The disgraceful events in Glasgow on 15 May which saw thousands of Rangers football fans descending on George Square appears to have shifted the debate in Scotland over religious bigotry. I use the word “appears” because we have been here before in the past in Scotland when various anti-sectarian summits were launched alongside the creation of well-meaning and effective initiatives designed to challenge intolerance in all its forms.
Yet, the difference this time can be found in the specific language used by leading Scottish Government Ministers including the First Minister herself who correctly used the phrase “anti-Catholic” bigotry. Scotland has a deeply embedded anti-Catholic strain dating back centuries. Its crudest manifestation was in its full splendour in George Square, and it rears its ugly head every summer at a variety of loyalist marches. However, we are deluding ourselves if we believe anti-Catholic bigotry in modern day Scotland is restricted to the streets of the West of Scotland and football. Many of us – and yes even in the Catholic community – have been guilty of buying the validity of this supposition.
It has suited too many people for it to be defined along these parameters because it prevents the airing of a wider public debate. There has been an effort by certain quarters of the media and the political establishment to pigeonhole anti-Catholicism in Scotland as exclusively being wrapped up in the intractable issues in Ulster. There is toxic anti-Irish racism in Scotland, which is the primary fuel of anti-Catholic bigotry, but restricting the debate to this terrain sustains a narrower narrative.
Catholics residing in Scotland, whether of Scottish, Irish, English, Polish, Spanish, Italian or any other cultural background, should be asked about how do they feel when their religious faith and culture is repeatedly denigrated. It’s vital that these reflections are given oxygen so that we can present the full spectrum of the lived experience of being a Catholic in Scotland.
In Scotland and across the UK we need to be proactive in challenging the hard and soft, visible and invisible, anti-Catholic bigotry which touches many institutions, bars, clubs and homes. In its “softer” form anti-Catholic sentiment is often manifested over the issue of denominational schools. As someone who was never educated in one, I find it curious that only in Scotland does the premise that denominational schools could be “part of the problem” gain such traction in our national discourse.
The issue regarding the potential for all-boys’ schools being correlated with misogyny or private schools reinforcing structural social class bias is rarely discussed in the same fashion. Jewish or Muslim educational establishments across the UK are also rarely spoken of in the context of being potentially “self-inflicted” contributory factors to discord or unease against their faiths. More pertinent, Catholic schools in England and Wales are not discussed along these lines, yet this contention is given credence and sustenance in Scotland.
Those familiar with the term “gaslighting” will know that it refers to a form of psychological abuse where someone or a group of people question their perception of reality. This is exactly what is in danger of happening to the Catholic community in Scotland.
I have a sense that this partly stems from fewer public figures actually discussing their Catholic faith in conjunction with a diminished collective confidence resulting from the serious challenges the Church as an institution has faced including the global clerical child abuse scandal.
A fatigue has also set in whereby many of us have viewed anti-Catholic bigotry as part of the “norm”. I could include myself in that bracket at various points. However last May something changed for me when I passed large anti-Catholic graffiti in the underpass to my local park, which said: “Catholics will be shot.” Years ago, I would have walked on by but not this time. I immediately contacted Glasgow City Council, Councillors, MP, MSPs and Police Scotland. The response by all was swift and reassuring. A Police Scotland officer visited my home and made several follow up calls over the incident which was recorded as a religious hate crime.
There now appears to be a willingness by the First Minister and leading politicians to challenge anti-Catholic bigotry. This effort should take on even greater national significance when Pope Francis is expected to visit Glasgow to attend the COP26 climate change conference in November. It’s vital that my fellow Catholics in Scotland dust-off any lingering timidity and passiveness. Write to newspapers and contact media outlets to challenge anti-Catholic bigotry in its “soft” and “hard” forms; contact your elected politicians to demand action, proactively report religious hate crime and share conversations with friends and family about how it feels to be a Catholic in Scotland. It’s incumbent upon on us as lay Catholics to regain our confidence, to stand-up and finally to call this out.