Beware of pushing Catholics out of the progressive club

Kevin Meagher on why it would be a mistake for liberals and those on the left to push Catholics out of the progressive club with their anti-Papal rhetoric.

For many Catholics, the last few weeks have felt like being trapped in the home end at Ibrox during a Rangers versus Celtic “Old Firm” game. The tone of the attacks on the Pope ahead of his state visit to Britain have been splenetic, their tempo relentless. They have ranged from snide criticisms about paying for the state aspects of his visit (an invitation that came from a Labour government) through to the cartoonishly offensive remarks about the Pope’s German origin.

Over at Spiked, Frank Furudi described liberal anti-popery as an “Inquisition-in-reverse”, noting that the Pontiff’s visit seems to have “provided much of the British cultural elite with a figure that it is okay to hate”. Meanwhile Claire Fox, director of the Institute of Ideas, noted that while many reacted with horror at the French and Belgian ban on the burqa, “the response of some secular campaigners shows that such demonisation of religious groups is alive and kicking in the UK”.

The well-promulgated views of atheist deity, Richard Dawkins, will, of course, come as little surprise. But like boxing promoter Don King before a title fight, Dawkins has ratcheted his rhetoric to risible heights of self-parody. His message to the Pope?

“Go home to your tinpot Mussolini-concocted principality and don’t come back.”

Commenting on today’s ‘Protest the Pope’ march in London, the New Statesman’s Laurie Penny wades in:

“On Saturday, I’ll be marching through my home city beside thousands of others to tell bigots and dogmatists everywhere that if they try to push back at the raw edge of modernity, they’re going to get cut. If that conviction makes me anti-Catholic, then just give me a pen and show me where to sign.

Meanwhile those irascible grumps at the British Secular Society should lie in a darkened room until the Pope has left. His every utterance seems to induce apoplexy.

Like many ordinary Catholics, my disdain for the vulgar, unworthy sentiments of Dawkins and his fellow secular jihadists is total; but I am duty bound to observe Voltaire’s dictum about defending the right to be expressed that with which I profoundly disagree. That is an absolute. As a liberal, I abide by it. But freedom of conscience is what Catholics in Britain demand in return. And that is an absolute too.

Many Catholics do not agree with every dot and comma of liberal-left theology. There are real philosophical differences over a range of social and moral issues; there is no point pretending otherwise. But there is enormous common ground between Catholics and other progressives around fair trade, arms reduction, the environment, human rights, racial justice and “solidarity towards the poor”, as the Pope made clear in his address in Westminster Hall yesterday. These provide the basis of a profound partnership and should not be casually dismissed.

Ordinary lay Catholics and clergy who supplied the infantry of the Make Poverty History campaign, or provide food and friendship to refugees and asylum seekers are progressives too. In deed, not just in word. Some people on the left seem to have a problem internalising that ‘contradiction’. But they had better. An attack on the Pope is an attack on all Catholics. Is the left in this country so over abundant with support that it can afford a ‘friendly fire’ incident that excludes literally millions of Catholics from membership of the progressive club?

That would be solely remiss given Catholics are some of the best members. As Ipsos MORI found while fewer than a quarter (22 per cent) of the public generally describe themselves as “Old Labour”, over a third (34 per cent) of Catholics say that term best describes their political view.

But this has not stopped David Cameron spying an opportunity to make a grab for Britain’s Catholic voters by aligning ‘The Big Society’ with Catholic social teaching in a piece in The Tablet. Of course the social catastrophe that awaits the poorest communities in Britain thanks to the coalition’s cuts is inimical to those very same teachings. But the fact that Mr Cameron is even trying should set alarm bells ringing.

Catholics have been a beleaguered minority within the British state for 500 years, suffering generations of privation and state-sponsored discrimination. There is a particular context to the experience of British Catholics that their mouthy critics should show more sensitivity towards.

These rhetorical attacks are violent, intimidating and provide a “dog whistle” for those whose objection to Catholicism will not be expressed intellectually. We are no more than one generation on from noxious, open, anti-Catholic bigotry. Once it came from reactionaries and Protestant fundamentalists. Now, alas, it comes wearing ‘liberal’ clothing.

Christopher Caldwell puts it well in today’s Financial Times:

“Most of the Pope’s detractors will admit that there is an old, embarrassing kind of “bad” anti-Catholicism, based on prejudice, ignorance and nationalism. They claim to represent instead a ‘good’ kind of protest, based on ethics and evidence. The distinction is not always obvious.”

