Tuesday, 16 December 2014

Is the Catholic Church in Scotland too Nationalist?

The above is a map of how (based on recent opinion polls) Scottish constituencies are projected to vote in the next Westminster election. (To spell it out, bright yellow is the SNP.) I couldn't help thinking about the map when reading Damian Thompson's Spectator piece entitled Memo to the Scottish Catholic bishops: stop sucking up to the SNP. (Here.)

I rather like Thompson's journalism. Like most journalists in this post modern age, he is paid to bring a bit of personality into the debate which inevitably produces both fizz and splutter over the years. But on the whole, and certainly if you're a certain sort of fogeyish, socially conservative Catholic, you're probably going to find more fizz than splutter in his work. However, on Scotland, Thompson, like most of the big beasts of Catholic opinion formation, strikes me as generally just hopelessly wrong. I think I've mentioned this before, but one of the (sadder? more amusing? depended on what mood I was in...) aspects of the referendum campaign was reading the constant stream of sneering about the Yes side in the referendum from Catholic opinion makers who really should have known better.

In one way, there's really no surprise, I suppose. The sort of people who tend to dominate the Catholic commentariate (at least the ones I read) are from (let's say) a rather conservative, traditionalist background. Put that together with a Golden Triangle (Oxford-Cambridge-London) background, and it's extremely difficult to sympathise with whingeing jocks voting for a bunch of popularist leftists. On the other hand, both localism and nationalism are popular themes among this set (in many ways, my set), and certainly that discontent with the political process represented by UKIP has received a favourable hearing. So from that point of view, I am a bit surprised at the lack of sympathy for or at least understanding of an independence movement that in many ways is just another example of a popular response to well known problems in modern Western Europe.

There's probably no one answer as to why the modern West and particularly its political process is in trouble. In part, it's probably the tension inherent in a system that is built on two  incompatible narratives: on the one hand, equality and subjectivism; on the other hand, a cult of meritocracy and technical expertise. And if you add to that the end of the economic good times, a culture prizing licence and leisure over self discipline and work, and the deliberate alienation of people from their human nature in favour of technological fantasies of self-creation and infinite possibility, you have in essence the creation of a free floating neurosis, a feeling that the times are out of joint, and the desperate seeking for release through something.

And so the parade of lightning rods, some more convincing than others: UKIP, Russell Brand, Le Front National etc etc. And, I suppose, among them, the SNP. So, to that extent, I agree with these commentators who seem to regard the movement for Scottish Independence as some sort of mental illness, to be treated rather than encountered as a natural part of the political landscape. Except....

And the 'except' is that the SNP are viable in a way that Russell Brand and even UKIP just are not. As the above map shows, it is likely that, after the next general election, the SNP will dominate Scottish seats in Westminster in a similar way to their domination of Holyrood. Moreover, Scots have got used to competent Holyrood administrations run by the SNP: if Salmond is some sort of wild eyed Braveheart fantasist, he is a wild eyed Braveheart fantasist who can run the country and win elections. (And no one has suggested that Nicola Sturgeon -like her or loathe her- is anything if not effective.)

I'm not sure when it happened, but some time since the re-foundation of the Scottish Parliament, my default setting for political interest has drifted from Westminster to Edinburgh. I don't regard either Salmond or Cameron as exactly 'my leader', but the political drama I look to first is that around Holyrood: indeed, it has started to become almost something of an afterthought to wonder what is happening at Westminster. I think it is that which is the biggest challenge to the Union: not so much the transfer of this or that power or even the precise result of this or that vote, but more the reframing of the electorate's interest in Scotland around Edinburgh rather than London. Now make of that what you will. It may be a fault to be regretted, a passing phase to be reversed. But I suspect -I'd in fact put it much more strongly than that- that I'm far from being alone in such a revisioning of the political settlement: in the minds of many Scots, Scotland is already a separate political landscape from that of Westminster and the rest of the UK.

