Caps on Catholic enrollment in government-funded Catholic schools in England and Wales will continue, despite the ruling party’s campaign pledge to end the limits.

Catholic leaders reacted critically to the news the Conservative government would not lift the caps.

“Catholic schools are popular with parents of all faiths, ethnicities and backgrounds, despite this we will remain barred from participating in the free school program,” Archbishop Malcolm McMahon of Liverpool said May 11, charging that the decision to retain the cap “sides with a vocal minority of campaigners who oppose the existence of church schools.”

“The Catholic Church has had a long and positive relationship with the State in the provision of education and we see today’s decision as a regressive step in this historic partnership,” Archbishop McMahon said.

The archbishop chairs the Department for Education and Formation of the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of England and Wales.

Education Secretary Damian Hinds has decided to retain a 50 percent cap on Catholic pupils in free schools; that is, state-funded schools. The cap had been introduced under the coalition government of Prime Minister David Cameron. The cap means new Catholic free schools must turn away Catholic pupils once they reach the cap of 50 percent Catholic enrollment.

The rule effectively stops new Catholic free schools from opening, as it violates canon law.

Ahead of the 2017 general election, the Conservative Party, which won the election, had made assurances that the cap would not be retained.

Secularist groups advocated that the cap remain, charging that religious schools are divisive and damage social cohesion.

Most of the 2,142 Catholic schools in the country serve less affluent families, and 36 percent of their pupils come from ethnic minority backgrounds, according to the Catholic Education Service.

Bishop Mark Davies of Shrewsbury was among other critics of the cap.

“This was very definite defeat for Catholic education and more specifically the aspiration of parents seeking a Catholic education for their children,” he said May 13. “However, it is a defeat from which an ominous lesson can be drawn of how a government can acquiesce with a small and largely secularist lobby to undermine the freedom in which Christians can live and educate their children.”

The bishop spoke in a homily in Telford at the National Conference of the Catenian Association, where about 550 representatives had gathered. The organization was founded in Manchester in 1908 as a benevolent association, then worked to end restrictions on Catholic education and other social barriers. It now has about 10,000 members worldwide.

For Bishop Davies, the school restrictions demand from Catholics “a new steadfastness in the face of an ever-extending secularist agenda in education and every field of public life.”

He compared the news to the year the Catenian Association was founded, when the U.K. government invoked a new law “to prevent the Blessed Sacrament being carried onto the streets” and when Catholics rallied to defend church schools in the face of an education bill which “threatened their existence.”

The bishop said the decision did not only break a campaign promise. Rather, it “represents a deeper shift in attitude across the whole political spectrum, where the rights and choices of Christian parents in raising their own families are made subservient to an ideology.”

Archbishop McMahon said the Church will pursue the possibility of new Catholic schools that are voluntarily aided, despite education trends going in a different direction.

“We remain committed to our vision of education which consistently delivers high-quality schooling and contributes to the common good,” he said. “Therefore we will continue to work with the Department for Education to address the urgent demand for new Catholic schools.”

“Voluntary aided schools are an important part of the Catholic sector and it is significant that the Government has singled out Catholic education as an area to fund directly,” he added. “This is rightly in recognition of the importance of Catholic schools to local communities and the contribution they make to the wellbeing of society.”

While these schools may select all students based on faith, they are under local government control and local councils may prevent them from opening.