Mark Smith: Dallas case does the Church a disservice

THE decision of Hugh Dallas and others sacked by the Scottish Football Association for passing on derogatory e-mails relating to the Pope to appeal the decision destines that this affair will run a while yet. It is perhaps right that it should. The incursion into the internal affairs of the SFA by Peter Kearney, the director of the Catholic Media Office, exposes an unpleasant side to Scottish Catholicism that merits a wider airing.

Prior to any disciplinary hearing, Mr Kearney publicly described Dallas's actions as "totally unprofessional, gratuitously insulting to the Pope, deeply offensive to the Catholic community of Scotland and an incitement to anti-Catholic sectarianism".

As someone who thought he was a Scottish Catholic, I wonder what leads Mr Kearney to presume that I am, or ought to be, deeply offended by Mr Dallas's e-mail. I might think it a bit of a cheap shot and not very funny but I'm not deeply offended by it and, actually, I would have been unaware of its existence had Mr Kearney's intervention not ensured that it was splashed all over the newspapers.

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In pondering the basis on which Mr Kearney presumes to speak for the Catholic community of Scotland, I came across the following statement, in one newspaper, around the time of the Pope's visit in which he dismissed calls in the Church for debate or reform around controversial issues as "clichd"… stating that this "was fashionable 40 years ago. A new generation of Catholics active in the Church today would find those objections, such as wanting an end to celibacy or the ordination of women, laughable. These calls are as dramatic and revolutionary as wearing a Che Guevara T-shirt."

This statement raises far wider questions of just who or what this Catholic community in Scotland is and, more personally, whether I can still consider myself part of it. My suspicion is that there are those in Mr Kearney's Catholic community who might not consider me one of them. I am what they disparagingly refer to as a "pick and mix" Catholic, a fairly unreconstructed example of the species that Mr Kearney finds laughable. The mirth and disdain I elicit among his new generation of Catholics is likely to be compounded when I reveal myself to be a lecturer in social work.

They are, no doubt, already conjuring up images of me in sandals and Che Guevara T-shirt, by now a bit faded and pinched, munching on brown rice.

But such a representation would be unfair and not just because I don't wear sandals and do eat meat, but because my views are, I suspect, fairly mainstream in the Catholic community, in my part of Scotland - the East - at least. I admit that I'm liturgically illiterate, unaware of the finer points of what colour of garment a priest should wear on particular Sundays and occasionally, even after all these years, have to take my cue as to when to stand or kneel from those around me. I am also troubled by doubt on many issues and that these doubts don't go away just by being told from the pulpit what I am to believe.

Despite this I am, pretty much, a signed-up Catholic. I still go to Mass; in fact my sons are altar boys. I am sceptical of claims that Catholic schools contribute to sectarianism. I send my own children to Catholic school, not because I want to perpetuate tribal loyalties but reckoning that any establishment that exhorts them to act justly, love tenderly and walk humbly can only be a force for good in their upbringing. I am, though, starting to wonder if the author of these words, Micah, the prophet of liberation, has any place in the brave new world of Scottish Catholicism.

I find tiresome the venom heaped by so-called liberal intellectuals upon Pope Benedict XVI over spurious connections to the Hitler Youth and over the papacy's handling of child-abuse allegations. I can recognise the Pope's intellectual stature and take food for thought from his stance against individualism and secularist rationality. Even on the knotty question of child abuse I, like Mr Kearney, question why the Catholic Church is singled out for such special opprobrium on an issue that crosses all denominational boundaries and none. In fact, in my more conspiratorial moments I can imagine why a rapacious neo-liberal world order might want to silence an institution that, in what now seems to be the dim and distant past, dared to speak of social justice and a preferential option for the poor. And what better way to do so than to hone in on its sins of the flesh? But that would be me having another Che Guevara moment.

OK, so it's not Bridgeton or Lanarkshire, but having been brought up as a Catholic and a Hibernian supporter in Gorgie, and having, as a social worker, worked with children and families across Central Scotland, I recognise sectarianism and its impact when I come across it. But, in my adult life I rarely have seen it, beyond its weekly revivalism in (primarily) Old Firm football. I was of the view that Scotland had moved forward in this respect. Our current political leaders in particular seem genuinely unencumbered by the country's sectarian past.

I wonder what good it does to chew over the bones of past injustices.Collective memories of victimhood risk becoming freeze-dried, impeding the need, not necessarily to forget, but at least to recognise that things have changed for the better and to move on.

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So, far from halting sectarianism in its tracks, my concern is that Mr Kearney's pronouncements on behalf of the Catholic Church risk stoking its embers. Either Mr Kearney is not a particularly astute press officer or he knows his audience only too well. He need only look at the reactions of those who populate the discussion boards on Celtic fan websites to know that his intervention played well there.

In that respect it feels somewhat disingenuous to claim that the furore over the Dallas e-mail was unconnected to wider events in Scottish football. Old scores are being settled and for those of us who don't recognise or believe any more in a masonic conspiracy among Scottish referees, this is distasteful.

What disturbs me more than anything in this affair is the noisy culture of intolerance that it reflects and indeed evokes.

Whatever one thinks of the Dallas e-mail, he did what hundreds or thousands of others did in passing it on (how Mr Kearney came to know that Mr Dallas was one of them is a matter for further conjecture). Their actions are not necessarily gratuitously insulting to most Catholics, far less to the Pope, who I suspect is blissfully unaware of this local difficulty being played out in our small corner of the world.

An air of smallness, in fact, defines this whole business. Hugh MacDiarmid's poem Scotland Small? keeps coming to mind. MacDiarmid, of course, rejects the portrayal of Scotland as small. I have to wonder. For an institution that professes to be Catholic and universal to find itself embroiled, wholly by its own doing, in the internal affairs of Scottish football refereeing feels, frankly, pretty small.

I end where I began in questioning Mr Kearney's presumption to speak for the Catholic community. That community, whether his new generation of Catholics likes it or not, remains a broad Church. And some of us within that Church do not want to be associated with actions that, at very least, contributed to five people losing their jobs. This hardly speaks to a spirit of Christian tolerance or forgiveness.