Patrick Grady MP on 'Catholicism and public life in Scotland'

  • Jo Siedlecka

Nigel Parker, Catholic Union director, with Patrick Grady MP during the evening

Nigel Parker, Catholic Union director, with Patrick Grady MP during the evening

Patrick Grady, MP for Glasgow North and Chief Whip for the SNP Westminster Group, gave a wide-ranging talk on 'Catholicism and public life in Scotland' to a Catholic Union group in the Palace of Westminster last Wednesday, after Mass in the Chapel of St Mary Undercroft with Catholic Duty Priest Canon Pat Browne. Mr Brady was introduced by Nigel Parker, Director of the Catholic Union.

During his talk Brady reflected on the history of Catholicism in Scotland and the involvement of the Church on a number of key issues, among them the opposition to the nuclear weapons base at Faslane, immigration, refugees, the impact of the changes in visas for visiting priests, the Assisted Dying Bill, education, ecumenical and interfaith work, and the legacy of Pope Benedict's historic visit.

Mr Grady said the Wednesday Mass in the Chapel was "always a highlight of the week for those of us of Catholic faith and others, who come along because it offers a little piece of peace and stillness and reflection time and the liturgy is always beautiful." He said: "The first time I went was before I was elected - I had just been selected as a candidate for the 2015 election for the SNP my constituency. I was down here with SCIAF - the Scottish sister of CAFOD - and we were organising its 50th anniversary. and we were able to join in the celebration of Mass and I remember thinking 'gosh will I ever be back here'. And it turned out I was, but it was by no means certain and then the experience of the 2017 election makes it uncertain how long it will last, so it is a privilege to be here. "

Introducing the subject of his talk, Mr Grady said: "There's joke in SNP circles….- that there are already two organisations that recognise Scotland as a country in its own right - one of them is FIFA - we have our own team which takes part in the World Cup - well doesn't take part - tries to take part - and the other is the Catholic Church."

He continued: "The history of the Catholic Church in Scotland is very different to that elsewhere in the British Isles. We have always had our own Bishops' Conference. Christianity came to Scotland from Ireland brought by saints like Columba and Ninian. The Reformation we experienced in Scotland was Presbyterian in nature and the restoration of the hierarchy came considerably later - about 30 years later, than the restoration did in England and Wales. And after the restoration, I think church populations were sustained, probably even more than in south of the border, by immigration from Ireland and elsewhere - and that's true even in the present day. "

The character of the Church has always been quite distinct, he said. "After I lived in Malawi I worked down here in London for a couple of years and that differentness of the Catholic was quite evident to me - not least in the liturgical tradition From here in Westminster within a short tube journey on a Sunday you could probably find a few full sung choral Masses. There's maybe one in the whole of Scotland - St Aloysius in the Jesuit church in Glasgow - possible two in Edinburgh Cathedral. . The only church in Scotland that regularly celebrates the Novus Ordo in Latin is probably Pluscardin Abbey in Elgin."

"One of the effects of Irish immigration is that it's led to a quite significance concentration of the population in the central belt - the lower part of Scotland between Glasgow and Edinburgh. In the northern area where I grew up, in the Highlands, the population is much thinner. Two weekends ago I was at a wedding in Torridon in the far west coast and it was simply not going to be possible to get to Mass the nearest Mass was a three hour drive away. So the demographics of the Catholic population are quite interesting and that presents certain challenges to the way the Church in governed and the way the church presents itself to society."

"According to the census in 2011 about 891,000 people identify as Catholic in Scotland. which is about 15 -16 per cent of the total population. But the Bishops Conference estimate that the Mass going population is considerably less - probably around 175,000 now. Its difficult to get an accurate account.

"So the Church is definitely a minority but its not an invisible minority. Very few people in public life would say that the Catholic Church was irrelevant or could be somehow safely ignored. That's probably true more generally of the Christian population in Scotland. The established Church of Scotland, particularly throughout the Thatcher years played quite an important role as a voice of society and a voice frankly of opposition to what was happening. The General Assembly of the Church of Scotland took on that role quite significantly and in doing so, represented an ecumenical effort as well. So it was quite fitting that the first meeting place of the new Scottish Parliament when it was convened in 1999 was in the General Assembly Building of the Church of Scotland.

