Wednesday, August 16, 2006

Anti-Catholicism - the last prejudice?

You're not a Roman are you?

Meeting your new family, before getting married, is a nervous occasion. So it proved for my sister, meeting her grandmother-in-law for the first time. She looked my sister up and down, staring at her, and finally said "You're not a Roman are you?" My sister was confused. She'd never even been to Italy.

This sort of reaction isn't uncommon among the white chattering classes in England - and it's even more common north of the border (in Scotland, for my geographically challenged transatlantic cousins). My mother met her common-law husband's family for the first time - one of them asked "you're not *whisper* Catholic *unwhisper* are you? I mean I mean I mean, not that I have anything against that of course!"

Unpatriotic and Satanic

Since the Reformation in Scotland - and since the Glorious Revolution in England - Roman Catholicism has been viewed as something suspicious - something "other". Despite their best attempts, Catholics have been labelled unpatriotic ("one eye to Rome"), and even satanic. The Church of Scotland, a voice of moderation believe it or not, required its officers to believe that the Pope was "a man of sin, son of perdition, anti-Christ" up until the General Synod of 1988. How many of its officers actually believed this is open to question, I would bet on none, but it's the principle of the thing.

There is no serious debate as to whether Catholicism is Christianity of course - other than in the same community who think that Allah was a Moon God, and that dinosaurs and men walked hand in hand in Glen Rose, Texas. However the popular conception of Catholicism in Britain is as a religion apart from the established Church - strange in its customs and rituals, led from another country, suspiciously focused on Mary, anti-British and supportive of foreign terrorists. This probably has a lot to do in modern times with the issue of Ireland, and the IRA, but nevertheless.

The Test Act

These attitudes towards Roman Catholics in the UK still lead to sectarianism and discrimination. For example, the only religious grouping that can be discriminated against in terms of employment are Catholics - in that a Catholic cannot hold the office of Prime Minister or Lord Chancellor. Technically, Tony Blair is breaking the law taking the Lord's Supper in a Roman Catholic Church. If he declared himself a Catholic, it would lead to a constitutional crisis.

This archaic law dates back to the Test Act, instituted in the 1600s, which made taking communion in a Protestant church a pre-requisite for holding office in the army, holding power in government, and taking various posts at Universities. This act was brought into place for good reason mind you - the religious turmoil of moving from Protestant king to Catholic Queen and back again had led to the British army being involved in massacres of Protestants in what is now Northern Ireland.

It was King James II's attempted repeal of the Test Act, and of Habeus Corpus, that prompted the Glorious Revolution - his ousting from the throne, and the invitation to King William of Orange, a Protestant Prince from Holland, to rule in his place. The Act of Settlement, still in place in the UK, still reads: "it hath beene found by experience that it is inconsistent with the safety and welfaire of this protestant kingdome to be governed by a popish prince or by any King or Queene marrying a papist". The time of reformation and revolution, however, has passed - it seems perverse to carry on these traditions and laws.

Football, Flutes and Bigotry

However the memory of the Glorious Revolution is still very much alive in the minds of the populous, especially in Scotland and Northern Ireland. Orange marches still take place regularly in the marching season around the 12th of July, the anniversary of the Williamite victory over King James at the Battle of the Boyne, in 1690. And more popular still is sectarian rivalry in football - Glasgow Rangers being the Protestant club, and Glasgow Celtic the Catholic.

Although both clubs are now actively trying to crack down on sectarian hatred - and the situation has improved from the riots of the 70s and 80s - there is still bitterness and bigotry on both sides. At Rangers matches, most chants and songs end in "f*ck the pope" - at Celtic they sing "f*ck the queen". A popular Rangers song is "No Pope of Rome" (to the tune of "Home on the Range"):

"Oh give me a home / where there's no Pope in Rome / where there's nothing but protestants stay / Where seldom is heard a discouraging word / and flute bands play The Sash every day / Oh, there's no Pope in Rome / No chapel to sadden my eyes / No nuns and no priests - f*ck your rosary beads / Every day's like the 12th of July"

The hatred has progressed to a stage that all Rangers vs Celtic matches have to be played before 12 noon, to stop the fans getting drunk enough to beat each other up - and the Scottish Football Association has had to rearrange the footballing Calendar to make sure that there is never a title-deciding Rangers vs Celtic match, after the stabbings of 1998. It is ironic that, in their ignorance, the fans do not know that the Vatican, angry at King James' attempts to convert people by force, supported King William, bribing France not to join in on King James' side.

We hate Catholics, but we hate Muslims worse

There is a glimour of hope however for Catholics in the UK. For as much as there is suspicion and sometimes hatred against them (although both of these are ebbing away in a new, secular generation) - everyone seems now to agree that we can put our differences aside and unite in suspecting muslims instead.

Perhaps, ironically, anti-Catholicism won't be the last acceptable prejudice in the UK - not because there is no prejudice or it isn't accepted - but because there is a new and uniting prejudice to replace it.

Sadly, that will come too late for some. On my mother's side, I only ever knew half my family - because the other half disowned their share - they couldn't face the marriage of their Catholic daughter to a Protestant groom. Prejudice, it would seem, works both ways - and only breeds more hatred on the other side of the fence.

The Power of Education

It is time now for reconciliation - but most of all for education. Sadly in Scotland and Ireland, schools are often split on sectarian lines. People grow up only hearing rumours and tracks about the "other" religion. This ignorance breeds distrust and fear - and it is ignorance that is the universal, not just the British, common denominator in sectarian prejudice. We should all be making an effort, for our children's sake, to cross the divide and have our children make friends on the other side through social mixing. It is harder to believe that Catholics are satanists when you've actually met one, and when they are your friends.

And we should be making an effort to educate adults also as to the true beliefs of our respective Churches - emphasising the similarities, shared traditions and beliefs, and the 1600 years of heritage that we have in common. There may, sadly, never be a scope for a common celebration of communion between us - but at least, outside of 9-11 on a Sunday (and 3pm - 4:45pm on a Saturday - football hours for my US comrades), we can all be friends.