No to crude anti-Catholicism

Once on the outside, the Catholic church is now part of the British establishment. Eddie Ford looks at the relevance of the papal visit

September 16 saw Joseph Ratzinger, aka pope Benedict XVI, touch down in Edinburgh for a four-day state visit to the UK. The enormous symbolic and political implications are obvious, seeing how Ratzinger is the first pope to make an official appearance in England/Britain since the Reformation, and Vatican occupants were hardly regular visitors before that. Perhaps tellingly, there has only ever been one English pope - Adrian IV, or Nicholas Breakspear - who assumed office in December 1154 and almost immediately placed Rome under ‘interdict’ in order to suppress the Commune of Rome, which had attempted re-establish democracy along the lines of the old Roman republic[1]. So maybe someone for a ultra-reactionary like pope Benedict to admire.

The centrepiece of Ratzinger’s visit will be an open-air beatification mass on September 19 in Birmingham’s Crofton Park for the 19th century Catholic cardinal, John Henry Newman - which is expected to be witnessed be attended by hundreds of priests, bishops and cardinals and some 50,000 worshippers (though tickets are proving hard to give away). Doubtless millions more will follow the proceedings on television. Other highlights of the papal tour include an official dinner and reception at Holyrood House with the queen and a speech on the merits of ‘civil society’ at Westminster Hall.[2] For those interested in such things there will be a super-abundance of papal memorabilia to celebrate the historic event - such as an official ‘papal visit’ T-shirt (£18), an electronic flashing candle to hold aloft as if you were at a rock concert (£3) or even a baseball cap (£15) bearing the slogan of the newly beatified Cardinal Newman: “Heart speaks unto heart.”[3]

Inevitably, Ratzinger is being met by various kinds of demonstrations and protests, albeit relatively small in number. These range from the victims of abusive paedophile priests, to the secularist ‘Protest the Pope’ movement - whose prominent supporters include Richard Dawkins and Peter Tatchell - to the self-proclaimed fundamentalists of the Free Presbyterian Church, whose motto is Ardens sed virens (burning but flourishing). The latter was founded in 1951 by Ian Paisley, the virulently sectarian defender of the Six Counties statelet. In a counter-symbolic move, Paisley and his supporters held a ‘no popery here’ meeting at the same church which John Knox - widely regarded as the founder of Scottish Protestantism - used to preach in the 16th century after returning from effective exile in Geneva, where he had penned such notorious tracts as The first blast of the trumpet against the monstrous regiment of women.

Needless to say, communists find plenty that is objectionable about Joseph Ratzinger - the natural successor to the reactionary John Paul II (his ‘spiritual’ mentor) and who before becoming pope was the prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, previously known as the Supreme Sacred Congregation of the Roman and Universal Inquisition, and had been particularly energetic in taking “disciplinary measures” against the more outspoken Latin American liberation theologians for their “Marxist tendencies”. Then there is Ratzinger’s abominable homophobia - he claims that gays have a “more or less strong tendency ordered towards an inherent moral evil” - and his deep-rooted attachment to the misogynist values of Catholic doctrine. Not to mention the ever simmering question of anti-Semitism, which in a theological form is, of course, embedded into foundational myths and teachings of Christianity itself, and from which Ratzinger seems unable to distance himself - hence the situation last year where he rescinded the excommunication latae sententiae placed upon bishop Richard Williamson, who amongst many odious things has denied the existence of Nazi gas chambers and declared The protocols of the elders of Zion to be authentic (he also opposes women wearing trousers or shorts, attending college/university or having a career).[4]


Hence broadly speaking, communists think is correct for organisations like Protest the Pope - and the secularist liberal left in general - to take offence at the fact that the British state is paying for the visit, which amounts to some £10-12 million (excluding policing). In effect, the Catholic church is being provided with a chance to make propaganda, such as the promotion to sainthood of cardinal Newman, at the taxpayer’s expense. Therefore, as militant secularists, we in the CPGB find nothing objectionable as such in PTP’s view that Ratzinger “should not be accorded the honour and recognition of a state visit”[5] nor to its petition demanding that the government “disassociates” itself from the pope’s “opposition to women’s reproductive rights, gay equality, embryonic stem cell research and the use of condoms to prevent the spread of HIV”; and that David Cameron “express his disagreement with the pope’s role in the cover-up of child sex abuse by Catholic clergy”, etc.[6]

However, having said that, many of those vituperatively protesting against the papal visit in the name of secularism - such as Richard Dawkins - are ill-advised. Communists in the UK are acutely aware, or at least should be, that for many centuries the ruling ideology of this country was deeply anti-Catholic. Indeed, Great Britain was forged as a nation - and defined itself - against Catholicism and the European Catholic powers, especially France. In turn, Catholics within Britain became the enemy within and were discriminated against accordingly. So, far from British identity being an essentially benign product resulting from a lengthy process involving the integration and homogenisation of the various disparate peoples comprising the UK - the ‘official’ version of events traditionally promoted in schools and near countless BBC documentaries - it was rather superimposed in through rivalry with ‘the other’ (ie, Catholic France, etc).

That is to say, a unifying British-Protestant entity only emerged through extended military and political conflict with France between 1689 and 1815 - with the constituent ethnic and national groups of English, Scots and Welsh forged into a nation as a result. Naturally, artists, satirists, writers, poets, etc were all drafted into this nation-building enterprise, playing their role in the imagining and then creation of what we now know as Great Britain. In particular, the Scots seized the opportunities of empire not afforded to them at home and this made a substantial contribution to a more patriotic Britain - a more ‘British’ empire, if you like. Yes, at this time, to be British meant to be Protestant and anti-Catholic.

