Catholic dogma and Protestant guilt won't heal sectarian divide

AFTER a week in which Rangers have knocked Celtic out of the CIS Cup and narrowed the gap at the top of the Premiership to just one point, I shouldn’t have been surprised that my wife was sore.

A Catholic from Cork who has grown accustomed to the dominance of a Martin O’Neill-inspired Celtic was never to going to allow me, a son of the Manse, to enjoy the moment. "Ah," she said on my return from the pub, "it’s the Happy Hun."

On reflection, I should have reported her to the police. After all, it appears the latest figures show Catholics twice as likely to suffer from sectarian abuse as Protestants in Scotland, although a week in the Hamilton household might alter those figures beyond recognition!

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THE serious point is that these Crown Office statistics show that of the 450 people charged with the new offence of religious aggravation, 63 per cent have been Catholics, as opposed to 29 per cent being Protestant. Those figures have stimulated a fresh debate on what to do about combating sectarian behaviour. First into the field has been the Bishop of Motherwell who condemns the marching season of the Orange Order for much of the violence. In fact, the report relates only 15 per cent of offences to this source. That is bad enough, but it is quite disingenuous for the Catholic Church to attempt to hijack this complex issue and provide simplistic solutions.

With respect, there appears to be something contradictory at the heart of the Catholic position. On the one hand, the issue of Catholic schooling is simply not up for discussion - the right of the Catholic Church to provide faith-based schooling predicated on the morality and teaching of the Catholic Church is apparently absolute. I actually don’t have a problem with Catholic schools - in fact I wouldn’t be at all opposed to my own children attending such a school, if it was the best local option.

But it is hard to sustain that insistence on the preservation of the Catholic tradition on the one hand with a total insistence on the diminution of a Protestant tradition on the other. I share the majority view that the Orange Order and the marching season are odd, dysfunctional and profoundly unhelpful, but that doesn’t mean I would seek a ban or to restrict the rights of those who embrace that tradition.

The fact of the matter is that the Catholic Church cannot campaign so relentlessly for the continuation of separate, distinct Catholic schooling and then throw up its hands in horror when that insistence helps to foster an impression of a divided community. Many Catholic schools offer educational excellence, vocationally driven staff and the guarantee of an element of Christian morality which is hugely attractive to parents. But if the very reason why Catholic schools are attractive is because they are different, it simply is not possible to ignore that deliberate, institutionalised diversity when we come to consider the tribal sectarianism in the West of Scotland.

The Catholic Church is in danger of displaying a paranoia on this issue. A spokesman for the Church responded to this latest report by saying: "Sadly, a situation exists in Scotland where constant attacks on Catholic schools by otherwise respectable commentators are given widespread media attention, and this has created a climate in which others consider anti-catholicism acceptable."

I don’t attack Catholic schools and I despise and condemn anti-Catholicism. But I reserve the right to ask the Catholic Church to look afresh at the aggressive promotion of a Catholic agenda through schooling, and indeed many other aspects of public policy, and ask whether the pursuit of that particular dogmatic world view contributes to a more tolerant, more inclusive, more Christian world.

AQUICK footnote in support of the Northern Ireland ‘Peace Fund’ - a proposal devised by the DUP, and which has the support of Sinn Fein, to lever in 1 billion to develop the infrastructure of Northern Ireland.

To some, the prospect of the DUP and Sinn Fein working together to win financial concessions might look like a cynical ploy at this time of tense negotiation, but if that flexing of joint political muscle becomes the norm we will be witnessing something extremely important.

Better roads, water and sewerage may not be matters of high theology, but they have the capacity to blur even the most stark sectarian divisions.