"Nicola Sturgeon spoke about it recently, reflecting on the fact that the legacy of that meeting was that the old pews were taken out and replaced with more comfortable seats. Something to be thankful for.

"So that's a bit of context.

"Since I've been elected I've been asked a few times to speak to Catholic groups - usually young people at universities, school prizegivings, and one of the faith movement conferences. And I'm fond of telling them the saying attributed to St Francis, that we should preach the Gospel at all times and only if necessary use words. I think that's something that particularly those of us in public life should take to heart. Its a very important concern in SCIAF and CAFOD and a very useful frame of mind for any Catholic individual or institution for when were interacting with the public square.

"The Church in Scotland has a very good long history of this. On Friday I visited the offices of the Justice & Peace Scotland Commission who are marking their 40th anniversary this year - like many J&P conferences established by the bishops in the wake of the Vatican Council to give the church a strong and clearer voice in the public square. Throughout its' history the Bishops' Conference and the Commission have been outspoken on some of the major social just issues. One in particular - they have consistently and courageously opposed the housing of nuclear weapons in Scotland. And in that they are in line with mainstream public opinion. I think the reality of living with a nuclear installation less than 40 miles from our major population centre brings a little more sobriety to the debate than somehow the debate about the possession and use of nuclear weapons. It should be a very principled debate but there's a practical realism about it. There are other issues around that with jobs - the base could be used for all kinds of other things - but the presence of the nuclear weapons in Scotland, and so close to population centres, continues to make it a much more live debate and issue in public discourse than it is south of the border. The Bishops Conference and the J&P Commission have always been outspoken in their opposition to the possession and use of nuclear weapons. That's not always been popular with politicians but I think it does reflect mainstream public opinion.

"Another longstanding campaign has been for the reform of the immigration and asylum system and in particular the closure or at least the significant reform of the detention centre in Lanarkshire, Dungavel. It was originally an open prison and is now used by the UK Border Force, Immigration, the Home Office - subcontracted to private companies and to house asylum seekers to be deported. Its always quite interesting the watch the new - and there has been quite a generational change bishops in Scotland recently and sometimes there's been a bit of reluctance to speak publicly, and a bit of uncertainty, but when they see the reality of the situation and when the see the work and the research that's been done by the J&P Commission the testimonies they've been able to present, they become extremely vocal about this. It's one of the few countries in the world where asylum seekers are still detained indefinitely - which is a fundamental breach of human rights and human dignity - and where children are still routinely detained - which is simply not appropriate. Again, the voice of the bishops and the voice of the church in opposition to that has been incredibly powerful and is also a useful backup to those of us in the political sphere who are calling for reform and closure of the centre.

"Scotland has always benefited from immigration, always prided itself in providing a place of refuge for those seeking safety - just as Scots have benefited from the opportunity to travel and live all throughout the world… The Catholic community in Scotland and throughout the British Isles in recent years has been considerable enhanced by new waves of immigration - particularly from Poland and Eastern Europe. In my home town of Inverness, there was an ageing population but this wave of immigrants has brought fresh vitality not just to the town's economy but to the Catholic church, to the extent that they had to put on two Midnight Masses at Christmas. And now of course, parishes across the UK are appreciating the huge support and benefit we get from priests who are willing to travel from Africa - almost missionaries in reverse and that is certainly a phenomenon we are experience and hugely benefitting from.. In Scotland there are several Nigerian priests who are very firmly imbedded in the diocese now and make a huge contribution."

"Of course thats another topical issue as I'm sure it is in parishes down here as well - that the Home Office has just changed visa requirements so priests who used to come for summer placements on a Tier 5 visa and now being force to apply for a Tier 2 Visa which is considerably more expensive. The barriers to apply are considerably higher and it's actually wreaking havoc, certainly in a number of parishes in my constituency and in the wider archdiocese of Glasgow, because priests that would have been expected to turn up reasonably routinely and serve the parish for three months, providing cover for priests so they get their summer holidays and go back to their home countries - are being excluded now by the Home Office rule changes. If you look at the detail - its a general visa for 'ministers of religion'. And quite frankly I think they haven't realised that it will affect Christian ministers of religion. Its all about language barriers and as far as I can see, its about a different religion altogether and has a different purpose altogether. Its incredible disappointing . A significant number of us on a cross-party basis are trying to put pressure on the Home Office to get this changed because its having a very real impact on the Churches - not just the Catholic churches.

