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By Jason Michael

ASK ANY CATHOLIC, there are plenty of reasons to be critical of the Catholic Church. ‘It is perfectly possibly,’ said an old friend of mine, ‘to be a good Catholic and a terrible Christian’ – and, bless her, she was right. Some of the harshest and least forgiving criticisms of the Church and its hierarchy come from Catholics themselves; from the clergy and the laity. Yes, children and other vulnerable people were abused by priests and members of religious orders, and yes, all too often in the past – from a perverse and distorted desire to protect the bona facia or reputation of the institution – bishops, archbishops, cardinals, and even popes have been complicit in attempts to cover up ‘the sins of the fathers’ and in so doing have further victimised victims and survivors.

Theologians like Hans Küng and the liberation theologians of South and Latin America are testimony to the authoritative and repressive nature of the magisterium – the dreaded Holy Office, the Roman curia, and all but a few popes. For all the vibrancy and diversity of parish life, few Catholics familiar with the authority of the Church would suggest Catholicism is always a bed of roses. It was a hard job of work for many Catholics, after the long and frosty papacy of John Paul II, to keep the head up when the former Inquisitor General (ahem, Cardinal Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith), Joseph Ratzinger, was elected pope (Benedict XVI) in 2005. No, it sure hasn’t always been a bed of roses. But Catholicism – being Catholic – is more than what happens in Rome.

Regardless of the shortcomings of the institutional Church, the Catholic community – and to some extent the wider Christian community – is a place in which a certain kind of ethical and moral understanding of the world is preserved and passed on; transmitted from one generation to the next like a native language in the family home, in the school, and in the wider religious and cultural Catholic community. The value of life and human dignity are important ideas in Catholic culture. As early as the first and second centuries CE, we see Christians rejecting the Roman practice of exposing – abandoning – unwanted infants; a thinking that has informed Christian views on abortion to the present. The concepts of sin and the examination of one’s conscience have formed Catholic minds for over two millennia, making much of Christianity what it is today.

The culture that Catholicism has created – globally – has therefore made it a serious obstacle for politics and ideologies in the modern world. Catholic missionaries fought against the enslavement of indigenous peoples during the era of European colonial expansion, making them the enemies of – sometimes ‘Catholic’ – kingdoms. In the United States, Catholics came under fire from the ‘Christian’ white supremacist establishment because of their refusal to see black people as anything less than human. In Nazi Germany, Catholics – regardless of the Church’s shameful history of anti-Judaism – consistently resisted the state’s barbaric treatment of Jews and other victim populations. Even in the face of the silence of other ecclesial communities, the Catholic Church has never faltered in recent decades to speak up for the rights of prisoners, migrants, and refugees.

Where so many other world leaders have held their tongues, Pope Francis has blasted President Donald Trump over the past number of years – going as far as saying he was ‘not Christian’ because of his attitude and behaviour towards immigrants and refugees. He has questioned the US president’s pro-life credentials as he refuses to protect undocumented migrants. Francis has even publicly mocked Trump in his remarks about building bridges and not walls.

Absolutely, the institutional Church has failed in the past. It will fail in the future too – it is a human institution. But neither Catholics nor the Catholic Church are in the habit of giving questionable and dubious politics and ideologies an easy ride, and the pushback is invariably a frustrated and frequently venomous anti-Catholicism. This is to be distinguished from ‘sectarianism;’ this is not a type of inter-Christian bigotry or an antagonism between ‘sects.’ It is the secular political or ideological response to an intractable religious and/or cultural philosophy which is inconsistent with a secular agenda – and there are some things the secular state and its ideologues want which are inconsistent with Catholic cultural ethics and the moral teaching of the Catholic Church.

At the end of June, someone on Twitter said that ‘Every single transphobe, homophobe and bigot in the SNP should be expelled from the SNP.’ In this tweet he named Christopher McEleny, Joanna Cherry, and Joan McAlpine – to which Cllr McEleny responded:

Imagine the first three examples a person could come up with to expel from a political party just happened to all be Jewish. Or Muslim. Then realise the people listed here are all Catholic. It’s no less abhorrent. Never mind outright defamatory with not a shred of substance.

