Monday 18 February 2019

Mary Kenny: The fashion for bashing Catholicism in the UK hurts Catholics and can revive ancient prejudices

Mary Kenny

Mary Kenny

The funny thing is that the British Foreign Office (FO) once had a reputation for being a secret hotbed of Roman Catholics. At one stage, it was calculated that a quarter of the personnel at the famous FO were "Arsees", as the army slang word had it. (When my husband did his British National Service, back in the 1950s, the sergeant-major would order the squaddies to separate their ranks on Sundays: "Arsees and Jews fall out!" Everyone else was deemed to be Church of England.)

One reason why the Foreign Office recruited "RCs" was that Catholic public schools, such as Ampleforth and Stoneyhurst, had a brilliant reputation for teaching foreign languages: not just French and German and Italian, but awkward ones like the Aztec-Mexican language, or indeed Aramaic, the Semitic language spoken by Jesus Christ. The Latin base for a Catholic education was a genuinely useful tool for language-teaching.

And one reason, also, why the other government departments were traditionally suspicious of the Foreign Office -- Margaret Thatcher loathed it -- was because they suspected that these diplomats could be agents of a "foreign power".

This was a mixture of the temptation of "going native" when posted abroad, and possibly, just possibly, the old fear that Roman Catholics had a loyalty to a "foreign Prince" -- that is, the Pope of Rome. Roman Catholics, in that sense, weren't traditionally accepted as being entirely British.

But now it's the pranksters of the FO, who have been caught out circulating an anti-Papal memo suggesting that when the Pontiff comes to Britain in September he should be invited to "open an abortion ward", launch a brand of "Benedict condoms" and "bless a civil partnership" as well as endorsing adoption rights for gay partners, sponsor a network of AIDS clinics and meet Richard Dawkins.

We may suppose that Carruthers of the F0 (mother's maiden name: Zamoyski, or possibly O'Malley; education: Downside, Oriel College Oxford, Irish Guards) is well and truly dead and his place taken by the giggling youths raised on the satire of 'Viz' magazine and the celebrity cult of 'Heat'. Among the celebs the FO memo suggested the Pope should meet were Wayne Rooney, Susan Boyle and Madonna. The document was officially circulated around Whitehall -- perhaps half-in-joking, whole-in-earnest -- but it backfired rather badly when it came to light. And officials have had to apologise rather cravenly for its existence. The British ambassador to the Holy See, Francis Campbell, has had to make an abject kow-tow to the Vatican and the UK foreign secretary, David Milliband, condemned the whole enterprise as "appalling".

It's not the done thing, in international diplomacy to invite the head of another state to your country, and before he sets foot in the place start suggesting he opens abortion clinics. (Although I would recommend to anyone an investigative visit to an abortion ward -- an eye-opening experience -- and to examine the sluice chamber where the poorest nurses often have to deal with the discarded "foetal material".) Naturally, British officials and politicians want to pull back against any hint of insulting Pope Benedict, not because they have any special regard for the guy -- he's a bally German, after all -- but because the Holy See still represents more than a billion people throughout the world.

A billion people is some constituency. A billion people engage in trade, politics, global institutions. And even where their hierarchies have been faulty, ham-fisted, or even downright corrupt, a large section of that billion people still feel respect and loyalty to their faith. A large sector of that billion people still feel that although churches as human institutions always need reform, the fundamental moral values, deriving from the Ten Commandments, are still right.

British politicians are acutely aware that Catholics still have votes. And British Catholics are not about to go back to the bad old days when anti-Popery was the established order.

There is still a collective memory of how the British establishment, and regrettably, senior members of the Church of England, announced that the Irish Famine was God's punishment on Ireland for its Papist faith: some of the sermons became so hostile that Queen Victoria had to issue a personal reprimand against those who "spoke unkindly against good Roman Catholics".

There is still an awareness amongst English and Scottish Catholics of a history of stigma and exclusion: of establishment networks which excluded Catholics from jobs -- even, to this day, from the job of prime minister (Tony Blair cannily waited until he left 10 Downing Street to become a Catholic). There is still a feeling of discrimination that the Act of Settlement continues to preclude any heir to the throne -- be the connection ever so remote -- from Roman Catholicism.

AND there is a growing suspicion that some of the contemporary Pope-bashing now taking place is just the old-fashioned anti-Catholicism in new livery. When the children's author Philip Pullman said last week in 'The Guardian' that he hopes "the wretched Catholic Church will vanish entirely", even 'Guardian' readers thought this unjust to ordinary Catholics. The question was asked -- would Pullman have uttered the same sentiment about Islam? Unlikely.

In one sense, the Pope, like the CEO of any company in trouble, has to take what is thrown at him. Part of the job description for any head of a global organisation is the responsibility to take the flak, and robustly, too. Benedict is in the shoes of the fisherman, who was martyred for his faith.

But the fashion for bashing Catholicism does and can hurt ordinary Catholics, and perhaps revive an ancient prejudice which took many valiant efforts to overcome.

mkenny@independent.ie

Irish Independent

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