One of the (few) bonuses of reaching your mid-50s is that it gives you a sense of perspective previously lacking. In my callow youth, when I was editing the Catholic Herald in the late 1980s and early 1990s, I witnessed what I took then to be the death throes of an anti-Catholic prejudice in the public life of this country that stretched back five centuries. Much of the credit should go to the late Cardinal Basil Hume, who managed by sheer force of his personality finally to lay to rest the ghosts of the Reformation. We were no longer outsiders, I remember thinking.
Fast forward 25 years, though, and I find myself ever more aware of an unpleasant form of prejudice that today marginalises not just Catholics but all people of faith. Religion is now routinely treated in our ever more sceptical, secular and curiously intolerant times as a strange aberration which, if it is to be acknowledged at all, must be treated as a purely private matter.
Which is a counsel of utter despair. In September 2010, during his trip to Britain, Pope Benedict XVI did his best by naming and shaming it. Speaking in Westminster Hall before both Houses of Parliament, he highlighted “the failure to appreciate not only the rights of believers to freedom of conscience and freedom of religion, but also the legitimate role of religion in the public square”.
If anything, however, things since have only got worse. The fact that our erstwhile prime minister, Tony Blair, became a Catholic once out of office has apparently done nothing to challenge the perceived wisdom of Downing Street spokesman Alastair Campbell’s infamous statement in 2003 that “we don’t do God”. Yes, we now have a vicar’s daughter as prime minister, and she goes to her local Anglican church every Sunday, yet to speak publicly about having a faith can feel like putting your head above the parapet.
It is one example among many, but when I recently wrote what I intended as a generous obituary in the Guardian of Christine Keeler – about whom I knew a good deal, having written a book on the Profumo scandal – the readers’ online reactions brimmed over not just with objections to my arguments, which were to be expected, but also with highly personal and virulent attacks on how, as a Catholic, I should never have been allowed to express an opinion on such a famous figure (no matter that Keeler died a Catholic).
Par for the course, perhaps, but two readers told me subsequently that they had complained at such naked anti-Catholic abuse to the paper’s moderator, only to be dismissed in a manner unthinkable if the attacks on me had been about my gender, sexuality or race.
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