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The Scottish Church is right to be silent on independence

Catholic leaders are wisely keeping out of a deeply divisive debate

By on Tuesday, 17 June 2014

Archbishop Leo Cushley  (PA)

Archbishop Leo Cushley (PA)

With less than 100 days to go until Scotland votes on whether to become independent, the debate is becoming more raucous, the arguments fiercer and the participants more intense. But one voice is missing from the cacophony: that of the Catholic Church.

The Church in Scotland has been resolutely silent on the issue, not even echoing the typically wet pleas from the Church of Scotland on the need for truth and reconciliation after the vote, the Protestants having failed to recognise that a feisty, fiery and freebooting referendum campaign does not inflict the same level of hurt as 50 years of South African racial segregation. As that would suggest, sometimes it is better not to speak, and the new men of the Scottish hierarchy have rapidly come to the conclusion there is great wisdom in silence.

The last five years have seen a thorough regeneration of the Scottish bishops, with an aging and sometime querulous generation of Scottish prelates being replaced by younger, generally more cautious men. This process was underlined by the dramatic departure of Cardinal O’Brien and his replacement by the experienced Vatican hand Archbishop Leo Cushley.

This new hierarchy faces a Scotland in which the prospect of independence dominates almost every aspect of public debate. With a turnout of more than 80 per cent expected, the talk is of little else. So they will be well aware that the bishops, priests and laity of Scotland are as divided as the rest of the country. Indeed, there is reason to suspect that the split among Catholics may be more pronounced that that among the rest of the country. While the latest polls suggest a reasonable, if by no means overwhelming victory for the No campaign, among Catholics the picture is more complex. A recent ICM poll found the two regions of Scotland where the vote was closest were the Catholic heartlands of Lanarkshire and Glasgow.

This is a marked shift from 1979, when Scottish Catholics were reluctant to support devolution. Professor Tom Devine, Scotland’s leading historian, has suggested that with the banishment of structural sectarianism against Catholics from the 1990s onwards, many Scots Catholics have ceased to be defined primarily by their ancestors’ Irishness, leaving behind fears that the Scottish National Party (SNP) were hiding a streak of malevolent sectarianism.

Of course, many Scots Catholics are still firmly wedded to the United Kingdom. For a hierarchy that is trying to rebuild its credibility post Cardinal O’Brien and, in several dioceses, carry out extensive restructuring that will involve parish closures, there is no desire to pick an internal fight over a chiefly secular matter. In any case, the Scottish Church’s political experience over the past 10 years has made the new generation of Scottish bishops considerably more wary of political involvement than their predecessors were.

Informed at least partly by the Scottish Church’s historic suspicion of authorities, the previous approach to the Scottish Parliament and its affairs often amounted to chucking rhetorical grenades through the building’s windows. On abortion, same-sex marriage, and assisted suicide and more, Cardinal O’Brien and Bishop Emeritus Joseph Devine of Motherwell rarely missed an opportunity to condemn the Scottish political classes for their secular ways, often in exceptionally robust terms.

Unfortunately, this approach did not prove massively effective. Almost every time the Church has come to the political table to put its case since the Scottish Parliament opened it has come away disappointed at the result.

Catholic adoption agencies have buckled under the pressure of equality legislation and gay marriage is legal. Though assisted suicide was initially stopped, the death of its much-loved advocate, Margo MacDonald, earlier this year could ensure it now passes in some form.

There was some hope that Alex Salmond’s SNP government would prove friendly to Church concerns when it first came to power in 2007.

The traditional link between Scottish Catholics and the Labour Party had been strained by Labour’s increasingly secular bent. But despite the fact the Scottish Church’s communication director is a former deputy chairman of the SNP the relationship soon turned sour.

The arrival of Archbishop Cushley, a veteran Vatican diplomat, in Edinburgh and the appearance of a more measured tone from Church spokesman and bishops is surely not a coincidence. In any case, though opinions in the higher reaches of the Scottish Church may differ, there is a generally held belief that the impact on the Church of independence would not be earth-shattering.

The hierarchy has been entirely independent from the rest of the UK since it was restored in 1878, so separation from those south of the border is a familiar concept in the Scottish Church. Indeed the gravest fear among the Scottish faithful is of the growing power of an ill-tempered secularism that seeks to drive religious expression from the public square. This will continue to be an issue regardless of whether the kingdom remains united and the Cleggs, Camerons and Milibands of Westminster are seen as even less likely to be happy defenders of religious freedom than the denizens of the Scottish Parliament.

It is telling that the primary attempt to inject religion into the referendum debate has come from George Galloway, who in an act of typically modesty has been touring Scotland with a one-man show, telling Scots why they should vote No. Mr Galloway claims that an independent Scotland would, in short order, descend into an only mildly less bigoted version of Ulster where Catholics would fear to walk the streets at night.

The Scottish Church has its flaws, but it exists far closer to reality than George Galloway. The gravest dangers in its future comes from self-righteous secularists rather than a miraculously resurrected anti-Catholic streak in the Scottish polity. By staying clear of an independence debate, that affects them little, they keep their powder dry for the battles to come.

This article first appeared in the print edition of The Catholic Herald (13/6/14)

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