It would be interesting to know what Dr. Peter Kearney’s employers really think of his recent outburst about sectarianism in Scotland . Dr Kearney is Director of the Scottish Catholic Media Office, but no one seems to have told him that the messenger must never become the message; which is exactly what he became last week with his ridiculous comparison of the plight of Scottish Catholics to that of American blacks in the worst days of segregation.
Many minds boggled besides mine, and there’s no need for me to add further words to the chorus of disbelief. The position of American blacks before the Civil Rights Movement was most famously expressed in Billie Holiday’s song, ‘Strange Fruit’:
Southern trees bear strange fruit,
Blood on the leaves and blood at the root,
Black bodies swinging in the southern breeze,
Strange fruit hanging from the poplar trees.
In all my years of living in Scotland I have never seen Catholic bodies hanging with ‘bulging eyes and twisted mouths’ on poplar or any other trees. Nor have I heard of a Scottish Ku Klux Klan burning Catholic homes, nor of local bye-laws requiring Catholics to travel on different buses and eat in separate restaurants.
The only segregation Catholics suffer is the one they’ve imposed on themselves by insisting on separate Catholic schools: a privilege secured for them by a Secretary of State born in a Free Church manse; and a privilege to which there is no Protestant equivalent. Educationally, the handful of Protestants left in Scotland are second-class citizens. The state subsidises the teaching of Catholicism and Secularism, but certainly not that of Calvinism. Not that I’m complaining. I was told that when I became a Christian that I’d be crucified.
But behind Dr. Kearney’s megaphone (as Professor Tom Devine called it) lies an interesting phenomenon. Catholics insist on the freedom to speak out in defence of their rights, protesting against sectarianism, issuing public statements on moral issues, and crying, ‘Foul!’ whenever anyone questions the existence of Catholic schools.
I have absolutely no wish to deny them this right. But they’ve gone further. They think that theirs should be the only discourse in town and that none should dare contradict it; and they’ve been highly successful in constructing public debate in Scotland in such a way that any Protestant rejoinder is instantly condemned as sectarianism, and any criticism of Catholicism branded as bigotry. Yet there are parts of Catholicism which I think absurd; and their public statements as a whole I regard as giving but a highly distorted view of Christianity, as if Jesus never opened his mouth but to condemn abortion, gay rights and sectarianism.
Surely other positions besides the ‘Catholic victim’ one have a right to be heard? For example, I have a right to say that when I visited the Irish Republic in the 1970s the plight of Protestants in Eire was far worse than that of Catholics in Scotland , the only difference being that there were so few left that no one could hear their pain. And while it’s true that in modern Scotland no one will have his throat cut just for being a Calvinist, every teacher, lecturer, novelist, poet, dramatist, sociologist and journalist has carte blanche to heap scorn and ridicule on Wee Frees, who, apparently, caused the clearances, muzzled the poets, strangled the singers and made the sun go home. You’d be hard-pressed to find a single Protestant in Parliament, or on Quangos or local education committees. Yet Catholics, for all that they’re being hung from trees, seem to flourish in all these sectors.
It looks, too, as if Dr. Kearney and his co-religionists take it ill when gays dare to answer back in defence of their own rights. Indeed, just as black Americans had to paint their faces white to avoid discrimination, so, we are told, Catholics now live in such fear that they have to hide their religious colours and refrain from making public statements on moral issues.
But this again smacks of the idea that the Catholic discourse is the only one that should be heard. To answer them back is to threaten their civil rights. But gays, pro-abortionists and advocates of same-sex marriages have their own rights, and it is ridiculous to label the mere utterance of them ‘bigotry’. They have a categorical right to conduct their own discourse, no matter how critical of the Church.
Yet there is a curiosity here. The advocates of Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Trans-sexual Rights have themselves fallen into the same pattern of arrogance, as if theirs must be the only discourse allowed in town. In today’s Scotland , it is hazardous to argue that there are limits to homosexual rights. Try suggesting, for example, that homosexuality is an identity we choose, rather than one we are born with; or that gays have no intrinsic right to be married in church, or to have their life-style commended to primary-school children. Or try inviting on to a university campus (or appointing to a university faculty) someone who will argue that homosexual practices are sinful. You’d face a lynching. Gay Rights is the only discourse allowed on campus.
The world is full of people who want to deny others the right to speak. But to criticise the Vatican is not bigotry. And to oppose gay marriage is not homophobia.
This article was first published in the West Highland Free Press on Friday, 18 January, 2013.