For some lapsed Catholics, nationalism fills a void where spirituality once dwelt

An old joke sees a Jewish man accosted by some burly types on one of Glasgow’s rougher streets. “You a Catholic or a Protestant?” demands Thug A.

The man, panic in his voice, insists: “I’m a Jew!”

Thug A takes a step back. There is a pause but the tension remains, until Thug B pipes up: “Aye, but are you a Catholic Jew or a Protestant Jew?”

Today, a similar gag might involve a Catholic grilled on Twitter by cybernats, the self-appointed patriotism police of social media.

Cybernat 1: “What do you believe in, independence or the Union?”

Man: “Catholicism.”

Cybernat 2: “Aye, but have you accepted Nicola Sturgeon as your personal saviour?”

As Scotland girds itself for a possible second referendum on independence, the starting assumption must be that Catholic voters would mostly back a breakaway. An Edinburgh University study found that 56 per cent of Catholics voted Yes in the 2014 referendum, while almost six in 10 Protestants backed the Union. In the 2015 general election, when Scottish Labour was led by the Glasgow-born, Mass-going, Celtic-daft Jim Murphy, the SNP took every one of Labour’s heartland seats (and a few more besides).

Catholic Scotland’s relationship with nationalism has trodden a Via Dolorosa since the days of Billy Wolfe, the SNP president who opposed John Paul II’s 1982 visit on the grounds that Catholicism sought “world domination”. Alex Salmond built relations with Church leaders, striking up a friendship with Cardinal Winning and making common cause against Trident, military conflicts and on welfare reform. A 2012 survey found that 64 per cent of SNP members favoured abolition of Catholic schools, but the Bishop of Rome himself could not have convinced Salmond to dilute Catholic education. When Benedict XVI came to Glasgow in 2010, Salmond greeted the pontiff and attended Mass at Bellahouston Park.

Arguably, the main threat the SNP poses to Catholicism today is that of competitor religion. Nicola Sturgeon addresses mega-rallies of devotees, boasts her own clothing range and faces almost no internal criticism. The evangelical fervour – nationalists speak with missionary pride of converting sceptics – has not dissuaded the Catholic influx into the party. Nor has Sturgeon’s support for abortion and same-sex marriage, which intimates a more complex transformation among Scottish Catholics: that they have become more secular and that it is this, rather than any unity between SNP policy and Catholic social teaching, that explains their political shift. For lapsed Catholics, nationalism fills a void once nourished by spirituality, and redemption comes through sovereignty, not salvation. Francis may be the Pope but only Nicola is infallible.

The Church too has changed. Peter Kearney, who runs the Scottish Catholic Media office, is a former contestant for the SNP deputy leadership while David Kerr, head of communications for the Archdiocese of St Andrews and Edinburgh, is a one-time SNP parliamentary candidate. Archbishop Philip Tartaglia of Glasgow, calls Alex Salmond “one of the most able and influential political leaders that Scotland and the United Kingdom has ever produced”.

These changes sit ill at ease with Catholic opponents of nationalism. Composer James MacMillan, one of the foremost Catholics in Scotland, says: “The Catholic community in the west of Scotland still has a residue of the Irish republicanism of earlier generations.

“The SNP’s genius has been to tap into this Anglophobia and grievance-nurturing and harvest it for their own purposes. The leadership of the Church has largely, and happily, played along as their useful idiots.

“When Scotland needed wise council and cool heads, some local Catholic clergy have behaved disgracefully, whipping up political negativity and causing division. Their behaviour aids instability in the country and in the Church. The SNP have planned this for years, and have had their placemen working in positions of influence in Catholic bodies in Scotland for some time.”

Unionists face an additional burden: Unionism. Many opponents of separation, Catholic or otherwise, disavow the term, given its Belfast undertones; when the Orange Order backed a No vote last time around, the official Better Together campaign shunned them.

All this is before a second referendum has even been granted. Theresa May says “not now” and polls suggest Scots agree with her. While the Kirk has urged the Prime Minister to concede to Sturgeon’s demands, the Bishops’ Conference of Scotland has declined to comment. Like Scotland itself, the faithful are bitterly divided over independence.

For now, if anyone asks whether you’re a Nationalist or a Unionist, I recommend telling them you’re a Catholic Jew.

Stephen Daisley is a columnist for the Scottish Daily Mail

This article first appeared in the March 24 2017 issue of the Catholic Herald. To read the magazine in full, from anywhere in the world, go here