What really gets their goat about Catholicism

The current Catholic-baiting springs from the cultural elite’s suspicion of anyone who, unlike them, has strong beliefs.

Kevin Rooney

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In a blast from the past, this week Ian Paisley emerged out of retirement to announce that he would be in Edinburgh to greet Pope Benedict XVI on his arrival to the UK.

Of course, in the best Paisley tradition, it will not exactly be a warm welcome, and I braced myself for Paisley’s familiar diatribe against Catholic doctrine and scripture that I had grown up with in Belfast. But instead, when quizzed by the media, the reverend ditched the usual Biblical attacks and jumped on the new bandwagon of the child sex abuse scandal and cover-up, sounding strangely similar to the band of liberal atheists, those in the Richard Dawkins mould, who, one can only assume, would not have counted Ian Paisely as their ally.

The few (and there are only a few) commentators who have criticised the current anti-papal mood amongst Britain’s opinion-forming classes have tended to link it to the centuries-old tradition of English anti-Catholic prejudice, as displayed by people like Paisley. In a recent Observer piece, Padraig Reidy claimed that the reaction to the pope’s visit signified the return of good old-fashioned anti-Catholic prejudice and ignorance. But can the new hysteria really be explained by Britain’s historic traditions?

The strong ruling-class suspicion towards Catholics after the Reformation was partly fuelled by the suspicion that Catholics were loyal to Rome first and the British nation second. Anti-Catholic bigotry intensified with the arrival of hundreds of thousands of Catholic-Irish, who became the backbone of the British-Catholic church. When the conflict in Ireland led to demands for separation from England, the British establishment was wary of the fifth column inside its own borders. However, as time moved on, a combination of periods of peace in Ireland and the integration of Irish Catholics into mainstream British life led to a gradual decline in anti-Catholic prejudice.

In fact, what is striking about Catholics in Britain today – they make up around 10 per cent of the population – is how prominent they are in every walk of life, including much-loved TV stars such as Adrian Chiles and Frank Skinner and establishment figures like the Blairs. At one point recently, the three leaders of our largest political parties were Catholics (though Tony Blair only officially became Catholic after leaving office). These developments suggests that the old discrimination and sectarian attitudes towards Catholics are a thing of the past. So how, then, do we explain the current anti-pope, Catholic-fearing hysteria?

The first thing to note is that the intolerant view of Catholicism that has been so visible in recent weeks has come not from the working classes or from the traditional establishment, but rather from so-called liberals, humanists and secularists, who try to use science and rationalism to discredit and ridicule expressions of the Catholic faith.

What is striking is the altogether more insulting attitude that the so-called New Atheists display towards ordinary church members. Rather than the old-style sectarian attacks on aspects of the Catholic religion, the modern critics tend to present the millions of Catholics worldwide as ignorant people who have become prisoners of a superstitious and autocratic church. For them, women in the Phillipines are forced into lives of poverty bearing 10 children because they are uneducated, ignorant and blindly follow church teaching on contraception. In a slur on the poor which in any other circumstance would be frowned upon, some atheist commentators suggest that middle-class Catholics like the Blairs have the luxury of a pick-and-mix kind of Catholicism that ignores many of the rules, while poor Catholics have no such powers of judgement and are imprisoned by blind faith.

The New Atheists cannot concede that millions of Catholics worldwide choose to stay inside the church while happily ignoring almost all the rules. The reason why poor women in the Phillipines (or in West Belfast for that matter!) have large numbers of children is not because they are following a Vatican tick list banning the use of contraception, but because their aspirations for alternative ways of living, of achieving fulfilling lives, are severely limited by poverty. They are poor, not stupid. But somehow, the New Atheists seem incapable of acknowledging Catholics as potentially intelligent people who happen to subscribe to a set of beliefs.

And herein lies the rub. Many in the ‘Protest the Pope’ campaign seem to reserve much of their anger, not for Catholics per se, but for any group in society that professes a strong faith and belief. In a contemporary Britain that generally disavows absolute moral values, Pope Benedict and his followers stand out and it is easy to see why the pope’s visit has become the focus for liberal protesting – because strong Catholic beliefs offend contemporary liberal sensibilities, and the intolerant secularist lobby rules that they therefore have no place in our secular society.

Unlike the anti-Catholics of the past, who took issue with specific aspects of the Catholic faith, the New Atheists tend to oppose faith itself, on the smug basis that they ‘know best’. As the front page of the Guardian weekend magazine recently revealed, the new ‘Gods’ of contemporary society are the ‘Gods of science’: Stephen Hawking, Brian Cox, David Attenborough and Richard Dawkins – and sadly, some of them seem every bit as intolerant as the Catholic hierarchy they despise. While posing as secular liberals, the pope’s opponents display a breathtaking intolerance for any views that do not conform to their rationalist outlook.

The other thing about the new opposition is that it can no longer be explained as a reaction to the widespread abuse of power by the church. The question that should trouble us all is why the anti-Catholic movement has reached such a frenzy at the very moment when the church has lost almost all of its significant influence over society. The days of an all-powerful church dominating institutions and rewriting national constitutions behind closed doors are long gone, even in Catholic Ireland.

With the exception of a few annoying road closures and some of our favourite soaps being rescheduled, the pope’s visit to his faithful in Britain will have absolutely no impact on the rest of us and should have passed off without comment. Unless, that is, we now live in a time when only people ‘like us’ are allowed a space in society or a voice in the media.

Kevin Rooney teaches government and politics at a London school. He is producing the session ‘The Catholic Church: more sinned against than sinner?’ at this October’s Battle of Ideas festival to be held at the Royal College of Art in London.

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