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Remember, remember the 23rd of June: Brexit threatens Catholicism in the UK


In March 1603 the future gunpowder plotter Robert Catesby told the Jesuit Henry Garnet ‘That the king had broken promise with the Catholics, and therefore assuredly there would be stirs in England before it were long’. Catholics had hoped that the accession to the English throne of James VI of Scotland, the son of the Catholic Mary Queen of Scots, would be followed by an easing of the Elizabethan penalties against them. The attempted blowing up of the State Opening of Parliament on 5 November 1605 by a group of disaffected Catholic gentlemen was a direct result of James’ failure – after promises made before he came to the throne – to offer any concessions to Catholics. Instead, in spite of his tolerant instincts, James gave in to populist anti-Catholic demands to retain the Elizabethan penal laws.

There is no doubt a laboured historical analogy to be drawn between James I caving in to populist anti-Catholicism and Theresa May succumbing to Europhobia within the Conservative Party and the right-wing press. However, there is a more direct and urgent link to be drawn between the events of 1605 and those of 2016. In the aftermath of Brexit, Britain’s Catholic community is under threat as it has rarely been since the repeal of the penal laws in 1829. Of course Theresa May’s government is not consciously anti-Catholic – indeed, by lifting the cap on Catholic pupils at Catholic schools she has even endeared herself to the Catholic Bishops – but Conservative policies proposed in the aftermath of Brexit will do (and are already doing) untold damage to Britain’s Catholic community.

The idea that the Leave Campaign was at least indirectly anti-Catholic in its attachment to a providentialist ‘Protestant’ narrative of British history and its contempt for a European project devised by Catholic Christian Democrats was suggested on a number of occasions by commentators during the referendum campaign. The Brexit of 2016, a rebellion against the ‘Catholic’ bureaucracy of Brussels, was likewise compared repeatedly to the ‘first Brexit’ of 1534 when Henry VIII rebelled against the Catholic bureaucracy of the Papacy. These interpretations are huge historical simplifications, but they touch on the important truth that, just as England abandoned an identity as part of a wider European project in 1534 (Catholic Christendom), so in 2016 Britain abandoned its identity as part of the project of the European Union. The first ‘Brexit’ had damaging consequences for England’s Catholic community, and so too will the second for the UK’s Catholics.

It was heartening yesterday to hear the first strong statement from Cardinal Nichols against a UK government which is ‘a kind of popular leadership which is basing itself on fear’. But Catholics also need to be reminded that the UK’s Catholic community does not just consist of English, Welsh and Scottish Catholics but includes every Catholic, of whatever nationality, resident in the UK. The pastoral duties of the Bishops of England and Wales (and Scotland, and the north of Ireland) towards Catholics of non-British nationality are identical to their duties towards Catholics who are British citizens; and it should go without saying that individual Catholics should treat their foreign-born fellow Catholics as brothers and sisters in Christ. Britain’s Catholic community was built on immigration; even the core of recusants who sustained English Catholicism during the penal era were a cosmopolitan group who regularly travelled abroad and frequently intermarried with Continental Catholics. The English Church was arguably saved from demographic oblivion in the late eighteenth century by a combination of Irish immigration and French refugees, and the pattern of immigration continued throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, with migrant workers – especially Irish people, Poles and Italians – regularly bringing the Catholic faith to corners of England untouched since the Reformation.

Catholics in the north of Ireland

The Catholic Nationalist community in the north of Ireland is placed in an impossible position by Brexit, which will create a ‘hard border’ with the Republic of Ireland. As things stand at present, many Catholics in the north self-identify as citizens of the Republic of Ireland and hold Irish passports. They interpret the Good Friday Agreement as having transferred sovereignty of the north of Ireland to its people, meaning that the north’s current governance by the UK government is conditional on the consent of a majority of the north’s people. The Foreign Office has been unable to give assurances to Irish citizens living in the UK that they will not be treated as foreign nationals post-Brexit. This effectively leaves citizens of the north of Ireland who hold only an Irish passport with the status of foreigners in their own country, since they are on the wrong side of the westernmost border of the EU. Catholics in the north face the prospect of being demoted to the status of second class citizens, as they were before and during the Troubles. Catholics in the north of Ireland will refuse, quite rightly, to acquire British passports even though they are entitled to them, because to do so would be to recognise claimed British sovereignty over the six counties; for Irish Catholics to have the right to peacefully dispute that claimed sovereignty is critical to the survival of the Good Friday Agreement.

The ‘hard border’ that will divide the island of Ireland after Brexit will also, of course, divide the Irish Church, which is and always has been in the eyes of Rome a single and undivided national church for the island of Ireland. The Primate of All Ireland, the Archbishop of Armagh, will presumably have to stop at a border checkpoint on the way to minister to Catholics in his own ecclesiastical province (which includes the one county of Ulster in the Republic, Donegal). In the past, checkpoints on the border existed for legitimate security reasons, for instance to stop the illegal transfer of arms; this time they will have been imposed purely for political reasons by the British government. It is easy to imagine the rage of Irish Catholics both north and south of the border as Ireland is politically and economically partitioned anew.