"So the Church in Scotland always has had an authoritative voice on social justice issues and a very active engagement in civil society. And of course the social teaching the the Church and the moral teaching of the Church are two sides of the same coin.

"Catholicism is a world vision, a universal vision. Its not a series of policies or a manifesto that chops and changes. I would argue that in the modern world - emphasising social teaching is vital if the moral teaching is also to be heard and properly understood and contextualised in a way the secular world can begin to understand and engage with. So of course, the Church has been vocal on many of the questions around life and moral issues that have been part of the debate - but perhaps and its not surprising its not found itself in the majority of consensus opinion. Abortion law has been devolved to Scotland - one of the post independence referendum changes - and while the Scottish government says it has no plans to change current arrangements - that doesn't mean that others might try through bank bench routes through the Scottish parliament of different civil society groups.

"Much like down here - the question of Assisted Suicide - Assisted Dying - has actually been repeatedly rejected - down here as well. But that isn't stopping people repeatedly attempting to revisit the issue. It presents a particular challenge to those of us who are Catholic legislators. In the Scottish National Party we don't vote on devolved matters, but it poses a bit of a question when we come to some of the life and conscience issues . So some of us did take the decision to vote against the Assisted Dying Bill when it came on the grounds that it could affect people across the entire UK - even though it was devolved.

"There are broader issues related to this - such as exclusion zones around hospitals or clinics that provide abortion services. There is a movement to do that just as there is here - one of the papers tried to build this up as a big issue - as if the protests were a kind of American style placard waving Bible thumpers - but they turned up and it was basically a bunch of pensioners and students on the other side of a roundabout quietly saying the Rosary. And I think they were quite disappointed to find that. There wasn't the intimidation that was being purported. But nevertheless that remains an area for debate. And perhaps that relates to longer standing questions, especially in west or central Scotland - the history of sectarianism. Its not a problem that has gone away. In fact it was my own parish priest Canon Tom White (you may have seen the coverage) who was spat on as an Orange Walk went past his church. The perpetrator was found guilty and sent to jail, l but its a very real demonstration that this is not an issue that has gone away. We need to continually work at it. We need to continually enter into respectful dialogue and try to look at what the root causes are. Sectarianism can vey often be a front for deeper rooted social issues - they get masked, they get dressed up as tribalism and sectarianism.

"That of course gets linked to questions about Catholic schools and faith-based education. . And again there's a geographical focus to this because where I grew up there was a Catholic primary school that I had a huge benefit from attending, but in the Highlands and north of Aberdeen, there's no Catholic secondary provision. So for faith education we were sent to the RCIA programme which actually was perhaps more solid than you might have got in school. But again the provision is largely in the central belt.

"It will be questioned - but the reality is that there is a broad consensus and demand for faith based and education, and as long as there's a demand for Catholic schools that provision will continue. That was reinforced by last year's celebration of the Catholic Education Scotland Act, which brought Catholic schools into the state system and provided funding for them and has been the basis of the system ever since. W marked the anniversary with a reception down here. we were delighted to have both Scottish Archbishops present for a reception afterward and there were various other events throughout the course of the year, including the First Minister giving the annual Cardinal Winning lecture at the University of Glasgow to reflect on the contribution the Catholic schools have made and reiterate their value and the Scottish government's continued commitment to them.

"There is a strong ecumenical and indeed interfaith movement in Scotland. That often provides the bedrock for social justice campaigns and civil society engagement. Perhaps the best example of that is the Iona Community which is based on the island of Iona the base from where St Columba evangelised throughout Scotland and it now a place of retreat and reflection and prayer for Christians of many different traditions.

That willingness of the churches to work and act together undoubtedly helps the churches strengthen their value and voice in public debate.

I spoke earlier about Catholic demographics. we are probably a bit overrepresented in the SNP group here in the House of Commons. there are maybe a half a dozen or more that go to Mass on Wednesday evening. I'm not sure about the demographics in the Scottish parliament - maybe a bit fewer, although there are a couple of cabinet ministers who are practicing Catholics.

