May 20 | comments icon 0 COMMENTS     print icon print


Is it time we got our act together?

— While we must strive to tackle anti-Catholicism where we find it, are we looking in the wrong places?

Kevin McKenna

Not long after the first Holyrood election in 1999, James MacMillan made a startling speech at the Edinburgh International Film Festival. Mr MacMillan, the UK’s finest living classical composer, used this gilded platform to state that so-called modern, bright and enlightened Scotland remained in the grip of deep-rooted anti-Catholicism.

I wasn’t convinced then that he hadn’t slightly exaggerated the situation and, despite the sickening campaign of hatred directed at Neil Lennon this year, I’m still not convinced that our nation is characterised by widespread anti-Catholic prejudice. At that time I worked at the Scotland on Sunday newspaper and I was more concerned that Mr MacMillan had chosen to give our newspaper rivals, The Sunday Times, an exclusive preview of his speech prior to delivering it.

Our immediate task was to somehow take ownership of the story that had caused convulsions throughout Scottish polite society. In this, we were heroically assisted by the incomparable Gerald Warner, my esteemed fellow SCO columnist and a man who believes that there should be a statue of Margaret Thatcher erected in every town square in Scotland.

He is also a UK constitutional expert and he suggested that the Scotland on Sunday initiate a campaign against the Act of Settlement on the grounds that it discriminated against Catholics by forbidding them from ever acceding to the British throne. The late Cardinal Thomas Winning dutifully pitched in with a statement supporting our position and Mike Russell, the SNP MSP, ensured that the issue was among the first ever to be debated in our new parliament. Our editorial strategy had worked.

It was also great fun to see Catholic Labour politicians squirming as they tried to decide where their loyalties lay; to Holy Mother Church or to Holy Mother Tony Blair. Twelve years down the line the issue of anti-Catholic discrimination at the heart of the Act of Settlement is exercising some minds again, including that of his eminence Cardinal Keith O’Brien.

Yet I find that I have shifted my position on the act. I think changing it is more trouble than it is worth and frankly, I believe there are more pressing issues deserving of the Catholic community’s concern today, such as the threat to the existence of our adoption agencies in the face of the new equality legislation and the future of our Catholic schools.

What is more, the continuing controversy surrounding the Act of Settlement must be causing acute embarrassment to Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II, a woman for whom I have the utmost respect and admiration and whose own lifelong Christian witness has been a force for good and unity in this divided kingdom.

The reigning monarch of the UK is also the head of the Church of England and this, too, is a source of comfort for Christians of all denominations in Great Britain. If the monarch was a Catholic it would cause profound distress and discomfort among our brethren in the reformed Christian tradition of these isles. He or she would be under constant scrutiny for signs of where his real loyalties lay: to Rome or to the realm. Inevitably, the Church of England would have to be disestablished and thus, a further erosion of Christian influence at the heart of Britain would occur.

Is this something that we really desire to happen for the sake of changing a scrap of legislation, which, let’s face it, affects Catholics not a jot… unless you are some bejeweled mid-European baron who harbours a desire to commence a romance with a young British royal on a yacht off St Tropez?

We all need a wee dose of political reality here. Our Church is seeking to wriggle free of UK equality laws to ensure that Catholic adoption agencies are not bound to hand over children to same sex couples. Yet they would also cite the same legislation in pursuit of spurious religious parity. This would simply cause resentment and sharpen hostility to other more important Catholic interests.

I know which of the two issues matters more to Catholics and I hope that our hierarchy begins to see that too.

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