Virulent anti-Catholicism is alive and well in modern Britain. It is particularly interesting to watch this spectacle of hatred from the neighbouring island to the west - one which has felt first-hand the depth of British hatred of Catholicism for many centuries.
There was rabid anti-Catholicism in Cromwell’s massacres of thousands of innocent Irish people in the 1600s. There was anti-Catholicism in the British authorities who subjected millions of Irish to dispossession, death, disease and oppression in their own country throughout the 18th and 19th centuries.
There was anti-Catholicism in the British troops who fired over the head of my grandmother when, as 6-year-old, she hid from them in the hedgerows on her way to school. It seethed in the British soldiers who burned my home city of Cork to the ground in 1920. More recently, it lurked in the Paratroopers who shot dead 13 innocent Catholic civil rights marchers in Derry in 1972.
For a while it seemed that this old hostility had expired, but the shrieking intensity of anti-Catholic hatred in recent months has shown that it was merely resting.
Its resurgence has troubled even prominent UK-based atheists like Padraig Reidy, who recently wrote in the Observer that “Catholicism is viewed with suspicion by significant sections of the British left” and traces the present vitriol back to these ancient hatreds.
Brendan O’Neill of Spiked, says “the campaigning against [the pope’s] visit has become so shrill that soon only dogs will be able to hear it. And the great irony of this allegedly rationalist protest against the pope is that it is indulging in precisely the kind of demonology that the Catholic Church once excelled at. Campaigners have turned Benedict into a Satan for secularists, an Antichrist for atheists, against whom they desperately hope to define and advertise their own moral integrity.
Indeed, I cannot think of an instance in modern European history where any nation was so convulsed by vitriolic hatred of a particular religion since the Nuremburg Rallies, which themselves have recently featured nightly on the BBC: no news item on the pope is complete without a sinister soundtrack and archive footage of goose-stepping Nazis. Yet this hatred comes not from the old establishment right. It is primarily from the left.
Much of it stems from plain cowardice: The fact is that radical Islam, not Catholicism, is the big religious problem that British society faces, but most commentators are afraid of their lives, quite literally, to speak out against its tenets; and so they treat the Catholic Church as a punch bag for their repressed hostility to Islam. This was made clear in Polly Toynbee’s recent column for the Guardian where she bizarrely conflated Catholicism and Islam. Hence too Richard Dawkins’ comment that Catholicism is the world’s “second most evil religion.”
The pope is expected to praise Britain’s record of tolerance, yet as The Irish Times noted this morning: “in practice, that has been extended to Catholics only in the last century and a half.”
However, The Irish Times is being far too generous with history: In Northern Ireland, a part of the UK, such prejudice and institutionalised state-sponsored discrimination continued unabated until at least the 1970s. In less formal ways, it continues to this very day throughout many parts of the UK.
A cursory glance at the British press, which would normally pride itself on its tolerance in matters ethnic, religious and racial, shows extreme intolerance of a Church which dares to contradict its secular creed. However, for all the political correctness about race, it is not at all difficult to tolerate a person with a different skin tone. The real test of tolerance comes when you meet people with different ideas. In this, the British media has utterly failed the test of its tolerance of other’s views; and this failure is most pronounced on the left.
The Catholic Church’s hierarchy has given plenty of good reasons to criticise it, but in Britain, many of its critics’ motivations now go far beyond a fair-minded exploration of its faults, and far beyond the anger most Catholics share at the abuse cover up. They also fail distinguish between the hierarchy and the 1 billion plus people who really comprise the Church.
The real issue at stake goes to the great existential and philosophical split of our times: between those who believe in the spiritual and those who don’t; and those who believe in an objective morality and those who think right and wrong are relative, negotiable and arbitrary. Let’s call this latter view the “secular orthodoxy,” (the eminently sensible Henry Porter of the Observer, an atheist, refers to it critically using this term.)
This morally relativistic secular orthodoxy is by far the dominant ideology in Britain and in much of its media. The pope’s stated aim is to take on this moral relativism and its exponents appear to have decided that ad hominem attacks on “God’s Rottweiler” are the best way forward.
There are real moral debates to be had, especially around issues of homosexuality and married priests, but at some level of their being, the people who lead the cheers for the secular orthodoxy fear that their dream of a secular utopia is doomed – perhaps because in Britain it is clear that it has already failed.
