Currently on the BBC there’s a serial about the Gunpowder Plot, in which a group of Catholics in 17th-century England tried to kill the Protestant king by blowing up Parliament. It failed and the plotters who were caught were shot or hanged, drawn and quartered, and the early November bonfire and firework nights (which can be quite a spectacle, the one in Lewes, East Sussex being particularly elaborate) are a lasting legacy of that. The plot came at a time when Catholics were being persecuted in England, where it was a crime (punishable by hefty fines) to not attend the Protestant church and where priests worked at risk of arrest and execution, and often had to hide in tiny “priest holes” in people’s houses. Catholics did not have the right to vote until the 19th century, and the law enabling this was very widely opposed, attracting the biggest petition effort in British history.
The above article is in today’s Guardian and claims that anti-Catholic prejudice is still prevalent, but rather than Protestants being the main source of it, it is coming mainly from secularists:
If there is any prejudice left against them in the UK, any suspicion of popery, it comes from those who are avowedly secular. It was apparent in the protests during Pope Benedict XVI’s state visit in 2010. Hideous caricatures of the pope appeared on the streets, of the German pope carrying a swastika, rather than a crucifix. Catholicism seems fair game.
(This was because Joseph Ratzinger actually was a Hitler Youth as a young man.)
Antipathy to Catholic schools is evident too, an echo of the “Rome on the rates” loathing when they first appeared in the 19th century. But this is not merely a small secular protest: governments of various stripes have sought to forcibly limit the number of places these schools offer to Catholics. Catholic schools do educate non-Catholics, but headteachers, supported by parents and priests, want to decide for themselves, rather than have the policy thrust upon them.
I was brought up Catholic, and went to Catholic schools for most of my time at primary school and my first year at secondary school. There was a strong Catholic community in Croydon where I was growing up, and there were large Catholic primary and secondary schools, some of which were clearly of “secondary modern” heritage, including the secondary schools I and my sister went to (although Croydon had gone comprehensive) and there were two (one for boys, one for girls) that had the air of grammar schools and were over-subscribed. As I’ve said before on here, the schools had a racially very mixed intake as the borough had families from all over the Catholic world, including Ireland, parts of southern Europe and places like Goa and some African countries. There were children from fairly well-to-do areas and children from council estates. We all wore recognisable school uniforms, people knew which schools were Catholic and which were not, and I never remember receiving abuse on the bus or in the street on the way to or from school. This was in the 1980s and so the Irish Troubles were still happening. I never once heard abusive language such as Taig, Papist or similar in public, nor did I hear of a single incident of violence in which religion was a factor. I was aware of the situation in Northern Ireland, of course, but that wasn’t discussed at school and it did not affect us.
The article complains that Catholic schools are losing privileges and this is her main piece of evidence that Catholics still “face prejudice”. It reminds me of the saying of anti-racist activists that when you are used to privilege, equality feels like oppression. It also rather reminds me of Melanie Phillips who has accused secularists of being the major source of anti-Semitism because it was the Jews who are the origin of Christianity’s moral codes, despite the fact that when Europe really was Christian, ghettoisation was the order of the day and pogroms were a frequent occurrence. Catholic schools are expected to admit and teach non-Catholics because they are subsidised by the taxpayer. It is only right that they be expected to serve the whole community in which they operate rather than run on a “we only serve our own” basis. She alleges that “headteachers, supported by parents and priests, want to decide for themselves, rather than have the policy thrust upon them”, although I wonder where her evidence for that comes from; I don’t believe my mother minded that either I or my sister might be rubbing shoulders with non-Catholics at school, as we all did at home. But other religious schools have to deal with “policies thrust upon them”; all schools have to deal with bureaucracy, testing, changing curriculums and so on, while Muslim schools have to deal with scrutiny over matters such as sex segregation. No other community whose institutions are funded by public money gets to “decide for themselves”; why should Catholics?
In fact, Catholic schools have been more sinning than sinned against when it comes to fostering prejudice and discrimination. The junior school I went to was put in special measures in 2015 for poor teaching quality and academic achievement (although OFSTED did note that attendance and care were good, that children “played together peaceably” and felt valued and that there was hardly any bullying); when I was there, bullying was common (though rarely physical), with most of the boys’ part of the playground dominated by football and anyone who didn’t like that trapped against the fence; teachers were mostly dour and the work boring. Although boys and girls sat in class together, in all other aspects were kept entirely separate — a practice which is now routinely condemned when found in Muslim secondary schools. Whether this changed after I left (in 1987) I don’t know, although the headteacher who followed from the one who ran the school when I was there left because she was unable to improve the teaching methods, which she said were condemning children to “slow death by worksheet”. The more desirable Catholic girls’ school was notorious for discriminating against girls from mixed marriages and on one occasion turned a girl away because she had cerebral palsy and walked on crutches, using as an excuse the claim that she would be unable to manage the crowded corridors between classes.
Friends told me that their families had encountered discrimination in the past, such as believing they were being kept down the council house waiting list or facing hostility at a checkpoint because of Irish surnames, but the first was in the 1940s and the second in the 1970s and the prejudice in question was anti-Irish, not anti-Catholic as such. The nearest thing to religious prejudice I ever encountered as a Catholic was a group of boys chanting “your dad’s a vicar” at me in the playground, and as you may have guessed, this was not anti-Catholic prejudice. The Church has been exposed as the facilitator of child abuse and profiteer of slave labour in many countries, including Ireland, Australia and (to a lesser extent, as its power was less) the UK, and its much vaunted “saint” Mother Theresa exposed for not actually treating the sick while hob-nobbing with dictators, yet this has not resulted in the lives of ordinary Catholics in this country being made difficult.
So, it’s ridiculous to claim that Catholics “still face prejudice”. The church that inspired the persecution of Catholics in England is now weaker than the Catholic Church itself, despite retaining established status in England. At a time when there are groups in society that are facing real prejudice and some of this is being incited by the mass media, it is distasteful to claim that a powerful church that has access to public money having some of its privileges questioned and cut back is evidence of prejudice.
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