Christopher McEleny

It is not suggested that anyone named here is a religious or a devout Catholic. Whether or not these people are regular Mass goers or folk who say their prayers is entirely their own private business, but we can assume that at least part of their ethical worldview has been shaped by a Catholic culture – and they have taken a particular stance on gender theory that has many, like the Twitter user above, demanding their expulsion from the Scottish National Party. Their gender critical position is being branded as ‘hate speech’ by people such as Patrick Harvie who seem to want them all dismissed from the public forum as ‘homophobic, transphobic, anti-choice religious extremists.’

Yet, the notion that sex and gender are fixed and binary and the rejection of ‘radical autonomy’ are far from extremist beliefs. The biological and sexual difference between women and men has been the assumption of human societies for as long as there has been human society. When the author of Genesis wrote of the creation of mankind that ‘male and female he created them,’ he wasn’t saying anything his readers hadn’t thought before; there are some pretty obvious differences between men and women. Until very recently, the terms denoting biological sex and gender have been treated as synonyms – and many (myself included) are trying to catch up with the shift in language and understanding that has occurred in our lifetimes.

This, however, does not mean the possibility of gender fluidity and people who identify themselves as non-binary, transsexual, or ‘queer’ ought to be rejected. The Catholic religious and cultural approach must always begin from a place of unconditional and indiscriminate love for all people and a profound respect for their humanity. But loving someone and respecting their humanity does not demand that we accept their every claim about their self and their identity. Something is either true or it is false, and the truth of something is not always easy to determine – especially when it relates to something as subjective and as intimate as human identity and sexuality. Discussing a recent document from the Vatican Congregation for Catholic Education, Male and Female He Created Them, Fr James Martin – a Jesuit priest and a vocal ally of LGBT people – wrote:

It speaks of a ‘path,’ which indicates that the church has not yet reached the destination. It focuses on the ‘question’ of gender theory in education, which leaves some degree of openness, and is thus addressed mainly to educators and ‘formators,’ including those responsible for the training of priests and members of religious orders.

Fr James Martin SJ

He is right. We are all – religious and secular – on a path to the truth. The truth of the nature and complexity of human identity and sexuality is not a simple truth. Determining it is not the job of a radically autonomous individual. If that were the case all truth and meaning would be out the window; free from objective truth, I can be a Martian trapeze artist tomorrow – regardless of the fact I have never been to Mars or ever hung from a trapeze. Neither is the determination of this truth the preserve of philosophers and theologians. It belongs to a vast array of experts in the many fields of medicine, psychology, biology, and the social sciences. Of this path to the truth, Fr Martin is correct, neither the Church nor secular society – its moderates and fundamentalists – have reached the destination.

Now, we cannot say why in this case it so happens only Catholics have been singled out. Plenty of non-Catholics and non-Christians are gender critical. We can’t know the motives of the people who have singled them out or why in the more recent furores over SNP election candidates the targets have been Catholic, but Christopher McEleny makes a valid observation – one myself and others have noted. We are right to be suspicious of a creeping anti-Catholicism in the current culture war being waged in the SNP. Now, we must be careful: We are not talking about sectarianism here. No one is calling those making these decisions and calling for people to be expelled sectarian bigots. We are pointing at a possible clash of ideologies in which the supporters of the dominant ideology of the party are acting against Catholics, people shaped by a different religio-cultural ideology.

This is where the National Secular Society is leading the way – much to the chagrin of Patrick Harvey – by joining with other religious and secular groups in the Free to Disagree campaign. Gender theory – as the ‘theory’ part implies – is not a concluded discussion. Unlike gay and lesbian rights – which are established, the issues arising from the present gender debate, particularly with respect to trans people, have serious and far-reaching rights-based implications. People who identify as transsexual will have the right to self-identify and be legally recognised as the opposite sex to their birth-assigned sex, and natal women and girls will lose the right to the exclusivity of female only spaces – and whether some in the SNP like this or not, this is not easy for everyone to accept. Considering this is not a closed discussion, legislation which criminalises dissent as ‘hate speech’ is authoritarian in the extreme and a clear contradiction of the ideals of the open society.

