One Atheist’s Take on the Anti-Papal Fervor in the UK

Padraig Reidy, Irish-born self-proclaimed “professional atheist” (in other words, a former deputy editor of the atheist magazine New Humanist), has penned an interesting article for the Guardian entitled, “I’m an atheist but this anti-Catholic rhetoric is making me nervous.”

The article’s worth reading, but a little background may be in order. The pope is planning the first ever papal visit to the United Kingdom, and it’s reopening some pretty tender wounds, and exposing some ugly anti-Catholic bigotry. For most of the last half-millennium, the Bishop of Rome was quite unwelcome on English soil, but things have changed somewhat. Pope John Paul II had a pastoral visit in 1982 (the difference between a pastoral and official visit is whether you’re going to visit just the Catholics in the country, or to meet with the heads-of-state as well — on this trip, Benedict will meet with both the Queen and the Prime Minister), and Britain is certainly not as bigoted towards Catholics as it used to be.

Nevertheless, strong vestiges remain. Tony Blair converted to Catholicism, but had to wait until after his term in office, due to a somewhat jarring, still-operative law forbidding the Prime Minister and Crown from being Catholic. The official explanation for the anti-Catholic laws is that the Crown and Prime Minister hold positions within the Anglican Church, the UK’s state religion, so it doesn’t make sense to allow a Catholic to occupy that office. But of course, it’s only Catholicism which is forbidden. The current PM, Gordon Brown, for example, is a member of the (Presbyterian) Church of Scotland, which isn’t part of the Anglican Communion.

Additionally, you can’t tell the story of British oppression of Catholics without telling the story of British oppression (and periodic enslavement) of the Irish. Padraig Reidy is in a unique position to see this, as an Irish atheist still viewed suspiciously – as a potential Catholic – by his British classmates. The oppression of the two groups was circular in reasoning: the Irish had to be enslaved because they were a nation of “superstitious” Catholics, and thus, primitive peoples in need of British civilization; Catholicism had to be banned because it was a foreign threat, and one need look no further than Ireland to see its pernicious influence. The Catholic Church in the UK is notoriously weak, from the top down, at evangelizing powerfully. It remains vibrant because of a strong immigrant presence, Poles and Filipinos, as I understand it. This, of course, reinforces the stereotype that to be Catholic is to be unpatriotic, or at least, non-British.

Finally, anti-Catholicism has seen a surge in the UK for the same reason it’s seen a surge in the US: the goals of the New Left in both countries are radically at odds with Catholic teaching. Obviously, it’s not the Church which has changed here: She’s always been against the murder of the unborn, against contraceptives and free love, against homosexual sex and gay marriage, and so on. But as “pelvic issues” have taken a place at the very heart of both American and British liberals’ agendas (as well, quite frankly, as British conservatives’), there’s only one Church standing in the way. And that Church must be demonized and manhandled, apparently.

Below Reidy’s article, a commenter notes in passing, “Anglicans are allowed to make Anglicanism a small part of their identity. Catholicism seems all too often to consume the identity of its adherents.” Now, the person commenting views this as a negative, but the point is obviously in the Church’s great defense. Anglicanism isn’t hated by the liberals because it’s not a threat. It’s long been irrelevant, a mere civic religion. Even with as badly battered (both from the insides and out) as the Catholic Church in Britain has been, She’s the most active religion in England. In the mid-90s, for example, there were about 26 million self-proclaimed Anglicans, compared to only 5.6 million self-proclaimed Catholics, yet Catholics outnumbered Anglicans in the pews by a half-million (1.7 million Catholics v. 1.2 million Anglicans on a given Sunday). Since that time, those disturbingly-low figures have gotten even worse. Catholic Mass attendance has plummeted in half, and there are now about 875,000 Catholics and 860,000 Anglicans in the pews. Fewer than half of Britons today believe in God, even though nearly three-fourths consider themselves “Christians.” So the Catholic Church in the United Kingdom is dying, but less quickly than the Anglican Church. And for those hundreds of thousands of folks for whom She still matters, it’s frequently the sort of “consuming the identity” the commenter talked about: you can’t really be a part-time Catholic, and being Catholic genuinely changes the way you view the world, and a whole slew of social issues. Meanwhile, the Church outside of the UK is quite alive, to the befuddlement of Britons. All of these factors combined mean a whole slew of people – from atheists to “Catholic” “reformers” – have plans to hasten the Church’s demise.

In any case, the comments confirm the Guardian author’s point. Even though this is an atheist-penned article, and even though the author offers his own criticism of the Church, the commenters waste no time unloading a truckload of venom. The eighth comment sums it up accurately: “Wow, 30 mins and already all the comments entirely validate the point of the article. Sterling work.” It doesn’t get better after that. The Church in the United Kingdom, the British people generally, and atheists everywhere (including Mr. Reidy) could greatly use your prayers.

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