Eddie Barnes: Catholic hyperbole over victimisation maybe nothing new but church leaders need to tread carefully

IS BEING a Catholic in Scotland today akin to being a black person in 1950s Alabama?

IS BEING a Catholic in Scotland today akin to being a black person in 1950s Alabama?

The question arises after Peter Kearney, the Catholic Church’s spokesman in Scotland, declared that Scottish Catholics would soon face pressure not to send their children to Catholic schools or to parade their faith openly “in much the same way as America’s black citizens in an earlier era were urged to straighten their hair and whiten their complexions to minimise differences with the white majority”. This came on the back of what he described as the “virulent antagonism” which accompanied the visit of Pope Benedict XVI to the UK, in 2010.

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Mr Kearney’s comments were guaranteed yesterday to be bumped up into 72-point type for an available front page. The hyperbole is not new within the church. Chicago’s Cardinal Francis George has mused recently: “I expect to die in bed. My successor will die in prison, and his successor will die a martyr in the public square.”

More recently, in Scotland, bishops have been comparing their plight with St John Ogilvie, 17th-century Scottish priest, who was hanged and disembowelled for refusing to accept the king’s spiritual jurisdiction. Meanwhile, Archbishop Phillip Tartaglia of Glasgow declares: “Popular culture is inventing all kinds of new reasons to marginalise and hate Catholics”. Church leaders believe an increasingly secular Western world, with its tenets of equality, Godless morality and Sundays at the gym, is out to get it. Coping with half-empty churches, it sees itself as a victim of a hostile world.

Are they right? Mr Kearney and Archbishop Tartaglia were talking about charges with a religious aggravation. The most recent figures have found that of 876 charges in Scotland, 509 were against Catholics. But they are also talking about what they see as a wider attack on religion; an attempt to remove it from the public sphere (gay marriage being the totem issue). They believe that politicians don’t appear to understand religion from the inside-out – recall David Cameron’s recent call for the Church of England to “get with the programme” on the issue of women bishops.

That is a fair point. However, the question is whether the Church’s apocalyptic response is justified. The number of religiously-aggravated offences is, for example, dwarfed by racist incidents (up to 5,349) and domestic abuse cases (up to a properly shocking 59,690). So anti-Catholic crimes are not, putting it mildly, the leading menace out there.

Furthermore, while secularism is certainly on the rise, the Church’s defensive attitude in the face of it seems almost purpose-built to boost it still further, as people – including Catholics – look on in puzzlement at the Church’s simplified attempt to talk up a Culture War. Church leaders should be wary of going down this track. Eventually, people will stop recognising the picture they are painting. And then they’ll stop listening…