If some on the liberal left have a problem with the Catholic Church then there must be an agreement to disagree. So-called liberals need to “walk the talk” on liberalism and park the violent rhetoric. My appeal to fellow progressives is not to make the incalculable, historic mistake of pushing Catholics out of the club.

46 Responses to “Beware of pushing Catholics out of the progressive club”

  1. Martin Tiedemann

    RT @leftfootfwd: Beware of pushing Catholics out of the progressive club: http://bit.ly/czTGhd

  2. Splintered Sunrise

    RT @leftfootfwd: Beware of pushing Catholics out of the progressive club: http://bit.ly/czTGhd

  3. Stewart Owadally

    RT @leftfootfwd: Beware of pushing Catholics out…: http://bit.ly/czTGhd << Finally…an important analysis of "anti-bigotry" bigots

  4. James

    Is this a joke?

  5. Jonathan Todd

    RT @leftfootfwd Beware of pushing Catholics out of the progressive club: http://bit.ly/czTGhd < Good. Agree

  6. Jim Gilroy

    RT @leftfootfwd: Beware of pushing Catholics out of the progressive club: http://bit.ly/czTGhd
    Excellent article. Read, take note and beware

  7. Michael Merrick

    RT @leftfootfwd: Beware of pushing Catholics out of progressive club: http://bit.ly/czTGhd <finally! Wonder if they've been reading my blog?

  8. Caroline Francesca

    RT @leftfootfwd: Beware of pushing Catholics out of the progressive club: http://bit.ly/czTGhd

  9. Simon Hewitt

    RT @leftfootfwd: Beware of pushing Catholics out of the progressive club: http://bit.ly/czTGhd

  10. Beatrice Bray

    I do not say this because I feel a strong sense of religious belief but I say this out of respect for those who do. A strong sense of faith can be a real boon when dealing with mental ill health. This is accepted by people in the mental health world who are signed up to the recovery model of thought.

    Recovery is not just a word in mental health. It is policy concept that can be understood by people otuside the mental health world. It is put succintly by the Centre for Mental Health.

    “Recovery turns mental health services’ priorities on their heads. Traditional services wait until a person’s illness is cured before helping them to get their life back. Recovery-focused services aim from day one to help people to build a life for themselves. The medical care they give is in support of that bigger purpose.”

    This may be uncomfortable for some progressive people but in planning provision you need to take into account that this is a country with many diverse faiths, catholicism included. Although I do not adhere to a faith as such I am prepared to accept that others do and I see it can help them at times of crisis.

    I certainly do not say this to excuse the conduct of child sex abusers but I do wonder how many of the Pope decriers do practical work in their day-to-day lives to help people who have suffered child sex abuse.

  11. Rachel Danae Stalker

    RT @Jonathan_Todd: RT @leftfootfwd Beware of pushing Catholics out of the progressive club: http://bit.ly/czTGhd < Good. Agree

  12. Rudolf Rocker

    The front line of the Living Marxism group take a contrary line – news at ten.

  13. mike

    the catholic church is anti capitalist
    and encourages Catholics to get involved in community work and trade unions

  14. davidschoibl

    RT @leftfootfwd: Beware of pushing Catholics out of the progressive club http://bit.ly/czTGhd

  15. Sam Korn

    RT @leftfootfwd: Beware of pushing Catholics out of the progressive club: http://bit.ly/czTGhd

  16. Sam Korn

    Wonderful article by Kevin Meagher on @leftfootfwd about the relationship between Catholicism and progressivism. http://bit.ly/czTGhd

  17. Ged Robinson

    RT @leftfootfwd: Beware of pushing Catholics out of the progressive club: http://bit.ly/czTGhd

  18. Jules

    Is the left so abundant with support that it can afford a friendly fire incident that excludes millions of Catholics? http://bit.ly/c9nXyD

  19. Jules

    Sorry for shortening that brilliant quote from @leftfootfwd (http://bit.ly/c9nXyD) – 140 chars let me down this time!

  20. Betapolitics

    All good stuff. Can we now have a blog on accepting that some Tories can rightly be described as being ‘Progressive’?

  21. JArticle

    I can’t believe you’re pretending those right wing libertarians at Spiked matter.

  22. Rob Bailey

    Absurd tribalism RT @leftfootfwd Beware of pushing Catholics out of the progressive club: http://bit.ly/czTGhd

  23. Steve

    Great piece by Kevin Meagher – he gets it, unlike some of the secular protestors.