"That doesn't mean we should do more to encourage more Catholics to become involved in public life. That's been touched on both by Pope Francis and local bishops. Bishop Nolan of Argyle and the Isles, who is President of the J&P conference, wrote an open letter recently putting it quite powerfully and I'd like to quote it because I think it s of relevance to everyone here. He said: 'Each of us has to ask themselves - how can I influence public opinion if I never express an opinion in public? How can I influence government and politicians if I never let them know what I think. In a democracy its never enough to just allow ourselves to be governed, to presume that those who make decisions will make the right decisions, that the values we have will be the values that they will put into practice. Democracy puts an obligation on the citizen to be engaged with the political process, to work for the good of society. to be active in trying to achieve good government and not just leave it to others. The followers of jesus Christ are called to be like John the Baptist . He was a voice crying in the wilderness. Christians are called to be a voice for the voiceless. A voice upholding the dignity of every human person. A voice proclaiming the values of Jesus Christ, urging governments and politicians and those in power to act always for the common good of humanity. We are that voice. Sometimes we may shout. Sometimes we may whisper, But we are a voice that should never be silenced."

And I think thats encouraging for those of us that are already in public life but I think it should be encouraging to those who are considering being more active."

In his final reflections Mr Grady spoke about the Constitutional question. He said that for years the SNP was sometimes seem quite distant from the Catholic community, perhaps due to Irish immigration and the fact that working class communities were more associated with the Labour. But in recent years, he said there has been a real effort for the SNP to engage more constructively with the Catholic community. Grady said he has also visited other faith communities in Scotland - including attending events at a Gudwara and a Synagogue in Glasgow.

"The visit of Pope Benedict to the UK as a whole was a triumph… "His appearance in Scotland I think as particularly valued and a particular highlight. There had been some doubt whether he would come and there was some doubt about how many people would turn out It wasn't as big as the crowd that John Paul had. I vaguely remember being taken to see John Paul it was one of my earliest memories - being put on my Dad's shoulders in the cathedral in Edinburgh, and when Benedict came and I took my younger sister and my brother. Someone from Glasgow City Council had offered me a pass to sit at the front but I said I'd rather be part of the crowd part of the congregation. and i experienced the whole thing with my parish and with my family. But I remember for my sister in particular - she's a few years younger than me she was looking round and saw all these other Catholics and it hadn't occurred to her that that many existed, because when you go to the parish church on a Sunday it can be quite a small group - that was an important moment for the church in Scotland.

"There have been other fruits of the visit that are still visible: the Night Fever movement which has really taken over Glasgow and the rest of the UK. Benedict's visit to Cologne to World Youth Day which I attend as a youth - inspired a whole new generation. University Chaplaincies across Scotland are inspiring new generations, making them more confident in their faith, and willingness to be more public about their faith and engage in public life The Glasgow University chaplaincy, after years of producing more priests monks and sisters and so on - then produced a bishop - Bishop Keenan who is now Bishop of Paisley and at the forefront of the new evangelisation.

"When they are promoting the moral teaching of the church and the social teaching of the church or giving life expression to both of them - that is the best kind of evangelisation. Preaching the Gospel and not only using the words. The kinds of things SCIAF and CAFOD are doing - the changes the are making on a daily basis - the kind of work the J&P is doing - the kind of work the Catholic schools are seeing to build - that is literally the Good News. That is literally how we can have a better society. This is what the world can look like. This is what the Kingdom of God can look like in reality. So there's a lot to be hopeful about. There are challenges undoubtedly, but there is also a lot to be hopeful about. As Pope Benedict said his inaugural sermon at the start of his pontificate: 'The Church is young. its only 2000 years old. Its got a lot longer to go. its not going anywhere.' So the church in Scotland has been around for a long time. Its been distinct in its own right but the church is young and still has a lot to give. "

The Catholic Union is the leading lay organisation in Great Britain, whose primary objective is to champion the spiritual, moral and social teaching of the Catholic Church in the public sphere. For more information see:

Tags: Scotland, Scottish, Scottish MP, Catholic Union, Patrick Grady, Nigel Parker

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