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.”