The Roots of Sectarianism:
Anti-Catholicism in Northern Ireland
Professor John D. Brewer
Gareth I. Higgins
Department of Sociology and
The Queen's University of Belfast
Final Report to the Central
Community Relations Unit
Table of Contents
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
Conclusion: a better way
- 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
- 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
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
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
- 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
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
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.
© CCRU 1998-1999
site developed by: Martin Melaugh
page last modified:
Back to the top of this page