And that is the context within which Archbishop Tartaglia's remarks should be taken. First, I'm not at all sure that, even in themselves they are that dreadful: Salmond has been a major figure in Scottish politics and his (sort of) passing deserves some sort of kind remark. (And Tartaglia's remarks on Sturgeon strike me as anodyne in the extreme.) Secondly, Tartaglia is but one bishop: you'd be hard put to find similar remarks from the much more careful Archbishop Cushley, let alone, say, Bishop Gilbert of Aberdeen. (And is it really a surprise that, within any Bishops' Conference, some will be closer to any particular party than others?) But thirdly, and most importantly, it is entirely reasonable that any bishop tries to find some modus vivendi with the government and leading political figures of the day. Inevitably, that balance is hard to get right: what is 'fawning' to some will appear merely formal politeness to others. That is what Thompson is missing: that Tartaglia is not sucking up to some relatively isolated charismatic popularist like Nigel Farage, but what has become almost the establishment in Scotland. (Would a similar jeremiad have been provoked if, say, a Catholic Bishop had spoken warmly of David Cameron after he resigned?)

I don't think the domination of Scotland by one party is healthy. I very much hope that Jim Murphy will restore the Labour Party to an effective opposition and a potential government. I also hope (though I see absolutely no realistic sign of this) that the Scottish Conservatives start providing a genuinely conservative alternative to a rampant progressivism, rather than trying to outdo the other parties in their endorsement of modish nonsense. But until all that happens, get used to the Catholic Church (and indeed other institutions such as universities and business) choosing their words carefully in the light of the reality of a Scotland where the SNP is the natural party of government. Scotland already is a separate and different political landscape, and until London commentators, Catholic or otherwise, get that, their pronouncements will continue to miss the mark.

Thursday, 11 December 2014

Cordoba revisited: political thought or campaigning politics

                                       Heretical tabernacle-Cathedral of Canterbury

My (immediately) previous post on the Mosque/Cathedral/Mosque-Cathedral of Cordoba produced some helpful responses online (and off) which probably helped me see more clearly part of what I was driving at.

The problem with the article from The Guardian is that it gives the overwhelming impression that the Catholic Church was acting unreasonably. (That of course is an impression that the Guardian's readership would doubtless already incline towards before reading the article.) As such, it does very little to move the readership's understanding of religion/politics beyond where it already stands: instead of deepening understanding, it simply confirms an existing understanding by slanting the evidence.

That problem sits within a more general problem with reporting politics: a greater emphasis on politics as a day to day party struggle rather than a longer term and deeper question about how to run society. It's similar to the domination of much economic coverage by the day to day movements of the markets, and much less by the deeper underlying economic issues. That problem is particularly difficult in Scotland where a (comparative) absence of think tanks, journals and university involvement has led to the domination of campaigning politics with only the thinnest foundation of deeper but still applied political thought to back it up.

Perhaps the key difference between what I might term 'political thought' and 'campaigning politics' is that the former tries to understand while the latter tries simply to win. Of course, if you are an anti-clerical leftist, campaigning politics would encourage you to paint the Church as a bunch of unreasonable fools trying to wreck the tourist industry. Of course, if you are a 'No' campaigner, the SNP are a bunch of feckless (National) Socialists with a personality cult (but where the leader is embalmed in the Palace of Westminster rather than the Kremlin). The increasingly hysterical outbursts from the Scottish Secular Society are all based on the tactic of making the alternatives unthinkable: of course, secularism is the only way to run the state.

I suppose it's probably unreasonable to expect The Guardian to veer more towards the 'political thought' side of the disjunction particularly on the place of religion in society. But it's a pity. Of course, a site like the Cathedral of Cordoba is going to be contested. Of course Muslims and anti-clericalists and Catholics are going to have different interpretations of its history and of its current status. I don't know how you resolve those tensions, indeed, I'm sure you don't: you live with them. But I think there are at least two key possibilities that are important tools which help and which are often overlooked. First, there is doing nothing. I'd encourage everyone involved here to do nothing: clearly there has been some sort of modus vivendi achieved up till now and I'd encourage everyone at least to think about letting sleeping modi lie. Secondly, there is regret. It's easy to underestimate how much Catholics in the UK do regret that our churches were ripped out of our hands. It's easy to get whipped up about it. But rather than starting a campaign for Canterbury Cathedral to be renamed the 'Heretical Tabernacle-Cathedral Church of Canterbury' (thus doing justice to both its many-layered history and Catholic/Protestant viewpoint) far better to moan silently and make feeble jokes (like the one just made) and try instead to find ways of not letting a potential sore point stop Anglicans and Catholics living together in fruitful co-operation.

