Scotland’s vote to reject independence may have little impact on religion — and on Catholicism in particular — but the country’s religious history offers lessons for our time and for any time.
Catholicism arrived in Scotland in about the fourth century with missionaries sent from the popes in Rome. Little by little, but surely, the religion took hold. In time, the country was Catholic, subject of course to how “Catholic” was defined. Certainly, no other religion was strong.
The Scottish kings were Catholics. Dioceses were formed. A network of monasteries spread across the country. Education was much in the hands of the Church as were social services and health care.
All this pertained until the Protestant Reformation. Luther’s writings were smuggled into the country, contrary to the law that supported the Catholic Church. King Henry VIII’s break from the Church in England, next door to Scotland, did not go unnoticed, but Henry’s action was rigidly opposed by Scotland’s King James V, who coincidentally was Henry VIII’s nephew.
James died, leaving as his heir an infant daughter, Mary, now known in history as Mary, Queen of Scots. Ruling in little Mary’s name was her mother, Marie, a French noblewoman. A determined Catholic, Marie was unable to withstand the Protestantism creeping into Scotland from the continent and from England. When of age, Mary also was unable.
Mary had her only son, James, baptized a Catholic, but eventually he became a Protestant.
Enemies of Catholicism hit hard at the Eucharist. Celebrating Mass was outlawed. Laws forbade attendance at Masses. Churches were confiscated. Obviously, the Blessed Sacrament could not be reserved, at least not openly.
Secondly, priests under the law were criminals. None could function in the open. Anyone suspected of being a priest could be arrested. Many priests were arrested. Many were exiled or martyred. The sacraments were not administered. Diocesan structures collapsed.
Thirdly, every effort was made to sever ties with the pope and also to defame the papacy.
In England, in 1603, Queen Elizabeth I died. Her nearest relative was her first cousin twice removed, Mary’s son, Scottish King James VI. As such, he succeeded her as King James I of England. In his kingship, Scotland and England were united. The United Kingdom was formed, and it was about this union that the recent vote in Scotland was held.
Over the years, the United Kingdom gradually relaxed its anti-Catholic laws. In 1878, Pope Leo XIII appointed bishops for the Scottish dioceses, after a lull of 250 years. Catholic immigrants came in number. In the last census, 16 percent of Scots identified themselves as Catholics, 32 percent as Presbyterians.
The lesson for Catholics today is not about the vote for independence but about the process through which Scotland changed from being a solidly Catholic society to being strongly Protestant.
Membership in Catholic and Presbyterian congregations is declining, however. If this pattern continues, all religion will suffer. It will be ignored, and then, if history is a teacher, it will be resented and finally and very possibly persecuted.
When institutional churches go, Catholic or not, Christianity begins to die.
Scotland’s Catholic history has a message for Catholics anywhere. The Mass, the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist, is essential to Catholic belief. So is the ordained priesthood. So is the papacy.
The final lesson for Catholics — bishops, priests and people — is be strong in faith. Be holy.
Msgr. Owen F. Campion is OSV’s associate publisher.