Andrew Wilson: Contemplating Catholic controversy

EVERY time I hear any Scottish Catholic, lay or clergy, famous or anonymous, complain about hostility towards them in their own country I pause. It causes me, as it should cause all of us, some pain.

Last week, church spokesman Peter Kearney was the latest to do so, repeating his view that Scotland was still too hostile a home for too many. Many other Catholics disagreed and criticised him. That is good news because it means at least the Kearney perspective is not universal.

But while Kearney and others like him feel that way, we all have work to do. This is not a phenomenon we can measure in statistics to declare a job done. It is how some people feel and so it matters, or it should. But so should some perspective on it.

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On reading his interview I recalled a remarkable event I attended more than a decade ago. At the Marian Catholic shrine near my hometown of Wishaw I heard the single most important speech I have ever heard from a church leader and it was hardly reported anywhere. The Very Reverend Dr Andrew McLellan, a former Moderator of the Church of Scotland, was representing his most Protestant church at the opening of a memorial to the victims of the Irish Famine at Carfin Grotto.

It was a major event attended by the then Irish premier Bertie Ahern and many others of the great, the good and not so great. Many speeches were given, but the one that impacted me the most was McLellan’s. It was short and simple and his main point was this: “My forefathers did not welcome those who came across the sea from Ireland. I regret that and I am ashamed of it. Together you and I must make sure we do not repeat the mistakes of those who went before us.”

He was referring to the institutionalised, organised and disgraceful policies of the Kirk and the establishment of the time that set out to damage the interests of the large Irish Catholic community who had come to Scotland for work and to escape the greatest human disaster of the 19th century, the Irish famine.

Catholics did not have equality of access to education or employment, and the leaders of the country created the conditions that allowed widespread bigotry to fester because they institutionalised it themselves. The church even called for their repatriation.

McLellan’s apology was a fitting and moving moment for me as a non-Catholic with strong emotional respect for the Catholic Church and community. But it is also important to recognise that the fact that he could make it, looking historically from the perspective of the beginning of a new century, marked progress in the health of Scotland’s society and culture. As did the memorial itself.

We no longer have institutionalised bigotry of the type McLellan apologised for. And for the vast majority of Catholics I am sure Scotland is a wonderful, loving and infuriating home in precisely the same way it is for us non-Catholics.

But still we see and hear echoes of the dark past of Scotland in the voices and behaviours of today, of course we do. We hope it is diminishing but there can be no doubt that as long as some people choose to occupy their time aggressively opposing what they are not, or defining their attitude to others on the basis of creed rather than “content of character”, then bigotry still exists. And it channels the all too easy and all too common violence of some.

Sometimes there are possibly well-meaning proxies for it. Like calls for the abolition of Catholic schools. This is a serious error of judgement. They were a response of the Catholic community to protect their own at a time when they were being educationally discriminated against. Who could possible criticise that, given the context? They do not create bigotry, and I speak as someone who went to a primary school separated from the Catholic school by a 20 foot high fence.

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Difference does not create bigotry. The failure to embrace, accept and celebrate it does. As McLellan said: “Together you and I must make sure we do not repeat the mistakes of those who went before us.” For me that also means chasing the – we hope – dying embers of the corpse of bigotry to dust.

It is a sign of hope for me that Scottish Catholics are now arguing among themselves on this issue. Not so long ago they would have been united as one behind the view that Kearney expressed. That much is progress. But for me the appropriate response of the majority whenever any minority feels hostility is vigilance, not dismissal, and a relentless attempt to make it better.

That for me, incidentally, will never mean silence when I disagree passionately with some of the more fundamentalist urges of the Catholic Church on the social issues of the day. But I will take on the argument, not the creed. And for their part, church leaders like Peter Kearney can play his own role in healing the last scrapes of this wound by focusing the Church’s substantial resource and authority on the root cause of all such discord: poverty and hopelessness. They are the true enemies of us all. «

Twitter: @AndrewWilsonAJW