Would the moral consensus be any different in an independent Scotland?

Archbishop Leo Cushley

(Opinion Column, Sunday Times 22 June 2014)

Today I am back living in Scotland after a twenty-year absence from it, and I find it has changed dramatically.  

I came back last September to a country I had only visited in the meantime as a tourist, and found myself living in city not my own - Edinburgh - and among people neither my kin nor my friends, although I already feel happily at home again.

Edinburgh is a great city.   It welcomes people from all over the world.   It is much more cosmopolitan than its prim façade suggests.   Just after I moved there I walked up The Bridges, a road at the east end of Princes Street, and in a minute I passed by conversations in five different languages.   The locals are polite.   The buses are excellent.   The restaurants are busy.   The parks are numerous.   There is a large student population that keeps the place feeling young and vibrant.   And it is undoubtedly a good city to live and work in.   I willingly tell my Italian pals to come and visit me, because I know they re going to be enchanted by all of it, not just the whisky and the cashmere.

Other things have happened since I last lived in Scotland.   There is now a parliament.   I have tried and failed to like it from the outside, but we know that it s the inside that counts.   Having got past all the layers of security, and having been marked out with a humbling Visitor" lanyard, I saw the parliament s interior and it is, in contrast to its exterior, an impressive space.   Now that it s up and running, it feels like a seat of power.   It hasn t the grandeur of Westminster, but it suggests that Scotland may be growing.   But into what?   Standing there, as you look at its chambers in action, the parliament dares you to ask, Will this, Ought this to be the seat of a sovereign state?

What Scottish Catholics have to say about this comes from a mixture of places and concerns.   Today, they are from various ethnic and linguistic backgrounds - Scots, Gaelic, Irish, Italian, Polish, and all sorts of smaller groups - and they are perhaps about 14% of the population.   The end of the medieval Catholic Church in Scotland is a defining moment in the nation s history.   Its consequences are still felt, and even at this distance they can influence the way Catholics feel about Scotland.   The Church is also a hierarchy, very top-down, and so the attitude of the Pope and the Holy See always matter in a particular way.   In the nineteenth century, at a time when Great Britain was a world power and the Scots a willing part of it, the Holy See founded two distinct hierarchies in Britain, one in Scotland, and one in England and Wales.   On the other hand, the Holy See has full diplomatic relations with the United Kingdom, established in preparation for John Paul II s visit to the UK in 1982.   So, by a certain measure, the Holy See manages to recognise both what is distinctive and what is common among the Catholics of Great Britain.    

Now Pope Francis appears to have entered the debate on Scottish independence.   He did so by drawing an analogy for  La Vanguardia, a Spanish magazine, between the positions of Catalonia, Scotland and Padania (a part of northern Italy) to the countries to which they presently belong.   I thought his comments were careful and balanced.   They reflected a concern for the legitimate autonomy of peoples while at the same time cautioning against conflict in its pursuit.   Given the newspaper in question, I would say that his remarks were to be read above all in an Iberian context.   In view of the Pope s remarks, I would make two other points.

First, there is a slowly growing concern that any division created by the referendum in Scotland may be ineradicable..   The argument goes that, the closer the vote, the more likely there is to be a disturbing social reaction, especially among those who are on the losing side.   I believe this fear is unfounded, and that we will make it worse by drawing undue attention to it; nothing so untoward happened in 1977, and I hope the country remains calm and serene in the aftermath of the vote.   This is one of the points that Pope Francis was making.

My second reaction is a pastor.   The Catholic Church is not a national institution in Scotland in the way it was in the middle ages.   Nor does it have the place - politically, religiously, numerically - of, say, the Church of Scotland.   We do not have the unique, long-standing relationship with the state s institutions that the Kirk as a national institution with a privelleged constitutional statushas to consider.  

My concerns, are of a slightly different order, and they would be the same no matter where I lived.   They are to uphold the freedom to believe and to worship, and freedom of conscience, things that, in spite of the terrible lessons to be drawn from extremist regimes of the twentieth century, are still often corralled by states for citizens of all faiths and none.   Put in more religious terms, I have a concern for faith and morals, watching to see if my freedom in these areas is being maintained or eroded.   There are many other things that Catholics care about - the alleviation of poverty, the equitable distribution of the world s resources, sustainable growth, the integral development of the human person, the stewardship of creation, justice, peace, authentic human rights.   But if we take as given our peace, our prosperity and the rule of law, then the most important considerations for a person of faith are freedom of belief and worship, and freedom of conscience.  

This being the case, on these specific issues I would suggest that, for now, there is little to choose between the Westminster consensus and the Holyrood consensus - to say nothing of the European consensus.   This is not complacency or approval.   I may or may not like the consensus in question.   But, until there is a truly profound difference in the areas I ve outlined between what we have now and what we may have in an independent Scotland, I believe that the rest is open for fair debate.  

In the meantime, all of us ought to inform ourselves diligently, judge prudently what is at stake against what may be on offer, and do our civic duty on 18 September.  

As for me, I have a meeting in Rome on the day itself, but I already have my postal vote ¦

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