This is a discussion we must have. The Vatican has asked Catholics to listen and dialogue with the cultures in which they sojourn – clearly not a statement one would expect from an institution so many want to dismiss as backward and anachronistic. But then, the Catholic Church has been listening to and dialoguing with society and culture for a bit longer than Scotland. This doesn’t make it better at it, just different – just another partner in the dialogue. The tolerant society – which neither Scotland nor the Catholic Church have always been – has to be open to listen to and dialogue with the other, and it is the only way forward in this debate. Dogmatism and entrenchment will not wash, and neither will any creeping hostility from either side. Catholics and every culture and faith community in Scotland are part of the national discussion, and we all have to recognise this.

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Bishop Barron on The Last Acceptable Prejudice


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6 thoughts on “Kulturkampf Scotland

  1. There are plenty of non-Catholics who do not agree with all this gender malarkey, some of whom are LBGTQ. I think it just so happens those three are perhaps more vocal than others. I would be horrified to think there are any anti-catholic sentiments in the SNP membership. I think this culture war as you call it is stirred up by a small minority within the party. I am coming to the conclusion that we have a fifth column that was planted there by Unionists when they realised just how strong the Indy movement has become.

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  2. Jason thank you for your very important thoughts. As ever I enjoy your discourse and hard though it may be, it always encourages my own reflection. I would respectfully ask that you tighten the loose use of the term Catholic. Although I am a convinced Atheist and have no particular horse in this race, I was christened into the Church of Scotland onboard HMS Dreadnought of all places. The Church of Scotland is also a Catholic church as I understand the term and being clear on the Roman Catholic church would be helpful, especially when you (I) explain to the usual knuckle draggers that in fact they too are Catholics, their mental gymnastics as they absorb this and the fact that the Pope financed Billy is joyous to observe.

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    1. Hi Alisdair and thank you for your kind comment. On your point about the use of the term ‘Catholic,’ I have a reply as a Catholic and a theologian. Generally speaking, Roman Catholics refer to the Church (singular) as ‘the Catholic Church.’ From an ecclesiological point of view there is only ‘One Holy Catholic and Apostolic Church.’ To varying degrees other churches share in the nature of this One Church, but the catholicity of the Church – its universality – is, from a Catholic theological perspective, reserved to the Roman Church. So, when I speak of the Catholic Church I am doing it in sincerity to refer to what you understand as the Roman Catholic Church. I understand that this exclusion may cause a degree of frustration and even hurt, but I do it to remain true to my own tradition and not to cause upset. Sadly, like the Eucharist, the episcopacy, and the papacy, this is a term we do not share with ecclesial communities not in communion with Rome. As Fr Ted might say, ‘this is an ecumenical matter.’

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  3. Thank you. This is one of your best pieces. It has helped me to crystallise my own thoughts. Whatever the faults and crimes of the Catholic Church (and they are many) the 2,000 year old Christian tradition of love and respect for humanity is the great solid pillar supporting our liberal democracies. Let’s not throw away this precious baby with the bathwater!

    Larry Siedentop in his book “Inventing the Individual” makes a strong argument that the roots of liberalism – belief in individual liberty, in the fundamental moral equality of individuals, that equality should be the basis of a legal system and that only a representative form of government is fitting for such a society – all these were pioneered by the Christian thinkers of the Middle Ages, drawing on the moral revolution of the early Church. Of course the guardians of such a millennial tradition do not turn on a sixpence; they turn more like a super-tanker, but they get there! with their values intact.

    We must not underestimate the moral content of liberal secularism. If we in the West do not understand the moral depth of our own tradition, how, faced with beliefs radically less respectful of women’s equality and of individual rights (eg. Islam) or where a form of utilitarianism promotes state interests at the expense of justice and liberty (eg. China), can we hope to shape the conversations of mankind? We need to understand and cherish the origins of our own liberal ideas. We owe much to the church.

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    1. Thanks for this comment, but I am not entirely with you on the generalisation of Islam as a faith tradition less respectful of women’s and individual rights. We must be careful of where such generalisations lead us.

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  4. It’s not just anti-Roman-Catholicism that’s present in the SNP. There’s also a simply anti-Christianity. when Kate Forbes, a member of the Free Kirk, was proposed as Minister of Finance, an objection I read was that she is a Christian.

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