Of course, this institutional sectarianism took an extra vicious twist in the 19th century with the wave of Irish migrants into Britain, leading to a poisonous revival of anti-Catholicism - analogous in some respects to the outbreak of medieval-type anti-Semitism that occurred in tsarist Russia in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Quite vilely, but true to form, the Tory Party sensed an opportunity to revive its political fortunes and played upon this rising anti-Catholicism/Irish sentiment for everything it was worth - which turned out to be quite a lot, managing to secure a significant electoral base amongst sections of the working class that lasted well into the 20th century. Furthermore, this widespread and potent anti-Irish chauvinism - an updated version of Britain’s long running historical and ideological anti-Catholicism - had the effect of seriously undermining the working class movement. Just as Karl Marx warned and the Tory Party hoped.

This toxic sectarianism took a particularly sharp form in Scotland, where a powerful Orange order developed which pitted Protestant workers against Catholics, who mainly Irish in origin and experienced systematic discrimination and prejudice. This legacy of sectarianism still disfigures parts of Scotland today, whether in terms of the educational system or sporting activities - Rangers versus Celtic and so on.


In other words, communists recognise the undeniable fact that xenophobic sectarian antagonism to ‘foreign’ Catholicism - and in turn resistance to anti-Catholic oppression - was how the class struggle often manifested itself in the concrete conditions of the UK/Britain, albeit in a negative or backward way. Therefore we in Britain have a duty to combat anti-Catholicism - which, even if motivated by subjectively progressive inclinations, can have the effect of demonising or marginalising ordinary Catholics.

After all, it is important to remember that up until very recent times to be a Catholic in Britain was to be an outsider. As Stephen Bates comments in The Guardian, when he was an altar boy at mass during the 1960s, to be a Catholic was to be part of a “group outside the mainstream of British life” - one that was “separate, slightly alien”. For example, he writes, “as if to emphasise the distinctiveness”, his parish church was “weirdly out of keeping with the rest of our suburban town” - an “enormous, garish, red-brick Italianate basilica complete with campanile and a large statue of Christ on the roof”. Of course, Bates goes on to remind us, back then there were “no British Catholic role models”. When John F Kennedy became president of the United States “we became ecstatic” - he was “young, personable, dynamic and Catholic”.[7]

Now, of course, we have another wave of Catholic migrants and ‘outsiders’ - the Poles, who have also been the object of xenophobic chauvinism and scaremongering by the tabloid press. The new Irish. And another attempt to divide the working class along the lines of ethnicity/nationality and religion, thus demonstrating once again for communists our obligation to combat anti-Catholic bigotry.

But, self-evidently, times have changed. British political life and culture has reconfigured itself - quite radically in some ways. Revealingly, a recent edition of The Tablet - the Catholic weekly review magazine with a circulation of about 23,000 - published a list of 100 “influential Catholics”, ranging from cabinet secretary Gus O’Donnell to the BBC’s Mark Thompson and Mark Damazer. The list also included Delia Smith, Danny Boyle, David Lodge, Peter Ackroyd, Hilary Mantel, Chris Patten, Mark Serwotka, Jack Dromey, Frank Skinner, Peter Kay, Adrian Chiles, Susan Boyle, Ant and Dec ...

Nor should we forget that when Iain Duncan Smith and Charles Kennedy respectively led the Tories and Liberal Democrats, and Tony Blair was prime minister, all three were Catholics (or on the way to becoming so). An occurrence that generated very little comment - in a way that would have been virtually unthinkable only a mere 30 years ago. Not even Ian Paisley jumped up and down about it.

In short, Catholics - who represent less than 10% of the UK population - are no longer outsiders and the Catholic church is now part of the British establishment. Proof enough lies in the fact that David Cameron recorded a video message welcoming the pope to Britain, describing it as a “unique opportunity to celebrate the enormous contribution that all our faith communities make to our society” and to “celebrate their role in helping to build a bigger and stronger society” - hoping that Ratzinger’s “broader message can help challenge us to ask searching questions about our society and how we treat ourselves and each other”.[8] In pursuance of his ‘big society’, Cameron is delighted to be able to embrace Benedict XVI and the Catholic church in general.

And it is fairly easy to see why. The Church of England, the established church is fractured and dying on its feet - Sunday services are mostly woefully attended, a fact often decried by newspaper editorials and concerned bourgeois opinion. Under such conditions, the establishment is well aware of the continued pull of the Catholic church - which, compared to Anglicanism, seems vibrant and alive, even if on a world scale the Catholic church is beset with the child abuse scandal and is suffering from general decline (losing swathes of its congregations in the US, Ireland, Germany, Belgium, etc). Therefore, quite sensibly from its own point of view, the ruling class wants to bring the Catholic church fully on board, pulling it deeper into the establishment. That way, it can be more fully incorporated and - most centrally - use can be made of the Catholic church’s relative largesse, especially when the government is about to embark on a savage campaign of cuts. Clearly, the coalition government needs bodies like the Catholic church to provide it with ideological back-up and also, to some degree or another, to help plug the gaps in society when the state withdraws social services and public provisions. So a win-win situation for both partners in the ‘big society’ dance, you would think.


  1. en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Commune_of_Rome
  2. www.thepapalvisit.org.uk/2010-Visit
  3. www.bbc.co.uk/news/magazine-11278500
  4. en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Richard_Williamson_%28bishop%29
  5. www.protest-the-pope.org.uk
  6. richarddawkins.net/articles/5037-petition-protest-the-pope
  7. The Guardian September 14, original emphasis.2
  8. www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-11305217