How independent Scotland could affect local Church

When the people of Scotland vote on whether to become independent in a referendum on Sept. 18, 2014, it will be a momentous day for the small but distinctive nation.

Since 1999, thanks to the devolution of powers, a Scottish government and parliament have held sway from Edinburgh, under a first minister appointed by Britain’s Queen Elizabeth.

If the territory opts for full sovereignty, the ruling Scottish National Party (SNP) wants to declare independence on March 24, 2016, with the first parliamentary elections the following May. Details of the independence plans were to be released Nov. 26 by First Minister Alex Salmond.

Ramifications of vote

Such a move would end a union going back four centuries and have far-reaching ramifications for Europe and the wider world.

Independence would also have key implications for the minority Catholic Church, which hosted a state visit by Pope Emeritus Benedict in September 2010 and has deep historic roots. Its leaders have played the issue cautiously, but they’ve made clear they’ll accept whatever Scots decide.

“Although the Church won’t be taking a position for or against independence, we’ll respect our people’s democratic wishes,” said John Deighan, the Scottish bishops’ parliamentary officer. “But we hope the run-up to the referendum can also see deeper reflection on what the Church and its teaching mean for Scotland, on the values they contribute to national life, and on the kind of Scotland we all want.”

Independence has been vigorously opposed by Britain’s three main parties — Conservative, Labour and Liberal Democrat — who have insisted it will be impossible to unlink two nations bound together by language and culture, whose economies and societies are intertwined.

All three, however, are relatively weak north of the border, where the Scottish National Party was elected to government six years ago after developing its demand for independence since the 1960s.

With full sovereignty, Scotland would have North Sea oil and gas at its disposal, but it will also have to manage a huge social security budget. It may rid itself of nuclear weapons, but it will also have to renegotiate ties with NATO and the European Union.

It is not yet clear which way Scottish voters will lean next September. A survey conducted for The Sunday Times and Real Radio Scotland published Nov. 24 showed support for independence at 38 percent, while 47 percent would vote no. Fifteen percent of those polled were undecided.

Church-state tensions

The predominant Episcopalian Church of Scotland, to which 42 percent of Scots belong, has broadly come out in favor of independence, calling in a March 2012 statement on an independent state to strengthen social justice and integration, and promote “all the other things that nurture human living.”

However, the smaller Presbyterian Free Church of Scotland fears separate statehood will spur secularization and endanger historic safeguards for the Protestant faith. Independence could, it warned this June, prove a “provocation of God.”

Making up 16 percent of the Scottish population, Catholics voted strongly for the SNP in 2007 and 2011 elections. And, in a 2006 interview with the Scottish Catholic Observer, Cardinal Keith O’Brien, then- archbishop of St. Andrews and Edinburgh, confirmed he would be “happy” if Scots chose independence “before too long.”

The issue was studiously avoided when Benedict XVI visited Edinburgh and Glasgow in September 2010.

Recently, however, ties with the SNP have plummeted over what the Church sees as the party’s liberal, secularizing agenda.

Although SNP politicians have taken steps to reassure the skeptics, Archbishop Philip Tartaglia of Glasgow warned Salmond he could lose “the confidence of the Catholic community.”

“I sense there’s a growing apprehension and disappointment at the direction your government is taking,” he told the first minister last year.

“Like others, I had begun to entertain the hope that yours would be a government of national unity which had the sagacity to move forward toward an independent Scotland by respecting and developing the historic foundational values of faith and reason, which have contributed to making Scotland a nation.”

Ian Dunn, a Catholic Observer editor, thinks the SNP has risked alienating Catholic support, much as Scotland’s Labour Party did by failing to uphold family values when it dominated the first Scottish Assembly in 1999.

Although it could be appealing to a lyrical view of Scotland’s past, including the heroic Catholic-led rebellions of the 17th and 18th centuries, it seems more interested in the anti-Catholic memories associated with the Scottish Reformation and Enlightenment.

This may prove attractive in Scotland’s Presbyterian-dominated Lowlands. But it’ll cause problems in the more traditionalist Highlands, where Catholicism has its strongest roots.

“The idea of a Catholic vote is an exaggeration — most Catholics will be waiting to see how the arguments develop before making their minds up,” Dunn told OSV.

“They also know that Scotland, far from being oppressed, has been a willing partner with England for most of its recent history,” he added. “The Church’s leaders will urge a clear moral focus as a precondition for independence. If Catholics fail to see this, they may well feel safer remaining in the United Kingdom, with its long traditions of religious tolerance.”

Salmond and other politicians have sought to repair relations with the Church by pledging to defend Catholic schools and even hinting at a possible tightening of Scotland’s abortion law.

“Although independence still seems a long shot, public opinion could swing in behind it very quickly once the campaign heats up,” Deighan, the bishops’ parliamentary officer, told OSV.

“Our job will be to ensure people think carefully about the foundational values of our Scottish society, and Catholicism’s contribution to them,” he said. “For this, we’ll need the Catholic community to be as forthright as possible.”

Jonathan Luxmoore writes from England.