To do that, however, requires the desire to understand rather than win as at least a starting point. I know that Anglicans have a different view of history and a different understanding of the status of their Church. I think they're wrong, but then they think we're wrong. That's what politics is like: learning to live with disagreement. As I ended the previous post:

Where you stand on those issues will no doubt depend on where you are coming from. Fair enough. But absolutely nothing is gained in an area of great sensitivity by pretending that one party is acting irrationally: living with this sort of dispute is only possible through making a serious attempt to understand the other points of view involved.

Monday, 8 December 2014

Cordoba: Mosque or Cathedral?

I confess that I don't know as much about Spain as I should. My Spanish is minimal (really just what sense I can make out based on French and Latin) and as a good Protestant agnostic, I was brought up believing that historical Spain was summed up by Francis Drake and the Spanish Inquisition, and with a sure and certain belief that modern Spain was populated simply by donkeys and workshy Mexican bandits. (My geography was as dodgy as my history.)

I've moved on enough to realize quite how idiotic that is, but one suspects that readers of The Guardian haven't. (Or at least Spain when coupled with the magic word 'Catholic' produces foaming at the mouth worthy of hydrophobic wolverines.) Hence an article [here] which explains how the awful Spanish Catholic Church is trying to be Islamophobic isn't probably going to be subject to much in the way of critical thought. Under the strapline:

Government of Andalusia says Diocese of Córdoba is ignoring site’s history as a place of worship for Muslims and Christians

the article continues

The site is now under the control of the diocese of Córdoba, which has begun referring to the site as the cathedral rather than the city council-approved name of the Mosque-Cathedral of Córdoba, Andalusia’s minister for tourism Rafael Rodríguez told El País. “Hiding its past as a mosque is like calling the Alhambra the palace of Charles V – it’s absurd.”

Describing that attitude as fundamentalist, the United Left politician said the diocese appeared to be “prioritising religious beliefs over common sense and the natural history of the monument. It doesn’t seem either reasonable or acceptable to me.”

He said the regional authorities planned to raise their concerns with the diocese next week. “It’s an essential tourist site for Andalusia, the second most important after the Alhambra. It seems absurd that they are not exploiting all the possibilities for tourism due to religious reasons.”

[Link to article here]

Now I confess that I haven't done a lot of research to check this. So I'm very happy for those who have a greater knowledge of the affair to correct me in the combox below. But immediately, and based, as I said, on a fairly minimal knowledge of Spain, some 'issues' became obvious. For example, it strikes me as fairly implausible that since 1236 (when the 'mosque' was captured by Ferdinand III (yes, I can read Wikipedia), moving through (shall we say) some fairly fraught exchanges between the Catholic Church and Islam, not to mention the rather unecumenically minded Church under Franco in the twentieth century, that it was only now that the Church 'has begun' referring to the site as the Cathedral. And indeed, so far as I can make out from this El País article (here. Sp) it was in fact only ten years ago that Government of Andalusia dubbed it officially 'Mezquita-Catedral de Córdoba'. Moreover, one might suspect, given the history of left wing anti-clericalism in Spain, that a United Left government is hardly likely to be free of its own anti-Catholic agenda.

Moreover, more extensive research (ie thirty seconds googling) found the (Church) website for the Cathedral (here). Indeed, it is called simply 'la Santa Iglesia Catedral de Córdoba'. But the first words of the 'descripción breve' (short description here) are

La mezquita original se construye sobre la basílica visigoda de San Vicente ('The original mosque is built on the Visigothic basilica of Saint Vincent...')

which is hardly 'hiding its past'.

So what does this teach us? Firstly, beware of journalism in general. I picked up this story from some tweets (by people who should have known better) retweeting this with shocked horror. A moment's thought should have encouraged the suspicion that there is more to this than meets the eye. Secondly, beware of journalism about the Catholic Church in particular. Of course Catholics are going to be sensitive about calling a Church a Mosque: quite apart from the particular history of Spain, a Church for Catholics is the site where Christ is present, body, blood, soul and divinity in the reserved Sacrament. By all means mock us for that belief, but given it, don't be surprised at our sensitivities.

In essence, the story of the Mosque-Cathedral seems to be one where an anti-Catholic secularist party has tried to rebrand a working Church as a Mosque, in part to drag in tourists, in part (no doubt) to stick it to the Church. It is also a story of a greater Muslim push to get use of the Church as a Mosque (here). Where you stand on those issues will no doubt depend on where you are coming from. Fair enough. But absolutely nothing is gained in an area of great sensitivity by pretending that one party is acting irrationally: living with this sort of dispute is only possible through making a serious attempt to understand the other points of view involved.