by Kevin Meagher
It’s a strange time to be a Catholic in Britain. Beset by internal turmoil and out of kilter with liberal-left thinking on a range of issues; my co-religionists can be forgiven for circling the wagons in the face of what feels like incessant hostility.
Yesterday’s Daily Mirror front page photo showed Cardinal Keith O’Brien stood next to a reclining Jimmy Savile, posing at some charity photo opportunity more than a decade ago. The photo was used gratuitously and bore no relation to the news report which focused on O’Brien’s resignation – amid accusations of “improper conduct” towards a number of priests. But the snide implication was clear enough. Clear – as well as tawdry and unjustified.
There is something happening to British Catholics at the moment; a growing sense among the poor bloody infantry that they need to justify their faith in the face of a pervasive threat. Friends in a range of workplaces and professions now complain of casual verbal insults – snide digs and asides – that would never be countenanced (rightly) against any other minority community. For many Catholics these days, it pays to keep your head down.
Liberal Democrat MP David Ward was pilloried recently for stupidly holding “the Jews” accountable for the actions of the Israeli government. The accusation of Islamophobia is enough to reduce any self-respecting liberal a fit of the vapours. Yet Catholics are now fair game – worthy targets of scorn – as the Mirror’s front page testifies.
But we’re a minority too. We’re not the ones with representatives in the House of Lords, or the ones with all those nice stone churches people want to get married in. We’re the other lot. The elderly Irish widows. The lonely young Polish girls, over here working for buttons. The family of Eritrean asylum seekers. For them and many others like them, the church provides a spiritual and social lifeline. It supports and inspires and, if needed, feeds and clothes.
Not to forget the plucky bands of English, Scots and Welsh believers whose forebears faced 250 years of outrageous state-sponsored persecution after the Reformation. This church is not the powerful, privileged monolith of liberal misconception.
It’s anomalous, but the embrace of political correctness – the guarantee that abuse and discrimination will not be tolerated against minorities – stops a long way short when it comes to Britain’s five million Catholics.
The abuse Catholics receive is casual and consistent. Remember the mean-spiritied protests against the Pope’s state visit in 2010? (Knocked into a biretta, it has to be said, by the numbers swelling every public appearance to cheer him on). It’s there, too, in the nasty jokes and digs that do the rounds on Twitter from self-proclaimed “lefty atheists”. (The next batch should be arriving any minute, ahead of the Pope stepping down tomorrow). And it’s on display every time some pig-headed attempt is made to undermine Catholic schools.
Again and again when Catholicism is critiqued (a polite word for vilified) one of four fallacious ‘justifications’ are used to excuse the suspension of the usual rites of political correctness. Let me summarise:
1. The big bad Vatican
‘Ah’, comes the response, ‘it’s not Catholics per se that we don’t like, its the Pope/Vatican/Cardinal X’. The Catholic Church, we are frequently told, is powerful, rich and inherently perfidious. Curiously, it’s a similar smear to that used by anti-Semites; the one that says secretive power is used to wield malign influence.
But ‘The Church’ is simply a collection of ordinary believers, prince and pauper, African and Albanian alike. It is a body of people, not some abstract, faceless corporation. St. Lawrence was asked by the Roman authorities in the 3rd Century to present the treasures of the church for confiscation. He lined up the poor, lame and orphaned as ‘the treasure’ and was martyred for his impudence. An attack on ‘The Church’ or the Pope, or even a Cardinal forced to resign in disgrace, is felt by all Catholics. There is no free dig at the expense of ‘The Man’ just an insult to the poor and often marginalised.
2. Condoms, gays and women
There’s no hiding the fact Catholic teachings on women’s rights and gay rights collide messily with certain liberal-left beliefs. For some, though, this gives carte blanche to slate Catholics with impunity.
But a true liberal recognises it is implausible (perhaps undesirable) to achieve universal groupthink and that, in Voltaire’s hoary claim, we may disagree with what people say but defend their right to say it. Which side ultimately takes precedence in a row between minorities is a moot point. Do the interests of equality trump the interests of pluralism?
The former is used as justification to upbraid the Church on its social teachings. But if it is discriminatory of the Catholic Church to oppose, say, gay marriage, is it not equally discriminatory to launch salvos attacking it for doing so? Surely there needs to be space in any free society to agree to disagree; even through gritted teeth?
But those social teachings also extend to a radical critique of contemporary capitalism, with one of the favourites to success Pope Bendict calling for a new global financial settlement as ambitious in scope as the post-war Bretton Woods arrangements.
These teachings also compel believers to the most extraordinary heights of selflessness, with the Catholic Church the largest non-governmental provider of healthcare in the world, providing a quarter of all care for people with HIV in Africa.
3. All religion is fair game
This is the canard of those clever enough not to fall into the first two traps. This argument assumes all religion is, by its very essence, abusive and intolerant and believes it is being, well, ecumenical with its disdain for the whole lot of it. It spills forth nonsense about ‘religion-being-the-cause-of-all-war’ and religious state schools being A Bad Thing because they (apparently) inculcate a hatred of others. Of course it’s as ludicrous a train of thought as assuming support for our collectivised NHS inexorably leads to love for collectivised North Korean agriculture.
Moreover, it assumes people who take their religion seriously are irrational dimwits. Given so many British Catholics are now foreign-born, there is a vaguely racist tone to these sorts of criticisms. The ‘fair game’ defence insists it is critiquing the religious equally. Funny, though, how the roar of call-it-as-it-is atheism turns into a squeak when it comes to deriding Islam. Perhaps bishops should issue fatwas?
4. The Church is treated like a political party
Everyone feels compelled to point out that the Catholics should simply “get with the 21st Century”. For an institution that thinks in centuries, the church’s seemingly antiquated nature ensures an endless stream of free, banal management and PR advice about how it should simply “modernise”.
But “thou shall not kill” – to take one random example – is not an entreaty that lends itself to regular, expedient revision. As evidenced by the most powerful voice opposing the Iraq War ten years ago. Not a Richard Dawkins or an Owen Jones, but Pope John Paul II. Heavens! A Pontiff, rather than a pontificator.
So what to do? The challenge for the liberal-left is two-fold. First, address the problem of intellectual incoherence. Include Catholics in the standards that you readily apply to other minority groups or stand accused of selective bigotry.
Second, recognise there are more areas of congruence than conflict between Catholics and the left. As I’ve argued before, a culture war is costly distraction depleting the left’s potential ranks as Catholics are frozen out.
The best way of achieving a de-escalation in petty conflict and coalescing around common concerns is by fostering mutual respect between Catholics and liberals and finding space to disagree amicably where agreement will never be found.
Kevin Meagher is associate editor of Labour Uncut