North Korea, China and Saudi Arabia share with the Tudor's a fear of Catholicism as a rival authority

A recent article in this paper, analysing the latest report from the Pew Foundation, says that state hostility to religion is increasing round the world.  The details given by the Pew Foundation may well serve the purpose of refuting those who claim that the persecution of Christians is a largely imaginary phenomenon, that there is no persecution, only a persecution complex. It might even have some effect on the British Government, which routinely dismisses such claims, though I would not hold your breath.  

I take the idea of state-sponsored hostility to various religious groups without a pinch of salt. Rather, it is something that has been going on for decades, and it is sad to think that it is getting worse. It is sad that there are many countries where the Catholic Church cannot organise itself into dioceses, or, if it does so, it does so in the face of hostility and disapproval. This has long been the case with the People’s Republic of China and Saudi Arabia, and is also the case in Russia. Most recently of all, the Church has faced the possibility of losing its legal status in the Ukraine.

But rather than just lamenting this state of affairs, one would also like to ask why it is the case. Why are states such as China, Saudi Arabia, Russia and Ukraine so hostile to the Catholic Church? In fact these countries hold positions with regard to Catholicism that were once common elsewhere as well. In Russia the Catholic Church has felt it wise to adopt non-territorial designations for its bishops and dioceses. This calls to mind the infamous Ecclesiastical Titles Act of 1851 in the United Kingdom, which made it illegal for Catholic Bishops to adopt territorial titles. This was done in response to the perceived “Papal aggression” of 1850, that is, the restoration of the hierarchy by the Blessed Pope Pius IX. It is true that the Act was repealed twenty years later, and that no Bishop was ever prosecuted for using his title, but the point of the Act was clear: Roman Catholicism (and they never ever forget the adjective “Roman”) is foreign and subversive, and thus to be resisted.

It is my guess that the Chinese, Saudi, Russian, and Ukrainian governments of our own day subscribe to the same creed: the Catholic Church is some sort of bridgehead for foreign powers. Moreover it is culturally alien. This concept – the Catholic Church as foreign, aggressive, and determined to subvert the country – was a staple of late Tudor propaganda, and even featured in the film Elizabeth, The Golden Age, where we were told that the Armada carried in its belly the Inquisition. I doubt the Chinese government, or even the Saudi one, is much frightened of the Inquisition, or indeed versed in the Black Legend, but like the Tudor regime of old, they love to appeal to an absurdly nationalist streak in their countries’ psyche.

And thus it is that people who know nothing of theology decide that they do not like Catholics and must somehow resist their incursions. People who study Russia often make the point that the central policy objectives of Russia do not change much over the centuries. Just as the Tsars posed as protectors of Middle Eastern Christians, so does Putin; they sought warm water ports, so does Putin; they were deeply anti-Catholic, and manipulated the Orthodox Church to their own ends, and so does Putin. So, much of this hostility to Catholicism from governments around the world is in fact not religious at all, but political.

But it goes further. While a place like North Korea may well persecute Christians and claim that they are agents of Western Imperialism, it will also be deeply hostile to freedom of conscience, and thus freedom of religion, because it is a totalitarian regime, and resents any space into which its own ideology cannot seep. In North Korea, the official dogma of Juche simply cannot tolerate the rival claims of any other belief system. If it were to do so, it would signal its own vulnerability. Other ideologies are not as extreme, or so absurd, as the North Korean one, but they all have this tendency to resent the existence of rival narratives. Toleration is something they find extremely hard, and not unsurprisingly: error always does. It took England well over two hundred and fifty hundred years to learn toleration. From the reign of Henry VIII until the Gordon Riots of 1780, England could hardly pretend to be a tolerant country. Is it tolerant now?

Things have moved on since 1780, but objectively, the United Kingdom remains hostile to Catholicism in several important ways. It is not simply that Catholics cannot inherit the throne or marry the monarch, or that they cannot organise adoption agencies by law. It is rather that Catholicism is seen to be completely incompatible with the equality agenda, which is what passes for our state cult. Of course, it all rather depends on what you mean by equality, but because our age dismisses all philosophical enquiry as quibbling over semantics, it paints Catholicism as the enemy of the spirit of the age. But worse than this, Catholicism opposes the ruling ideology and the government policies that spring from it. Catholicism and the Coalition are on a collision course. This is partly at least our own fault. We have allowed ourselves to be tarred with the anti-equality brush, and the stand made by tradition has been swept aside by the forces of fairness and equality, largely because our appeal to tradition has not been convincing, and the concepts of fairness and equality have not been given sufficient scrutiny. Sitting back and pointing out that history must prove us right is no real comfort. By the time we are proved right, all of us will be dead.

So, what then can be done? There are two complimentary approaches to be made. The first is to stress the integrity and the autonomy of the religious realm, and that the political must stay out of the Church; we have heard enough about how the Church must stay out of politics – well, we need to hear it the other way around as well. Too many of the world’s politicians are posing as religious ideologues. The president of North Korea, like Henry VIII, has a religion all of his own. The King of Saudi Arabia is a religious authority, guardian of the holy places of Islam. Putin seems bent on some sort of religious crusade. But all of these figures are questionably religious. Bearing authentic witness to religious truth will inevitably point to the falsity of those who manipulate religion for their own ends.

The second approach is to question all pseudo-religious language from our politicians. Tony Blair had Messianic delusions, which led him, and the rest of us, into the Iraq War. David Cameron has delusions in a minor key: telling the Church of England to “get with the programme” and consecrate women as bishops, and implementing an equality and fairness agenda in a country which remains deeply unequal and unfair, economically speaking. He should stick to politics, stick to what is secular, and leave the religious matters to others. And we should all give to Caesar what is his, and give to God what is God’s.