"No longer strangers in a strange land"
The Catholic community of Scotland which will soon welcome Benedict XVI with great enthusiasm has been transformed over the past 50 years.
In the 1950s and 1960s it was commonplace for commentators to refer to the community as living in a ghetto - marginalised, introverted, homogeneous in faith and social class - with its walls fortified by mistrust and suspicion of an unsympathetic, and sometimes hostile, Protestant nation. Much of the evidence does indeed lend support to such a description. Most Catholics in Scotland were of Irish origin, usually working class, commonly marrying a partner from the same faith and for the most part loyal in political terms to the Labour Party.
In the west of Scotland where most lived, the denominational educational system was a key marker of identity, as was strong support for Glasgow Celtic FC. A strong collective sense was also nourished by high levels of Mass attendance and the host of lay associations which were not only devotional in spirit and purpose but catered for the social and welfare needs of the community as a whole.
But even in that period the walls of the ghetto were pretty porous. Some drifted away from the faith altogether on reaching adulthood. Catholics were part of the mainstream of Scottish life in their daily work and their participation in the mass recreations of football, dancing and the cinema. Even "mixed marriages" were more common than is often thought.
No Catholic or Irish political party was founded to advance ethnic or sectional interest. Instead, Catholics were to the fore alongside Protestant Scots in trade unionism and the organisation of the Labour Party which provided a vital bridge into Scottish and British politics in general. In the larger towns and cities there may have been clusters of Catholic families but there was none of the systematic segregation which blighted Belfast and other urban areas in northern Ireland. The building of the huge housing schemes of the 1950s also did much to destroy traditional enclaves. So the community was not closed but it did have a strong religious and social cohesion, disadvantaged for the most part and broadly uniform in class terms. It was this which started to pass into history from the 1970s.
Five decades later the contours of a different Catholic community have become apparent. In 2001 Scottish Catholics were still more likely to work in lower-class jobs than the norm. This is especially the case for those in age groups of 55 and above. But among those from 18 to 34 the status and occupational gap has closed dramatically.Indeed, those of Catholic background are no longer under-represented among Scotland's managers, senior officials and professionals - a change of crucial historical importance. A key route has been through the unparalleled educational expansion of the second half of the 20th century. The coming of comprehensive education in the 1960s, for instance, was described by one bishop as "more beneficial to the Catholic community than anything since the Catholic Emancipation Act of 1829 and the repeal of the penal laws".
That was matched by the growth of a mass university education feeding into the new post-heavy industry economy of public services, finance, tourism, oil and gas, light engineering and the science-based industries. The old citadels of sectarian discrimination, nepotism, clientage and patronage crumbled with the end of the old economy, where such practices had flourished in luxuriant abundance. Instead, to a much greater extent than before, merit, certification and qualifications are now the kings. Education and economic change thus became the twin motors of social mobility.
Alongside such material improvements, however,has come a decline of the intense religiosity of earlier years. Catholicism in Scotland was not immune from the powerful forces of secularism which were unleashed from the 1960s. By the new millennium Mass attendance, especially in poorer parishes, had plummeted. Vocations to the priesthood started to dry up. The erosion of traditional ethnic and religious identities was confirmed by the disappearance or terminal decline of several lay organisations as the welfare state, television and the mass entertainment industries rendered them irrelevant.
Both the Church of Scotland and the Catholic Church seemed on similar downward trajectories, though the "membership catastrophe" occurred earlier and more rapidly in the former than the latter. The number of "mixed marriages" reached unprecedented levels. One 2004 study concluded that 94 per cent of married Catholics in the age group 65 to 74 had a Catholic spouse. In the age group 25 to 34, however, more than half of married Catholics has a non-Catholic partner. This new generation is more attracted to la carte Catholicism and has embraced the contraceptive revolution. Warnings from Rome about moral failure have apparently gone unheeded.
With closer integration some old political loyalties started to fray at the edges. True, loyalty to Labour has by no means disappeared. In the 2001 general election a half of middle-class Catholics voted Labour while two-thirds of church-going Catholics did the same. But the old fears of a Kirk-dominated devolved or independent Scotland are no more, certainly among younger generations. Indeed, social scientists report that support for independence among Catholics is higher than among those who claim a Protestant allegiance. So the Catholic community has come a long way in Scotland over the past half century, though some of the changes which have taken place may not be to the liking of the leadership of the Church. The warm welcome which Benedict will receive from his Scottish flock, however, will surely confirm that Catholicism in Scotland is in good heart. Members of its hierarchy speak out courageously and often controversially on the great issues of the day, while other Christian voices are more muted. The days of keeping a low profile are long gone.
The Church in Scotland has escaped the worst of the terrible abuse scandals which have scarred Catholicism in Ireland, America and other countries. The spiritual life of many parishes remains vibrant and committed. Catholics now occupy the highest positions in the state, judiciary, universities, politics and numerous other spheres, to an extent unthinkable even a generation or so ago. In 2010 they are no longer "strangers in a strange land".
Professor TM Devine holds the Sir William Fraser Chair of Scottish History and Palaeography at the University of Edinburgh
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