The abuse crisis is no excuse for anti-Catholic bigotry

The Scottish composer James MacMillan has composed a congregational Mass for the Blessed John Henry Newman which is to be featured at the venues of  the Pope’s forthcoming visit to Great Britain. No surprise there.  But what’s novel I think,  is that MacMillan, unusually for a composer, is a bold controversialist and an unorthodox defender of British Catholicism who has started his own blog to comment on his own press interviews. 

MacMillan first slammed sectarianism as “Scotland’s Shame” 11 years ago and has not  been deflected since  by the horrors of the abuse scandal – not that he makes any excuses for it. His comments (if not the blog, yet) reflect  the sweep and passion of his music, from the ultra modern to strong traditional references.

He’s quoted today by the English Catholic writer Peter Stanford  condemning much secular comment about the Church as  “the new antisemitism of the liberal intellectual”.  Stanford asks: ” So why don’t other Catholics follow MacMillan’s example and speak up more often in their own defence?”

Amid the abuse crisis, the nuanced contributions of  liberal Catholics to the current debates around the Pope’s visit  is a reminder that anti-Catholic bigotry is just as bad as the other disease without the “anti”. 

During the visit, it will be interesting to see if Christians of all denominations will get a hearing  for their common cause, to defend the place of religion in public life. Or will their cause be swamped  by the attention inevitably focused on own bitter internal rows over different aspects of sex?

For all types of  Irish,  the separate  British debate  points up the contrast between the State within a State role long exercised by the Catholic Church in both parts of  Ireland and the keep our heads down, not quite belonging position of the Church in England and Wales and Scotland since the Reformation which it hasn’t  shaken off even yet.  The grounds for Catholics failing to belong fully may have shifited, from specifically anti Catholic discrimination which has greatly declined, to the gap between Catholic teaching and acceptance of  practices like abortion,  but it is probably as wide  as ever.  Secular Britain is a bigger stranger  to the conservative devout of all types of Britain  perhaps, than the old Protestant Britain was for Roman Catholics  in the last two hundred years.  

The main factor that keeps  Catholic isolation in check  is the  independent outlook of the Catholic laity. But even the furious response to the blatant cover-ups seems to have failed seriously to rock the position of  self-perpetuating Church establishment. 

Coming from the likes of  James MacMillan, the case in favour of the Church carries more conviction  than does the  Pope

 In James’s background  there are the familiar crossover links between the traditions on either side of the water, as he recently told  the Herald.

He describes how, at around 10 years old, he joined a brass band, encouraged by his beloved maternal grandfather, George. “The coal mines are saturated in brass band culture and my grandfather had played euphonium in a colliery band as a young man,” says MacMillan, lighting up as he speaks. “Brass was a big thing in Cumnock and I felt as though I was following in his footsteps. It’s quite a big thing to march, play and read music at the same time. I was excited by that prospect.”

Only this marching was to the thud of an Orange walk. “This engagement came in for [the band] to play for an Orange walk somewhere in Ayrshire. I was going to do it – I didn’t bother about it – but my parents thought it would cause a scandal if I was seen, a little Catholic boy.” He chuckles quietly.

If MacMillan once saw nothing strange about a Catholic boy marching in an Orange parade, he is adamant now there is nothing contradictory about having working class roots and voting Conservative.