Mary who?

The English are too forgetful to dislike Catholics seriously. Amnesia is one of their virtues
DO the British dislike Roman Catholics? As the country prepared for the state visit by Pope Benedict XVI due to begin on September 16th, the mood looked surly. Luminaries from the arts and sciences denounced Vatican teachings on gay rights, condom use and abortion. Newspapers demanded to know if the pope would meet victims of clerical sex abuse. More than half those questioned by Populus, a pollster, said they were against a single penny of public money being spent on the four-day visit. Some conservatives detected the whiff of ancient bigotries. They pointed to figures such as Richard Dawkins, a polemical atheist, who called the pope a “leering old villain in a frock”. They noted the lack of outcry when a columnist declared that, for Catholics, “doublespeak and duplicity are second nature”. Other voices, among them successful Catholics, counsel calm. Sir Stephen Wall—a former ambassador and adviser to England’s Roman Catholic leadership—says traditional anti-popery has little to do with the pope’s chilly reception. Instead, the Vatican’s handling of priestly child abuse has damaged its moral authority. More broadly, the “fundamentalist” character of today’s Vatican is out of step with the secularism and social liberalism of modern Britain (indeed of many British Catholics). Both camps have a point. As so often in modern Britain, a key to the riddle is historical amnesia. In Britain (or at least England), the tradition of sectarian enmity was not so much purged from the body politic as mislaid. Anti-Catholic prejudice was rife in polite English society until surprisingly recently: countless families can tell tales of scandals or feuds triggered by a mixed AnglicanCatholic marriage, up to the 1960s or 1970s. Sectarianism lingers on in Northern Ireland, bits of Scotland and some English cities like Liverpool. Yet in much of England, people under 40 cannot remember why Catholicism caused their grandparents such alarm. This ignorance cuts across class and educational lines. In the centre of Oxford stands a handsome Gothic memorial of honey-coloured stone. Erected in 1841, it looks decorous and benign, but is in fact a work of anti-Catholic propaganda. It remembers the “Oxford Martyrs”, three Anglican prelates burned at the stake during Mary Tudor’s bid to reimpose Catholic supremacy in England in 1553-58. This was rough stuff: a botched execution left one ex-bishop to cook even more painfully than normal. All in all, more than 280 Protestants were burned under “Bloody Mary”. For centuries, their deaths were a plank of national mythology (less was said about the 200 or so Catholics strangled and disembowelled soon afterwards by Elizabeth I). For many Anglicans, and for a long time, Roman Catholicism was not just a foreign, superstitious creed, it was demonstrably cruel. Well into the modern age, this was a potent political argument. The 1841 Martyrs’ Memorial was built as a rebuke and warning to Oxford theologians such as John Henry Newman, as they questioned the legitimacy of the Church of England’s split from Rome. Today, religious elements of Britain’s founding myth draw blank stares. In an unscientific straw poll at the Martyrs’ Memorial this week, students, tourists and even an Oxford don chaining up her bicycle (sturdy frame, wicker basket) could not say what it commemorated. The martyrdom of Archbishop Cranmer, said the don at last, grimacing with embarrassment. Whether he was a Protestant or Catholic martyr, she could not say. On September 19th, Pope Benedict is due to beatify Newman (who converted to Rome and became a cardinal) at a mass in Birmingham: the ceremony is meant to be the highlight of his visit. If religious enmity explained British surliness towards Benedict XVI, Newman’s mass would surely witness the greatest protests. Half a century ago, for a pope to beatify Newman on British soil

muddle is often as good as it gets. and before you know it. But with the English. You can take the thought further: a settlement in Northern Ireland was arguably possible only once most English voters ceased to comprehend sectarian hatreds in that province. a bit less defensiveness there. Today. Yet very little of this has ever been debated consciously by the English: that is the cost of their national genius for forgetting rather than forgiving.would have been an “intensely provocative act”. For Diarmaid MacCulloch of Oxford University. has written that Mr Blair’s “relative ignorance” of Irish history was a peacemaking advantage: his boss had no “historical baggage”. the English cannot remember why a minority worried them so much. Forget but don’t forgive That fuzzily secular amnesia of the English has wider political consequences. and denounced marriage to non-Catholics as a threat to the faith. another conservative religion currently causing alarm. bishops would still tell devout youngsters where they could safely study. says Eamon Duffy of Cambridge University. . This is a shame. a former chief of staff to Tony Blair and prime ministerial envoy to the Northern Ireland peace process. One big change came when the Catholic church in England became less hardline towards its own flock. English tolerance of Catholicism moved in lockstep with the emergence of a mainstream middle class among Irish immigrant communities. Newman was widely seen as a “spiritual traitor”. A bit of affluence here. Before the mid-1960s. Jonathan Powell. suggests John Wolffe of the Open University. imperfect solution (just ask Catholics offended by this week’s pope-bashing). It is a muddled. his beatification causes barely a flicker: all attention is on child abuse and Vatican social teachings. An optimist might see a chance there for Islam. because the death of overt antiCatholicism is a rather hopeful story—involving reciprocal tolerance and socioeconomic progress.

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