So sorry if you've seen this before...
I haven't written anything about the Pope's visit to the UK because mostly the press coverage and people's reactions have been giving me a headache. But here is a quick tuppence worth after reading the BBC's Have Your Say, which posed the question "what does the Pope's visit mean to you?" Most people replied "nothing". Of course, there was also a lot of invective about Catholicism in general, but the thing that struck me was just lots of people saying: "I don't care about this, why is it happening?"
So, let me just try to say why for me, as a British Catholic, it is important that this visit is happening, and why I feel sad I'm not on British soil today.
(Just to get this out of the way: I've blogged on this before, but to reiterate as it's bound to come up. I am, in the strongest possible terms, horrified by the paedophilia scandal, extremely disappointed in the Church's response to it, and understand completely why for a lot of people this casts a pall over the Church generally. I do think it's worth noting that the way the media has reported on this is probably not that helpful to future victims of child abuse, because it presents priests who sexually abuse children as "other" - men made abnormal by their religious vows and beliefs, and a lot of correlation has been drawn between vows of celibacy and sexual abuse. Actually, the men most likely to sexually abuse children are fathers and stepfathers, many of whom will be in a sexual relationship with adult women. This isn't to diminish the significance of what has happened, but it's time we started thinking about what social structures contribute to allowing sexual abuses to take place, rather than smugly acting as if they only happen within institutions we don't really like anyway.)
Right. As the BBC website says:
"The trip is the first to the UK by a Pontiff since John Paul II in 1982. It is also the first to be designated a state visit because the Pope has been invited by the Queen rather than the church."
This is about history. For many modern British people, the immediate response to what I'm about to say is "so what? All this stuff you're talking about happened years - even centuries - ago." But it's funny how long things are ingrained into the national psyche. I wonder how many people who have in the last weeks casually used the words "papist" and "popery" on Twitter, message boards and so on understand what historic prejudices they are drawing on. Let me be clear: I respect your right to dislike the Catholic Church.
Objecting to hate language is NOT attempting to silence you. Here is a selection of tweets that use the word "papist" just within the last few hours on Twitter.
I still can't believe that it's 2010, and my city is preparing to welcome the world's premier Papist to it's environs.
pope + rapist = papist
pope + rapist = papist. The beauty of these simple confluences (and) elisions makes my life in the arse lane endurable.
I'm anti-papist I must admit. Mind you, I'm against most organised religions that have been forced by politics upon the masses.
Predictive text win: just tried to type Papist but my phone suggested rapist. Bloody clever phone this.
You can read just a little bit here
about the historic use of the word "papist".
It was not until 1829 that civil rights for Catholics in Britain were (mostly) restored. The Catholic Relief Act, for instance, allowed Catholics to take office. There was vehement opposition to the Act both on a national scale and also in government, a lot of which was the result of anti-Irish prejudice. The resulting Act was a compromise, as it effectively disenfranchised the Irish peasantry (in Ireland prior to the Act, any man owning property worth 40 shillings or more had the vote; the qualification was raised to £10).
In 1850, the hierarchy of the Catholic Church in England was officially restored, meaning, essentially, that Catholics once again had dioceses - and bishops. Prior to this, for two centuries English Catholics were overseen by Vicars Apostolic. The first Vicar Apostolic landed in secret in England in 1623. I'm just going to quote this bit from Wikipedia since it says it neatly enough: "The years from 1688 to the early nineteenth century were in some respects the nadir for Catholicism in England. Deprived of their dioceses, four Apostolic Vicariates were set up throughout England until the re-establishment of the diocesan episcopacy in 1850. Although the persecution was not violent as in the past, Catholic numbers, influence and visibility in English society reached their lowest ebb. Their civil rights were severely curtailed: their right to own property or inherit land was greatly limited, they were burdened with special taxes, they could not send their children abroad for Catholic education, they could not vote, and priests were liable to imprisonment." So the changes in the 19th century were welcomed enthusiastically by the Catholic population, and there was a significant Catholic revival from the late nineteeth century onward.
Still, the spectre of anticatholicism in Britain looms large. Those of us with Irish blood (which is quite a lot of British Catholics) will be particularly aware of this. There's not really room here (and I don't have time!) to really discuss sectarian violence in Ireland and how the popular trend at the moment to say "it's about politics, not faith" is a way of obscuring the complex web of prejudices (on all sides!) in Northern Ireland. But for those of you who think that anticatholicism is a relic of the past, please do consider 1972's Bloody Sunday
, and wonder why it is that it took nearly 40 years for the British government to acknowledge that it murdered its citizens for the crime of being Irish Catholic men who wanted the same civil rights as their Protestant neighbours. They were shot as they crawled to safety. It could easily have been my uncles, my cousins.
I know that the Irish situation is more complex than "just" religion. I know
. But I also know that for me, and for many other British Catholics, with history hard at our back, to have an official state visit
by the leader of our Church - whatever one thinks of him, and trust me, many British Catholics are angry with him, but our many and varied discussions on the state of the Church today do not get covered by the mainstream media - after centuries of repression of our faith right into the late 20th century, it's a big deal. It's a really big deal. I hope that you can understand that.