Much criticism of the Church is fair-minded and based in fact. However, some have other, more sinister agendas. Such adherents of the secular orthodoxy often frame much of their criticism of the Church along these lines: “I just love children, justice and human rights so much that I feel I simply must speak out against this nasty Church”.
However, a deeper look at those who shout loudest often shows a dark hypocrisy: Peter Tatchell’s recent hour-long attack on the Pope and the Church on British television was, he claimed, founded upon his concern for children. Yet he campaigns for it to be made legal for 14-year-olds to have sex with adults. Worse, in 1997, Mr. Tatchell wrote a letter to the Guardian defending an academic book about “Boy-Love” saying that the book’s arguments were “courageous.” He said “several of my friends - gay and straight, male and female - had sex with adults from the ages of nine to 13.”
Did he report this to the police? No, instead he contends that “it was their conscious choice and gave them great joy.”
Nine years old.
Or witness the comments by prominent agony-aunt and former nurse Claire Rayner that, “I have no language with which to adequately describe Joseph Alois Ratzinger. In all my years as a campaigner I have never felt such animus against any individual as I do against this creature….The only thing to do is to get rid of him.”
This prompted speculation as to whether by “get rid of him” she meant “kill him”. Ms. Rayner has in the past recommended that Down’s syndrome children be killed before birth. Perhaps it is the pope’s opposition to such eugenicist policies that irks her: In fact, in 1941 one of the pope’s cousins, who had Down's syndrome, was murdered in the Nazis' "euthanasia" campaign.
Yet “anti-pedophiles” who want to legalize child sex and members of the “caring profession” who want to eradicate people with Down’s syndrome are typical enough of the thinkers that inform a great deal of the criticism of Catholicism in modern Britain.
We all know that Church has been deeply flawed and it has done wrong. We all know about the recent scandals; however the anti-Catholic hysteria that has enveloped Britain is not motivated by that. The recent abuse scandals serve merely as an excuse to open the floodgates for an ancient national hatred, and to air the shrieking grievances of multiple activists and fringe groups with radical and often-dark agendas.
Brendan O’Neill, a compelling humanist-atheist writer, says: “These pope-protesters threaten to drain the last drop of decency from old-fashioned humanism, turning a once-principled outlook into little more than a requirement to hate religion… Today it is a powerful sense of lack within modern-day so-called humanist circles – a feeling of directionless and soullessness – that leads them to invent religious demons against which they might posture and pontificate. That is why they talk in such religious tones (ironically) about the Catholic Church’s ‘clinging and systematic evil that is beyond the power of exorcism to dispel’ – because this is about cynically cobbling together some sense of their own goodness and mission. And in the irony to end all ironies, they make use of the very religious tools that secularists once hoped to supersede with reason – intolerance, fear-stoking, demonology – as part of their self-serving campaign.”
As well as this sense of “lack” there is also perhaps a sneaking sense of shame behind much of the anti-Catholic sniping:
For one of the sad truths about modern British society is that it is falling to pieces: It has amongst the highest European rates of divorce, single parenthood, teenage pregnancies, abortion, alcohol and drug abuse, sexually transmitted diseases and violent crime.
All this stems from Britain’s abandonment of its shared heritage, values and community - the ineffable loss summed up in Prime Minister Cameron’s phrase, “the broken society”.
Only 50 years ago Britain was widely admired as one of the most gentle, civilised, safe and harmonious societies in the world. This civilisation was underpinned and sustained by the very Christian-derived values that the anti-Catholic commentators now so viciously attack and mock. The secularist experiment in Britain has failed: It has become a chaotic, fragmented, decadent nation that increasingly resembles Rome after the fall.
In their bones, many British people I have spoken to feel that a shadow has passed over their country in recent years. They mourn deeply for what it once was. There is something indefinable in the British air these days: a sense of tension, fear, unease and foreboding. It is no longer a pleasant land. There is little warmth: society has broken in to bickering ethnic, religious and ideological factions. Some quarter million of its citizens flee every year (mainly those who can afford to). They, by choice, are emigrating to America, Australia, Canada, Italy, France, Ireland and Spain – places where some basic sense of shared values, (which Catholicism in many ways represents) remains a part of the social fabric.
Perhaps the pope, for all his faults, uncomfortably reminds many British people of the values that once held their nation together. In doing so, they are reminded of what they have lost, and that their society is now falling apart before their very eyes.
Maybe that’s why they hate him so much.
Or maybe it’s just because he’s a German. Either way, the idea that modern Britain is a tolerant nation is dead and buried: Britain’s “aggressive secularism” has killed it.