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The Roots of Sectarianism:
Anti-Catholicism in Northern Ireland

Professor John D. Brewer


Gareth I. Higgins

Department of Sociology and Social Policy

The Queen's University of Belfast

Final Report to the Central Community Relations Unit

June 1997

Table of Contents

Executive summary
An outline of the original research proposal
Anti-Catholicism and the roots of sectarianism
The origins of anti-Catholic doctrine in Ireland
Historical and sociological processes
Anti-Catholicism in modern-day Northern Ireland
Challenging anti-Catholicism
Conclusion: a better way
Methodological appendix

Executive summary

  • Anti-Catholicism has its roots in a theological debate, beginning in the Reformation, about the doctrine and practice of the Roman Catholic Church. Anti-Catholicism, however, is not just a theological dispute about salvational truth, but can also be understood as a sociological process.

  • Anti-Catholicism can be defused sociologically as the determination of actions, attitudes and practices by negative beliefs about Catholics or the Catholic Church as an institution, which results in these negative beliefs being invoked as a boundary marker, which can be used, in some settings, to represent social stratification and conflict.

  • Anti-Catholicism occurs at three levels - that of ideas, individual behaviour and the social structure. There is nothing inevitable about the progression through these levels, but in its worst manifestations, such as Northern Ireland, it occurs at all three.

  • In its extreme form, anti-Catholicism is a resource used to expedite goals, it forms a source of support and supplies material benefits. It operates in this way in a definite but culturally demarcated social context, and possesses a distinctive sociological profile.

  • In Northern Ireland, anti-Catholicism is used in a two-fold manner:
    a) as a mobilisation to defend the socio-economic and political position of Protestants against opposition that threatens it
    b) as a rationalisation to justify and legitimise both that privileged position and any conflict with those who challenge or weaken it
  • Anti-Catholicism survives in Northern Ireland when it has declined elsewhere because it helps to define group boundaries and plays a sociological role in political and economic inequality. It is readily available and easily recognisable culturally as a resource for this purpose because it fits seamlessly with features of Northern Irish society and its conflict.

  • Anti-Catholicism fits seamlessly with Northern Irish society for the following reasons
    a) it has long historical roots in ethnic-national traditions
    b) it has a legacy of efficacy and effectiveness in the past
    c) it is successful in rendering society into a simple zero-sum game between two competing groups (so that Catholic gains are Protestant losses)
    d) it fits the self-identities of the groups involved in this zero-sum conflict as religious groups
    e) it fits with the high levels of religiosity of the society
    f) it comes with its own immutable and in-built legitimation (God's scriptural injunction to oppose doctrinal error) that is culturally sanctioned
  • Anti-Catholicism has been deployed in specific historical circumstances and events
    a) theological - when Roman Catholicism advanced as a church and when there was strong self-confidence and growth in Catholicism
    b) political - when the political interests of Protestants had to be defended
    c) economic - when social closure was necessary to protect Protestant access to scarce resources
  • Anti-Catholicism is a resource that has the following dimensions:
    a) theological - involves doctrinal debates about salvational truth
    b) cultural - involves everyday discourse, imagery and values within Protestant popular culture
    c) political - involves defence of the Union
    d) economic - involves protection of Protestant ascendancy and privilege
  • Anti-Catholicism is not monolithic. There are different types, which articulate anti-Catholicism differently. Three modes exist, called the covenantal, secular and Pharisaic modes. Each has a different set of foundational ideas and form of rhetoric, and appeals to different constituencies. Different consequences follow from each for establishing relationships with Catholics. A fourth type exists, called passive, which is not a formulated system in the same way as the other three.

  • These modes can be plotted on two axes or continuums - theological content (high to low) and political extremism (high to low), illustrating further differences that exist between the expressions of anti-Catholicism in Northern Ireland.

  • Anti-Catholicism can be challenged by highlighting the theological misunderstandings it contains, over such things as justification by faith, Scriptural 'proofs' that Catholicism is heretical, the relative role of Scripture or church tradition in salvation, and the claim that the Pope is the anti-Christ.

  • However, it is possible to point to a better way for dealing with doctrinal and theological differences, that affects the realms of the individual, religion, politics and the media. Several policy implications follow from this 'better way', affecting each of these realms.

Policy recommendations are:

a) Anti-Catholicism (and anti-Protestantism) could be challenged by creating more opportunities for positive social interaction, including 'listening to each other's stories'

b) In facing the past. it is necessary to see that all sides in the conflict have some responsibility for it. It is also important to recognise that all sides have suffered because of the conflict.

c) To facilitate public acknowledgement of responsibility, leaders of the main Protestant churches could issue a joint statement of apology for any past actions of their churches which have in some way fostered anti-Catholicism.

d) The churches must take responsibility for dismantling anti-Catholicism and building peace.

e) It is fundamental to any proposed solution to the division that people seek to understand and address the 'cores of reasonable concern on the other side.

f) The churches should show leadership by involving leaders in dialogue with each other, attempting to develop a publicly accessible theology of reconciliation, being open and not ashamed to admit this, while creating opportunities for lay people to meet those in other denominations to 'share their stories'.

g) Protestant Churches which do not form part of the 'anti-Catholic' bloc can foster peace by supporting Catholic attempts at explaining doctrine, along with their own effort to articulate why they consider it acceptable to seek ecumenical goals.

h) Political loyalties and identities need to extend beyond the single issue of the Union and political representatives should take a prominent role in de-escalating conflict by broadening the base of politics.

i) Two simple things can be done by journalists and broadcasters in Ulster. They should address the 'good things' that are being done in the name of reconciliation; and the 'bad things' that have been done in the name of anti-Catholicism need to be faced and challenged in the media.

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