Scotland's assertive Catholics weigh up independence

A voter leaves a polling station in 2014 in Portree, Scotland. That year Scots narrowly voted not to press ahead with national independence. (CNS/Cathal McNaughton, Reuters)

St. Andrews, Scotland — At the edge of this ancient university town, the ruins of a medieval cathedral perch above a rocky sea embankment, against a backdrop of pounding waves and billowing clouds.

Along the windy alleys, overlooked by crying seagulls, students hurry between lectures, books in hand, while on a nearby cobbled roadway, the stone initials "PH" mark where a Protestant reformer, Patrick Hamilton, was burned at the stake in 1528.

In today's calmer times, Scotland's Christian churches are cooperating closely in the face of secularization. But religious divisions still live on here, and are taken seriously.

"With public participation generally declining, all churches have had to think creatively how to present themselves," explained Professor Mark Elliott, head of the University of St. Andrews’ School of Divinity, which was set up to train Catholic priests in 1538 but later taken over by Protestants.

"But people still have strong values here -- good manners, self-restraint, fairness, concern for justice -- which are linked to the Christian faith. There's much discussion as to how our egalitarian, inclusive ideals can be best expressed."

In a September 2014 referendum, after decades of on-off campaigning, Scots voted narrowly not to press ahead with national independence, much to the relief of English, Welsh and Irish fellow-citizens of the United Kingdom.

But if the rest of Britain votes to leave the European Union, against Scottish preferences, in a new referendum on June 23, pro-independence politicians could demand a fresh ballot. Like it or not, Scotland's independence looks set to remain a live issue.

Catholics, a third of them practicing, make up 17 percent of Scotland's 5.25 million inhabitants, according to the most recent data, and are spread over eight dioceses and some 500 parishes. The church dates its presence here from A.D. 397, when the missionary St. Ninian arrived from Rome, and has had its own bishops conference since the 19th century.

When Protestantism was imposed during the Reformation, Catholic Masses and ordinations were banned, while the rout of a Catholic-led rebel army under Charles Edward Stuart, or Bonnie Prince Charlie, at the 1746 Battle of Culloden led to further brutal suppression of Scotland's language, culture and social structure.

Over the past century, however, the influx of Catholic workers and migrants from Ireland, Italy and Poland has swelled the church's ranks again, and it now boasts as many members as the officially established Presbyterian Church of Scotland.

Yet pockets of the old interfaith sectarianism still exist here, compounded by recent abuse scandals and the 2013 sex-related resignation of the church's leader, Cardinal Keith O'Brien. While Catholics are prominent in the professions and public life, many still face job discrimination. Catholic schools are often daubed, and churches and presbyteries vandalized.

In 2003, a Criminal Justice Act toughened the penalties for crimes motivated by religious hatred, and was followed by other anti-sectarian measures. But police and Justice Ministry data suggest Catholics still make up two-thirds of faith-related crime victims.

"The Reformation was especially bitter in Scotland, and there's still a residual anti-Catholicism here, with a legacy of distrust and dislike that's still being taken forward -- usually by people with little if any church connection," Peter Kearney, director of the Scottish Catholic Media Office, said in a Catholic News Service interview. "Though ecumenical ties between the churches are now very good, there's still some intolerance under the surface. It may be attitudinal now, rather than legal or institutional -- but even now, centuries on, it still hasn't entirely disappeared."

Such realities have compounded Catholic dilemmas over whether to support Scottish independence. The country, with its fabled Highlands and Western Isles, already enjoys its own legal and educational system, and has had its own government and parliament in Edinburgh since 1999 under a first minister appointed by Britain's Queen Elizabeth.  

The 2014 referendum vote -- 45 percent for independence and 55 percent against, on an exceptionally high turnout of 85 percent -- was welcomed by those defending the three centuries-old union of Scotland and England, who feared the consequences if Scots broke away completely.

Yet it also divided local churches, with many believing Scotland could cope economically and politically on its own while remaining secure and prosperous in NATO and the EU. Whereas the predominant Church of Scotland broadly came out in favor, the smaller Free Church of Scotland feared independence could endanger historic safeguards for the Protestant faith.

As for Scotland's Catholics, most had reflected social trends by voting strongly for the pro-independence Scottish National Party in 2007 and 2011 parliamentary elections. But church leaders had also voiced concern at what they saw as the SNP's liberal, secularizing agenda, including its support for same-sex marriage and plans to cut state funding from Catholic education.

In the event, the bishops conference was careful not to take sides, with its president, Archbishop Philip Tartaglia of Glasgow, urging Catholics only to make a "prayerful judgement."

But Kearney, the Catholic media director, thinks the debate has since moved on.

Scotland would have taken a different stance than the rest of Britain, Kearney says, on key issues such as the Iraq War and refugee crisis. More and more Catholics are now viewing independence as their country's best chance to assert its true virtues and make its own proper choices.

"Many Catholics feel independence would free us up to be ourselves and bring out the best in us," Kearney told NCR. "Since our church already has its own independent hierarchy, it wouldn't necessarily make a big difference anyway. But there are clear fault lines now between what Scots think on major current concerns and the decisions taken by the British government in London."

Whatever the future, Liz Leydon, editor of the Glasgow-based Scottish Catholic Observer, thinks the church's prospects are good. Falling church affiliations, she points out, don't necessarily signify the spread of atheism or even a decline in religiousness. 

Catholic seminary admissions have increased again in recent years, while the single diocese of Aberdeen has doubled its membership in a decade thanks to the mass arrival of Catholic migrants.

As in every country, the church faces tough challenges retaining young people and making Catholics visible as a social and cultural force in national life. But if it can offer real guidance on independence -- pressing Scots to think and judge at a deeper level, beyond superficial economic and political categories -- it will be performing a public service.

"Despite all its high-profile problems, I think the Catholic church is learning, growing and regrouping now," Leydon told NCR. "It's also speaking with a stronger voice now and using its resources more effectively. Having been humbled, it's gaining respect -- non-Catholic Scots aren't so quick to judge and dismiss it now."

Back at St. Andrews, the North Sea wind rustles the trees and bushes outside the ancient Divinity School, where a statue of the university's founder, Archbishop Henry Wardlaw, papal charter in hand, was unveiled on its sixth centenary in 2013.

The town's famous golf course, first mentioned by chroniclers in 1552, where the likes of Jack Nicklaus and Tiger Woods have won the Scottish Open, is just a mile away, while the nearby café -- where Britain's Prince William met his future wife, Kate Middleton, in 2001 when they were both St. Andrews students -- is packed behind steaming windows.

Although only five percent of students now read theology here, and very few train to be priests or ministers, the school retains a revered place in the university's historical heritage and intellectual life. Elliott thinks it too will have a significant part to play in the coming debates on Scotland's national future.

"Nationalist politicians have had to keep quiet about religion, so they can appeal to Catholics and Protestants equally, while the churches have been divided and compelled to be even-handed," the School of Divinity director told NCR in his book-lined office.

"But while most Catholics, with their international aspirations, will favor staying in the European Union when Britain votes, there's a strong parallel feeling in all churches now that national independence could be the next step for us."  

[Jonathan Luxmoore's two-volume study of communist-era persecution, The God of the Gulag, has just been published by Gracewing in the U.K.]

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