  24. Shamik Das

    2day on @leftfootfwd: R the Greens the new home 4 lefties: http://bit.ly/9w0tR9 & a gr8 piece on the Pope's visit: http://bit.ly/czTGhd

  25. Ell Aitch

    RT @leftfootfwd: Beware of pushing Catholics out of the progressive club: http://bit.ly/czTGhd

  26. Richard McKay

    RT @leftfootfwd: Beware of pushing Catholics out of the progressive club: http://bit.ly/czTGhd

  27. Des O'Loughlin

    RT @leftfootfwd: Beware of pushing Catholics out of the progressive club: http://bit.ly/czTGhd

  28. Ash

    “So-called liberals need to “walk the talk” on liberalism”

    The mind boggles.

    If a secular political party put out a manifesto calling for the restriction gay rights, strictly abstinence-based approaches to HIV prevention and contraception, the criminalisation of abortion etc., presumably ‘walking the talk on liberalism’ would mean getting out there and vocally campaigning against their illiberal and downright dangerous policy agenda. But when a religious organisation endorses those very same policies, the ‘liberal’ thing to do is to maintain a respectful silence?

    If the Church opposed the rights of black people in broadly the way it opposes the rights of gay people – e.g. if it opposed their right to marry, raise children, teach in Catholic schools etc. – would you still be arguing that we shouldn’t be ‘pushing them out of the progressive club’?

  29. Daffyd L

    “secular jihadists”

    What an incredibly stupid thing to type. You now enter the “Bush is Hitler” club of people. Well done. You silly silly person.

  30. Mike Wiltshire

    RT @leftfootfwd: Beware of pushing Catholics out of the progressive club: http://bit.ly/czTGhd

  31. Brian

    so it is ok to cove rup the rape of young boys?

  32. Matthew

    @Ash I totally agree. I’m not convinced the author actually knows what a secular society strives to achieve. See e.g. http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/belief/2010/sep/18/secularist-manifesto-secularism

    There are certainly bigots on both sides. I marched yesterday, and personally I have little respect for the inflammatory remarks by Dawkins. The vast majority of people at the march have no problem with religion, Catholic or otherwise, and a large number were themselves religious. They have more of a problem with the policies and behaviour of the Pope.

  33. Jonathan Todd

    RT @tom_watson Let me swim against the twitter tide to say how wonderful it was to see the pope visit< Well said http://tinyurl.com/2vup5xy

  34. Kevin Meagher

    Sounds corny, but I can honestly say that many of my best friends are avowed atheists. Many are strongly motivated to change a world where, as they see it, there will be no social justice except for what we make in this life. I respect that.

    But that is not what the Protest the Pope movement has been about. Their mission is the denigration of the Pope, Catholics, Christians and organised religion in that order. I just wish PtPs apologists would be honest about their true intentions.

    But an attack on the Pope is an attack on the Catholic Church and all its adherents. We are symbiotic. And if I were a Catholic critic (and, mostly, they number professional God-haters and their fellow travellers) I would be worried about the rather distasteful sight of a bunch of well-educated, middle-class white men (Dawkins, Fry, Grayling etc) hectoring and sneering at the Irish, Polish, African and Asian immigrants that overwhelming populate the Catholic Church in Britain.

    There is an excellent piece in this week’s Bagehot column in The Economist that reprises some of this country’s ugly anti-Catholic history. Understanding this context is crucial to getting why ordinary Catholics like me are so angered by these vicious attacks and insults and why the Pope’s visit has drawn such overwhelming support, not only from the Catholic laity and wider Christian family, but from those who yearn to be part of more than our often selfish, reductive and acquisitive culture.

    Daffyd – when the abominable Mr Dawkins refers to the spiritual leader of 1.2bn people as “a leering old villain in a frock” then I think “secular jihadist” is a rather gentle insult in reply. Actually, like Ian Paisley, people like me would rather miss Dawkins if he was not there. He’s a busted flush. An angry little cartoon character whose vanity, hubris and lack of proportion undermine his own arguments. Keep up the good work Dickie!

    Instead of his silly atheist summer camps, perhaps Mr Dawkins could use his wealth and time to establish an AIDS clinic in South Africa? Or perhaps the millionaire Stephen Fry could donate the proceeds of his latest book to help flood victims in Pakistan? Like British Catholics. Unlike our many unworthy critics, we Catholics hold our convictions in deed as much as in word.

    I bet our critics wish they could say the same. Saturday’s rather anaemic PtP parade was an embarrassingly puny effort from those arguing that the advance of anti-belief is absolute. (The broadcasters hardly bothered with it; the uplifting Hyde Park prayer vigil made objectively better telly).

