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Catholicism in Scotland: Through the lens of George Square



Written by James Bundy



Growing up in Scotland, I have been used to anti-Catholic comments being made regularly without any consequences. I have been called a paedophile on the basis of my faith. I have been told that I do not have the ability to think for myself because “Rome does all my thinking”. I have been told to “go back to Ireland where the fenians belong”. More generally, I have also heard anti-Catholic songs being sung in public. The majority of Catholics in Scotland will have heard the same. Lyrics such as, “No Pope of Rome...No nuns, no priests, no rosary beads”, “Up to our knees in Fenian Blood”, and “F*ck the Pope and the Vatican” have been heard. In 2018, Canon Tom White was spat on whilst anti-Catholic abuse was being shouted at him.


This is why I believe that the majority of Scotland’s Catholics would not have been shocked by the events in George Square on Saturday. In a roundabout way, I actually think Catholics will come to thank the events. Anti-Catholicism, which has been persistent in Scottish society for so long, has finally been called out for what it is by political party leaders, rather than hidden until the veil of the more vague term “sectarianism”. By sparking a conversation which has reached front pages of national newspapers, awareness of anti-Catholicism will increase throughout wider society, which will hopefully lead to its being called out more often. So whilst the fact that anti-Catholic singing took place on such a scale does sadden me, the unoriginality and potential positive outcomes of it result in my not being too concerned.


Sadly, however, I am still concerned about being a person of faith in Scotland. The anti-Catholicism that has been spoken about in the past week is in association to the culturally Irish debate which made its way over to Scotland many years ago. Anti-Catholicism in Scotland goes much deeper than that, and Catholics, I believe, have a responsibility to remind people of that. After the Scottish Reformation, Catholicism was outlawed in 1560. This meant that the celebration of Mass was illegal. Effigies of the Pope were being burnt in Edinburgh and St Andrews. St John Ogilvie was martyred in 1615 at Glasgow Cross, after refusing to accept that King James VI & I was supreme on spiritual matters. It was only in 1793 when Catholic emancipation started to give Scottish Catholics civil rights. It was nearly a century later, 1878, when the Church hierarchy in Scotland was restored.


The pandemic gave us the opportunity to have a wee glimpse at what our fellow Scots felt like because of the illegality of the celebration of Mass. Whilst the reasoning behind the banning of Mass was totally different - I believe that the Scottish Government acted with the best of intentions - having the receiving of sacraments prohibited by law was painful. But whilst I do believe that the Government acted with the best of intentions, I also believe they acted without wanting to understand the significance of the sacraments of the Church in the life of Catholics, or the importance of congregational worship for other faiths.


This is despite human rights legislation that protects freedom of religion or belief, and freedom of worship. The opening of cinemas for juries showed that the Scottish Government understood the importance of a free trial, and that arrangements could be made to make public buildings “Covid-secure” so essential human rights could be continued. Places of worship, however, were closed, despite the Scottish Government receiving scientific advice showing that places of worship could be opened without the virus spreading. It was for these reasons that the Court of Session judged that the closure of places of worship broke Human Rights law.


This is why my main concern about Catholicism in Scotland is not the events of George Square, but the understanding about the importance of religion amongst our political leaders. Before the pandemic, religion was already on the periphery of thinking in the public sphere. It appears that the pandemic has pushed it even further from the centre of thinking.

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