All sensible people must be shocked and horrified by the recent attack on Canon Tom White in Glasgow, as reported by this magazine. This is a sad reminder that sectarianism is by no means dead in the United Kingdom, and that in some places it is considered OK by some to assault and insult representatives of the Catholic Church. Indeed, such incidents are not as uncommon as one could wish, though this one is particularly shocking. One is amazed that anyone thinks spitting at priests is the right thing to do, or that anyone really knows the true significance of the insult “Fenian bastard”.
One could, of course, dismiss this sort of thing as a throwback to the past, when sectarianism was fuelled by the Irish Question, but the sad truth remains that long after the settlement of the Irish Question, new issues have surfaced that fuel anti-Catholic feeling. One thing is certain, however, and that is that none of these things has anything to do with Canon Tom White and his parishioners. They are innocent bystanders who are victims of irrational prejudice. It is important to remember what prejudice is: a pre-judgement; an attitude that arises when rational judgement is suspended.
The people who insulted the Canon are perhaps closer to the mainstream of British opinion than they may realise. Much of our national conversation has suspended judgement on a variety of subjects, of which religion is one. Blind prejudice rather than rational and deliberate reflection is often the order of the day, as any quick survey of Twitter will reveal.
What can be done? Clearly, as in all cases of assault, the police should investigate and find those responsible. Everyone should make it clear that they deplore this behaviour which is both criminal and uncivilised. However, the reaction so far does not bode well. There is already a petition online to ban the Glasgow Orange Walk which has ggearnered considerable support. However, as the Catholic News Agency points out, the Orange Order has established that the people responsible for the attack were not involved in the Orange Walk itself.
Banning the Orange Walk would be a very bad idea for a number of reasons. First of all, it would be unjust, as this assault is not to be laid at their door. Secondly, it would cause alarm and distress to members of the Orange Order and give them a genuine grievance. But above all, banning things you do not like is not the best way forward. Some people dislike the Orange Order (I cannot say that I am a huge fan myself) but banning things on the grounds of dislike creates a disastrous precedent. Indeed this sense that dislike creates entitlement is what caused the assault on Canon White in the first place.
The truth of the matter is that we in Britain have got to learn tolerance a bit more. This means that though we may not like certain people (Catholic priests, Orangemen, whatever) nevertheless we support and defend their right to carry on as they please within the bounds of the law. We respect their human rights, above all their rights of association. Moreover, our toleration of the other must spring not from our indifference to them, but our love of our neighbour.
As far as I am concerned, every Orange Walk that has police approval should go ahead, and my good wishes go with them. I do realise that many people in various parts of this Kingdom will not agree with me, but if we do not support Orange Walks, won’t we compromise, first of all, our belief in universal human rights, and secondly our own particular religious rights?
It would be a great pity if the intolerance of those who assaulted Canon White were to lead to an act of intolerance towards the Orange Order, which would in turn create a sense that intolerance somehow is a source of legislation. Toleration for all, without exceptions, is the only way.