Catholics in Great Britain

In 2010, the BBC estimated that 1 in 12 British people is a Catholic, with people from Eastern Europe and Ireland making up 13.9% of the total (this does not include the many British Catholics of Irish descent, nor does it count as Irish those resident in the north of Ireland with Irish rather than British passports). It seems almost certain that both the proportion of Catholics in the British population and the proportion of Catholics who are citizens of other countries have grown considerably beyond these figures in the last six years. The majority of Polish people, who represent the largest immigrant group from another EU country in the UK, are practising Catholics.

Since 23 June Britain’s Catholic priests have found themselves at the front line of a pastoral crisis. In the immediate aftermath of the referendum, Polish and other foreign Catholics who have settled in this country were subjected to a wave of hate crime, swiftly followed by the Government’s refusal to guarantee their right to live and work in the UK, describing them as ‘cards’ to play against the European Union. Then, at the Conservative Party conference, plans were announced to restrict foreign workers in the NHS. The NHS is a major employer of migrant workers from inside and outside the EU who are at the heart of many Catholic parishes in this country, especially people from the Philippines, Portugal and south India. The recent parliamentary vote rejecting protections for foreign workers has introduced further uncertainty for EU nationals in the UK, many of whom have been settled in the UK for over a decade, married British people and/or brought up their children as British. If Catholics are bound to defend the sanctity of the family as the most basic unit of society, the potential damage to families done by a ‘hard Brexit’ should be reason enough to oppose it. Catholic social teaching makes clear that the welfare of the family, as the most basic social unit, comes ahead of scrupulous concerns about ‘sovereignty’. Catholics who buy in to a narrative of nationalism and xenophobia when the consequences to families are so grave are in direct violation of the Church’s teachings.

Not only are lay Catholics pastorally affected by the Government’s rigid stance – so are the many priests in the UK who are EU citizens. There are numerous Polish, Portuguese and Lithuanian priests now living in the UK and incardinated into English dioceses who are chaplains to migrant communities and celebrate mass in their native languages, not to mention the priests providing mass in Malayalam for the UK’s Keralan and Goan Catholic community. EU citizens also make up a significant proportion of religious in the UK, and are often the only younger members of religious communities. As things stand, once the UK leaves the EU these priests and religious could lose their right to remain in the UK along with every other EU national.

In spite of the incalculable contribution of migrant communities to the Catholic faith in Britain, there has always been a snobbish tendency among some English Catholics to look down on immigrant Catholics and their descendants as somehow inauthentic or un-English, forgetting that foreign embassies sheltered English priests in the darkest times, and that the very stones of England’s Victorian Catholic churches were put in place by foreign hands. As the very name of the Catholic Church would suggest, there is no room in it for xenophobia. Catholics who cave in to xenophobia forget that St Thomas More, followed by the other martyrs of England and Wales – most of them priests trained abroad by foreigners – died for the universality of the Church and the right of bishops appointed by the Roman Pontiff to minister equally to all the faithful without the imposition of political borders on spiritual jurisdictions. Every Catholic in the UK, whether a native-born descendant of recusants, a descendant of Irish immigrants, an EU national, a non-EU national or a refugee is an equal member of the English Catholic community, and this message needs to come loud and clear from the Bishops’ Conferences.

If the Catholic Church in the UK has so much to lose from a hard Brexit – its priests, its religious, its parishioners and its rich cultural diversity – then all Catholics have a duty to resist the drift towards xenophobia in British political and social life. There is no excuse for enabling a discourse and politics that turns fellow Catholics into second class citizens. Cardinal Wolsey, on his deathbed in 1529, realised too late that he had enabled a tyrannical king and an enemy of the Church, and declared ‘I have served my king better than I have served my God’. May those not be the words of British Catholics as we look back on these years.

One comment on “Remember, remember the 23rd of June: Brexit threatens Catholicism in the UK

  1. GJ Wheeler
    March 15, 2017

    A legal pedant writes…. Citizenship and the holding of a passport are legally distinct things (and nationality is a third distinct thing which often goes with them). One can hold the passport of a country and not be a citizen of that country; and one can be a citizen of a country and not hold (or be refused) a passport.

    This distinction is relevant for the following reasons. A Northern Irish Catholic automatically has British citizenship from birth (unless he expressly renounces it, which I understand is very rare). He does not need to apply for a British passport in order to acquire this status (and he would remain a British citizen even if the Home Office refused, for some lawful reason, to issue him with a passport). It would certainly be possible for the Protestant majority to start discriminating against Catholics again – much as we might wish that those days have passed into history – but they will not be able to do so on the basis of the possession of British citizenship, as Northern Irish Catholics are automatically invested with that status by operation of law in precisely the same way as Northern Irish Protestants (and Englishmen, and Scots, and Welsh).

    It’s perhaps also worth noting that Catholics in Northern Ireland may exercise their right to acquire Irish citizenship by doing any act which is a proper to an Irish citizen. That usually consists of applying for an Irish passport, but it can include other things too (for example, issuing legal proceedings in the Irish courts in the capacity of a citizen).

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This entry was posted on November 5, 2016 by .
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