Scottish citizens go to the polls today to vote in an historic referendum on independence, but if the majority vote “yes”, what will it mean for the Catholic Church and religious freedom as a whole?
Last week, the group “Christians for Independence” issued a statement aimed at reassuring voters that any new Scottish state would implement adequate safeguards.
Quoting Roseanna Cunningham MSP, Minister for Legal Affairs, the statement said the Scottish Government has given “a firm commitment that freedom of religion – including continued legal protection for Catholics schools – will be fully protected following a Yes vote for independence on Thursday.”
One hundred high profile Scottish Christians believe such guarantees, publicly backing the “Yes” campaign for independence principally because they believe an independent Scotland would be good for social justice. In a signed statement that appeared in newspapers Sept. 15, they said: “We believe a Yes vote in this week’s referendum makes possible a more socially just Scotland.”
The list includes Professor Duncan MacLaren, a former Secretary General of Caritas Internationalis, who said: “As part of the UK, we live in the world’s fourth most unequal state. Independence will allow us to follow Pope Francis’s words and say ‘no’ to ‘an economy of exclusion and inequality’, not just for our own citizens but through a foreign policy based on solidarity with the poorest, for those who suffer from hunger and exploitation throughout the world.”
But Catholic Church leaders have been largely silent during debates leading up to today’s referendum, and have taken a strictly neutral line. This is in contrast to Cardinal Keith O’Brien, the former archbishop of St. Andrews and Edinburgh who resigned because of sexual misconduct, and was an enthusiastic supporter of the ruling Scottish National Party and independence. So, too, was the colourful former archbishop of Glasgow, Cardinal Thomas Winning.
But earlier this month, Archbishop Philip Tartaglia of Glasgow and Archbishop Leo Cushley of St. Andrews and Edinburgh issued carefully worded statements that refrained from venturing into any policy proposals and made no mention of religious freedom. Instead they stressed the importance of voting.
“May God guide us and bless us in whatever choice we make in good conscience,” Archbishop Tartaglia said. Archbishop Cushley encouraged his flock “to consider the issues and to do your civic duty on the day itself” in light of Catholic Social Teaching.
“No matter the result of the Referendum, “ he added, “I would hope that all Catholics will continue to engage positively in public discourse, and ensure that the Christian message and its values are better expressed and understood, to the benefit of the whole community. By doing so, our beloved land will be a more just, peaceful and prosperous place for all its citizens,” he said.
But behind the scenes, there is concern about the secular and humanist outlook of the SNP. Speaking to Vatican Radio this week, Bishop John Keenan of Paisley said the issue of religion has not been a part of the campaign debates and noted how a 600-page draft constitution for Scotland drawn up by the pro-independence camp had “hardly any mention of religion” in it. The bishop said this was “felt to be unfortunate… and a source of disappointment for the Christian churches.”
And despite guarantees by the SNP and others, some fear an Edinburgh government would soon set about implementing a radically secular agenda. They will enact "bold plans to deconstruct Scotland and replace it with a highly secular and state-dominated realm, shaped around the agenda of mobilised activist groups,” warned Tom Gallagher, author of Divided Scotland: Ethnic Friction and Christian Crisis in 2013.
Pro-independence Christians respond to such fears by arguing that a British government is little different. But pro-unionist voters disagree, and claim the SNP has more virulent secularist leanings.
“A tacky Scottish elite is contemptuous of the country’s Christian culture and desires to legislate as much of it out of existence as possible,” Gallagher wrote in an article in the Daily Telegraph earlier this year. “Efforts to replace it with a makeshift secular and humanistic design for living are already well in train,” he added. “This is the feature of the SNP’s "modernisation" agenda that is most readily visible.”
“It will be ironic,” he noted, “if a Catholic community which survived John Knox, Oliver Cromwell and their modern followers uses its votes to usher in a bleak and irreligious age where ultimately its place will be no more secure than before.”
But for all these concerns, and the fact that Scotland’s 850,000 Catholics could swing the result (they are the most likely of all Scotland’s religious groups to back a "yes" vote), religious freedom is not likely to be among voters' main concerns in this referendum.
Political power, economic questions, and fair democratic representation are the central focus, and these are what will ultimately determine Scotland’s fate.