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England – Land of no-Popery

Apologies for the lack of blogging – I have been without t’interweb for the last fortnight and so haven’t had chance to get anything posted. It also means that I’m completely behind on all events political, and so whilst I get myself back up to speed I thought I’d offer this, which I prepared a while back…

With the Papal visit just months away many Brits seem to be slowly working themselves up into a frenzy of anti-Catholic sentiment. For the idle observer this makes intriguing viewing, for it neatly illustrates how even in ‘enlightened’ and ‘rational’ times people can yet churn out the most narrow-minded and illogical twaddle. Yet, Papal visit aside, this upwelling of anti-Catholic rhetoric is instructive of a wider cultural phenomenon that has been part of the very social fabric of our country for centuries – what Phillip Jenkins has termed, in studying the same historical phenomenon amongst our cousins in the United States, as ‘the last acceptable prejudice’.

As indignant as that might make some feel, there is yet little doubt that that is what we are dealing with. The impeccably biased hostility with which the Roman Catholic Church is greeted by the culture industry in particular far outweighs the treatment meted out to any other religion, even those who share the same doctrines and practices for which the Catholic Church is ceaselessly excoriated. Indeed, attacking the Catholic Church and those who would reside in her is not only socially acceptable but is vehemently demanded by a baying crowd for whom the nastier the entertainment the better: the bilge that slides effortlessly off the tongue of some of the Church’s more prominent despisers is greeted with cries of delight from a highly partisan gallery that rarely stops to apply to these pockmarked narratives the same standards of judgment and reason they would insist upon in any other situation. The outcome is often the crude manufacture of an endlessly villainised corporate identity to which a litany of atrocities, however bogus or distorted, are duly assigned (as far as I’m aware, Stephen Fry’s undoubtedly heartfelt apology to the Polish nevertheless failed to disavow the real substance of his claim, aimed at Polish ‘right-wing Catholicism’). One need hardly emphasise that if the kind of ridiculous rhetoric flung around by Caitlin Moran had been directed toward any other collective group of people, alarm bells would ring and the perpetrator would rightly be dismissed as a hate-filled bigot.

Of course some, dimly aware of this fact, choose to change tack, and assure worried bystanders that  the focus of their spittle-flecked ire is not Catholics per se, but ‘just this bigoted Pope.’ Which, apart from demonstrating rather basic ignorance of the Catholic faith, is also deeply disingenuous. For in truth, it is the doctrines of the Church (doctrines not at all unique to Catholicism) with which the anti-Catholic crowd takes violent umbrage, doctrines that both preceded and will long outlive Pope Benedict XVI. In reality this is little more than diversionary piffle; the battle is first and foremost about ideologies, not personalities.

Now, this is not at all to suggest that there aren’t people with heartfelt, sincere and well-informed objections to Catholic teaching and doctrine, people who actually read the documents of the Church, rather than historical novels and internet messageboards, and formulate their objections accordingly. Nor is it to downplay the role the Catholic Church has played in bringing down justified criticism upon her own head, and the behaviour of a minority of its members have been manifestations of evil for which we still offer penance and seek forgiveness. What it is to say is that for all too many, recent tragedies have proved a convenient stick with which to hit a foe already despised, an enemy already routinely denied a decent hearing. Thus we could read George Monbiot, jumping on Geoffrey Robertson’s bandwagon, declaring that incarcerating the Pope would be the manifestation in international law of that old ideal ‘equality before the law’, an ideal apparently best served by interning a man despite there being no creditable legal, factual or evidential case against him (see here and here) – a victim offered up because of who he is, and not what he has done. Whilst this somewhat eccentric account of ‘equality before the law’ might be dismissed as the prejudice driven swill that it is, nonetheless it is instructive of how a hostile crowd can jettison traditional standards – the presumption of innocence, the demand for reliable evidence, respect for legal jurisdiction – armed with nothing more incriminating than some highly emotive slogans and join-the-dots journalism.

And this suspension of those cherished principles of rational reflection, honest assessment and sober judgment occurs time and again when the topic of conversation is the Catholic Church. One need only witness some of the comments left underneath Andrew Brown’s article exploring data on child abuse produced by the John Jay Institute, suggesting that the Catholic Church appears no more guilty of paedophilia (or, more significantly, hebephilia and ephebophilia) than any other institution, nor indeed, one might independently add, any other religious denomination. To even dare explore this empirical data was described by one respected commenter as ‘utterly shameful, ignorant, offensive screed’, and by another as ‘revisionist apologist nonsense’. These reactions are a neat illustration of what Kevin Rooney has recently described as the ‘illiberal, censorious and ignorant’ attacks on Catholicism in the run up to the Pope’s visit, observing that ‘while many of the exponents of this popular new breed of anti-Catholicism would certainly consider themselves liberal, their treatment of the church is anything but.’ Indeed, Brendan O’Neill has picked up on a similar theme, suggesting that the reaction to the child abuse scandals has often been ‘informed more by prejudice and illiberalism than by anything resembling a principled secularism’, something he further connects with the ‘new atheism’ of the liberal establishment that ‘…differs from the atheism of earlier free-thinking humanists in that its main aim is not to enlighten, but to scaremonger about the impact of religion on society. For these thinkers and opinion-formers, the drip-drip of revelations of abuse in Catholic institutions offers an opportunity to demonise the religious as backward and people who possess strong beliefs as suspect.’

What neither Rooney or O’Neill go on to mention is that such wilful demonisation is nothing new, but is rather the latest bout of a long established phenomenon that has reared its ugly head, with varying degrees of intensity, ever since a genocidal King and those whose consciences had been bought by him decided that the only way they could defend their crimes and protect their plunder was to mercilessly demonise their victim. Since then this country has swaddled its young in anti-Catholic propaganda, in pseudo-history and gross caricature, in meticulously cultivated ignorance and unashamed discrimination, a sort of anti-Catholic cultural grammar aimed at vigorously protecting the status-quo against which even the most eloquent and resounding rebuttal is incapable of entirely vanquishing. The malicious representation of the Pope and the Catholic faith peddled by groups such as Protest the Pope is certainly nothing new, and is merely the latest merchandise to appear on the production line of the prodigious ‘no-Popery’ industry. Indeed Cardinal Newman, convert to the Catholic faith and thereby possessed of a unique insight into that which he was describing, attested to precisely this back in 1851, in a lecture series entitled the Present Position of Catholics in England. Twenty-four years later he was to find himself returning to the same subject, responding to the recycled anti-Catholic slurs of one William Ewart Gladstone.

All of which might help explain, if one were to remain charitable, why certain satirists and professional protesters are rather less limp-wristed when it comes to mocking and deriding the Pope and Catholicism, than they appear to be when it comes to mocking and deriding the principle figures and adherents of certain other mainstream religions. In short, taking on Catholicism is easy, because it has been culturally sanctioned and encouraged for centuries, meaning those ‘independent-thinkers’ who revel in the vulgarity by which they express their opposition are not so much daring or courageous as drearily old hat. They assiduously continue the tradition in which they have been bathed since they were babes:  attacking the Catholic Church, and defending the social, political and ideological status-quo.

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