    Ash – your critique is partial, but you make a fair point about the often unwelcoming stance towards gay people. The ‘dignity of the human person’, must always be paramount. Unfortunately it is often drowned out in nosier and less generous debate.

    But this serves to illustrate that both politics and belief are complicated. I am a Catholic. I am also a progressive. The former informs the latter. To those struggling to understand or accept this ‘contradiction’ then my message is “too bad”. We Catholics are paid-up members of the progressive club. And we are not being forced out by anyone.

  35. Mr. Sensible

    Kevin, although I am not overly religious, I have absolutely no problem with the Pope visiting here.

    I do, though, have a problem with some of what he has said on, for example, women bishops; I believe he once ranked that alongside what happened to those child abuse victims.

  36. Steve

    In his post following-up his article, Kevin Meagher again calls things correctly. Secularists and humanists (I accept there is a difference) don’t like organised religion full-stop. Many on the ProtestthePope march want to end Catholic schools – in other words, they weren’t just protesting about the Pope at all. They cannot abide that people believe in something which offends their ‘rationality’. There’s loads of stuff on which I disagree with the Pope (condoms here or in Africa for starters….) and the Church has a duty to turn paedophile priests over to the civil authorities for prosecution, but to hear the PtP demonstrators you’d think the RC Church was engaged in nothing but paedophilia and denunciation of minorities. I’ve never, ever heard a single condemnation of any individual or group from any RC pulpit in any RC Church I’ve attended. Yet listening to Terry Sanderson of the National Secular Society (membership: slightly lower than the 1.2 billion in the RC Church) on the BBC News Channel yesterday all I heard was bile. And that’s progressive liberalism??????

  37. Ash

    @ Kevin

    “if I were a Catholic critic (and, mostly, they number professional God-haters and their fellow travellers) I would be worried about the rather distasteful sight of a bunch of well-educated, middle-class white men (Dawkins, Fry, Grayling etc) hectoring and sneering at the Irish, Polish, African and Asian immigrants that overwhelming populate the Catholic Church in Britain.”

    This invites a couple of comments:

    1 – I just don’t think it’s right to suggest that UK critics of Church policy on the sort of issues we’re talking about – contraception, women’s and gay rights, HIV prevention, the handling of sex abuse cases – are overwhelming ‘God haters’, or even overwhelmingly non-Catholic. The plain fact is that many (even most) of the Church’s own members in this country, as well as many other religious people and many agnostics and atheists who don’t fit the ‘God hater’ stereotype, are more or less vocally disapproving of its teaching and policies in these areas.

    2 – It’s a pretty low rhetorical trick, frankly, to characterize Church supporters in the way most likely to elicit liberal sympathy and then accuse protestors against the Church of ‘hectoring and sneering at’ those supporters. No doubt I would find, at an anti-BNP protest, a certain number of well-educated, middle-class types waving placards at many people who were low-paid or unemployed, in poor housing, perhaps let down by the education system etc. But only a BNP propagandist would do what you’re doing here by trying to paint such protests as being about powerful elites ‘hectoring and sneering at’ weak and voiceless minorities.

    (And note that in that case, those dreadul middle-class liberals are speaking on behalf of people whose lives the BNP, as a fringe political party, doesn’t have *that* much power to affect. In the case of the protests you’re talking about, though, those middle-class liberals are speaking up for the rights of people around the world whose lives the Catholic Church, as a hugely wealthy and influential global institution, has enormous power to affect – in terms of their sexual and reproductive freedom and health especially.)

    As for that business about ‘AIDS clinics in South Africa’: are you suggesting that, if Dawkins is serious about opposing the Church’s approach to HIV/AIDS, he should take steps to clean up what he sees as (partly) the Church’s mess by establishing such a clinic? Or are you simply suggesting that, as a decent human being, he might like to emulate the Church’s exemplary response to HIV/AIDS? What you wrote was ambiguous, but I have a horrible feeling it’s the latter you have in mind.

    I have to confess that this pushes my ability to offer a reasoned and cool-headed response to its limits. The suggestion that an organisation that insists that, if people aren’t willing or able simply to stop having sex, they should risk contracting HIV and passing it on to their children rather than using a condom, can then claim credit for treating people who develop AIDS, is about the most absurd and morally repugnant thing I have ever heard. One might as well suggest that an organisation opposed to vaccination deserves credit for mopping the brows of people dying of TB.

