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The rise of Catholicophobia

By Paul Collins - posted Monday, 20 September 2010

Recently I've been asked to discuss Islamophobia on several ABC stations. This issue has come to the fore as a result of the threat of Koran-burning by a fundamentalist preacher in Florida. However, I've never been asked to talk about “Catholicophobia” or, to put it bluntly, “putting the boot into the Micks”. Generally I think Catholics should “cop it sweet”, although my patience is at present getting pretty thin.

Take the responses to a thoughtful opinion piece by UK Prime Minister David Cameron reprinted in the Fairfax media yesterday. Entitled “Faith is a gift to be cherished, not a problem to be overcome”, Cameron speaks of John Henry Newman “as one of the greatest Englishmen” and refers specifically to his view of conscience. He also refers to his work “as a simple parish priest” in Birmingham. He comments that “Like other faith groups, the Catholic Church proclaims a message of peace and justice to the world” and says the UK government shares the same ideals.

But it is the sentiments in the blog that follows that are most interesting. Take this: “The Pope; mouthpiece for the Great Sky Fairy, instiller of fear, harbinger of rites, rituals, and other blithering nonsense, perpetuator of ignorance, bringer of pointless mumbo-jumbo, leader of a mega-rich theocracy that sucks its adherents dry to lavish its temple walls with gold.”


Or this: “The Catholic Church has either been the instigator or has been complicit in so many wrongs perpetrated against humanity.” Or this: “The end of organised religion can not come around soon enough. There are already studies that show secular democracies, with a large atheist base, are better societies to live in than faith based societies.” And so on. The Rock, the Protestant paper, is far from dead!

All of the blogs are anonymous, of course. These are people too cowardly to put their full names to such views. But they are not alone. Liberal broadsheets in the UK such as The Independent and The Guardian, the BBC, Channel 4 and the chattering classes generally have been falling over themselves to publicly criticise Catholicism and Benedict XVI. Take actor Stephen Fry: “You can't be part of an autocratic kingdom on Earth like the Catholic place is and claim to be a spiritual leader and expect the British taxpayer to foot the bill for your visit.”

Anti-Catholicism is a staple that goes back as far as “Bloody Mary” in British history. Newman himself suffered from it. In the infamous Achilli trial for criminal defamation in the 1850s Newman was tried before an openly anti-Catholic Evangelical, Lord Chief Justice Campbell, was found guilty and at his sentencing was hectored from the bench for half an hour - Newman described it as “a horrible jobation” - by Mr Justice Coleridge.

He was told that he, one of “the bright lights of Protestantism”, was much changed for the worse since he became a papist. As Newman says: “He held me up as a 'spectacle' how men deteriorate when they became Catholics.”

This is not to say that Catholicism has nothing to answer for. The sexual abuse crisis has understandably created a justifiably horrible impression in the public at large. But the problem is that caricatures quickly become facts. For instance the UK Independent reported that “over 10,000 people have come forward [in the US] to say they were raped [by priests] as part of this misery-go-round”.

In a clinical analysis of these figures the web page Spiked shows that 1,203 individuals, not 10,667, were raped by priests in the legal meaning of the word. Of course, this is appalling, but it shows how caricatures morph into facts. The web page does a similar analysis for Ireland.


Geoffrey Robertson QC has been one of the “no popery” advocates claiming that Benedict XVI should be arrested and put on trial because as Cardinal Ratzinger he ran a parallel system of justice - canon law. He implies that this was highly secret.

Whatever you might think of canon law it was hardly secret; I have a copy here on my reference desk.

One of the issues in conflict is whether the Vatican is a state. It certainly has a longer claim than any other state in Europe, having been established as the Republic of St Peter in the 7th century with continuous existence until 1870. The popes never surrendered their claims, and the Vatican City State was established in the Lateran Treaties of 1929. DFAT Australia's position is that this “small territorial base” gives the Holy See “recognition as an independent sovereign entity in international law”.

As I said: many Catholics have learned to “cop it sweet” and not take themselves too seriously. After all, Catholicism is a big target. But there comes a point where you have to say something, and I think the papal visit to the UK might just be it.

Although I must admit I almost despaired yesterday morning when I read Cardinal Walter Kasper's remarks that “when you land at Heathrow [Airport] you think at times you have landed in a Third World country”. He went on to say: “Above all, an aggressive new atheism has spread through Britain.”

What a stupid, ham-fisted comment from a man who should know better!

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First published by on September 17, 2010.

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About the Author

Paul Collins is an historian and broadcaster. He is a former specialist editor - religion for the ABC. His most recent book is Burn: The Epic Story of Bushfire in Australia (2006) an update of which will be released in October 2009..

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