systems of Catholics and Protestants that such schools teach.  However, this makes a handy mechanism to call for the displacement of private education and religious instruction from education, with nothing left except state-controlled schools that indoctrinate children into whatever norms the governing/ruling class deem acceptable.

My friend Father Z wonders whether Obama will make this call truly consistent:

Off the top of my head, I can’t think of a foreign visit to a Islamic nation where he told people on his arrival that they shouldn’t have madrasas.  Can you?

Did he when visiting, say, Israel, say “You Jews shouldn’t have synagogue schools and you muslims shouldn’t have mosque schools.”  I can’t remember.  Did he?

I’d guess … no.

Update: The comments came in a speech on Monday, not on Friday.  I’ve fixed it above; thanks to Joel Pollak at Breitbart for the heads-up.