  38. Kevin Meagher

    Ash – you accuse me of a “pretty low rhetorical trick” than liken me to a “BNP progagandist!” I would ask you to remove the beam from your own eye before telling me to remove the splinter in mine, but a biblical metaphor might upset you.

    My point about Dawkins/ aids clinics is explicit. If professional Catholic-haters disapprove of the Catholic Church’s efforts in sub-Saharan Africa, then they should be prepared to put their money where their mouths are. No-one is stopping them setting up whatever clinics they wish. Be my guest.

  39. Ash

    Taking a step back, I’d like to just make this observation:

    Insofar as we define the progressive/regressive distinction as being about issues to do with the distribution of wealth – as being about tackling poverty and inequality, challenging greed etc. – there’s some plausibility in the claim that the Church is on the ‘progressive’ side of the debate. And yes, the same is true if being ‘progressive’ is also to do with taking a certain view on arms reduction etc.(Though presumably not all Catholics see it that way, as many of them oppose progressive tax policies and so on.)

    But when one comes to the liberal/conservative distinction, I just can’t see any good grounds for thinking that the Church is not on the *conservative* side of the debate. Surely liberalism has to do with defending people’s rights to live their own lives in their own way insofar as this does not harm other persons: gay people’s rights to marry and adopt, women’s rights to use contraception and to abort unwanted pregnancies, the rights of those suffering with incurable illnesses to end their own lives at a time of their choosing, etc.; and conservatism has to do with defending ‘traditional values’ that are at odds with such views. Plainly the Church is on the conservative side in such debates. (If the Church isn’t in the business of defending traditional values, I don’t know who is!)

    So maybe Catholics can stay in the progressive club; but insofar as they support the Church’s socially conservative policies, they can’t expect to be welcome on the liberal subcommittee. (What I don’t understand is why such unapologetic social conservatives should want to self-identify as liberals.)

  40. Ash

    Kevin –

    “you accuse me of a “pretty low rhetorical trick” than liken me to a “BNP progagandist!””

    Sorry, not an attempt to slur you by association! I chose the example of an anti-BNP protest just because I thought you would agree that such a protest would be legitimate (even if it involved middle-class people ‘hectoring’ the less privileged). And I didn’t mean ‘only a BNP propagandist or some such scumbag would stoop so low’; I meant ‘only someone setting out to elicit sympathy for the organisation being protested against [so, *in my example*, only a BNP supporter] would paint things that way’.

    I still think it’s an objectionable spinning tactic: deride as sneering, privileged bully-boys the people holding the anti-X placards, then point to the widows and orphans holding the pro-X placards, and ask the audience what that tells them about the merits of the anti-X protest. It tells them nothing.

    “My point about Dawkins/ aids clinics is explicit. If professional Catholic-haters disapprove of the Catholic Church’s efforts in sub-Saharan Africa, then they should be prepared to put their money where their mouths are. No-one is stopping them setting up whatever clinics they wish.”

    Ah, OK – option A, then (i.e. you’re not defending Catholic efforts in this area, just pointing out that people are free to take action of their own). Sorry; I still think the ambiguity is there – I think it’s because I wasn’t sure whether that ‘Like British Catholics’ was supposed to refer just to the Pakistan donations, or to the setting up of clinics as well.

    I don’t know what to say to that point. You seem to be suggesting that anyone who’s not prepared to set up an AIDS clinic in South Africa (or take whatever comparable action is within their means, I suppose?) should stop protesting about the Church’s stance on HIV prevention. But that’s absurd on its face: you might as well say that anyone who’s not prepared to invite a homeless family to live with them has no business protesting against housing benefit cuts.

    Of course, the general point that if people think something should be done about AIDS in Africa, or helping flood victims in Pakistan, then they should be prepared to give up some time and money to do something about it, is fair enough. But I doubt you have any more idea than I do whether Dawkins or Fry devote more time or money to good causes about which they are vocal than a typical, comparably wealthy Catholic.

  41. Justice

    Good piece here on the relationship between Catholicism and progressivism http://bit.ly/czTGhd

  42. Chris Cole

    RT @justicemagazine: Good piece here on the relationship between Catholicism and progressivism http://bit.ly/czTGhd

  43. Anne Booth

    RT @Chris_Co1e: RT @justicemagazine: Good piece here on the relationship between Catholicism and progressivism http://bit.ly/czTGhd

  44. Peter Dixon

    The Catholic Left fights back! http://bit.ly/cRbyub

  45. Fr Tim Edgar

    RT @CPeterDixon: The Catholic Left fights back! http://bit.ly/cRbyub

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