In England and other places there can still be surprise when discussion of football in Scotland segues too smoothly into the discussion of religion. And vice versa. It can also get entangled with toxic politics too. The sectarian divide between Celtic and Rangers doesn't need to be rehearsed, but the tribal hinterlands behind this ancient sporting rivalry point to the sad opposition between Loyalist and Republican, Royalist and Nationalist, Britain and Ireland, Catholic and Protestant. Some say it's fading away, some say it isn't, but there was a manifestation last week that it may be evolving – into something worse.
Celtic played the Israeli team Hapoel Beer Sheva in Glasgow on Wednesday in a pulsating European qualifier which the home team won 5-2. The game was overshadowed by hundreds of Celtic fans defying the authorities by waving Palestinian flags to goad the visiting Israeli supporters. Their hatred for Israel, the only democracy in the Middle East, was obvious. They would have been encouraged by edgy, lefty ‘celebs’ who urge the young, semi-educated fans to be radical daredevils like them; and by politicians like SNP MSP James Dornan who praised them on Twitter. As Professor Tom Gallagher says: 'Hamas’s militancy against an alleged oppressor is celebrated just as the IRA’s terrorist operations in Ireland were defended by a vocal minority of Celtic fans a generation ago.' These young fans don't know much about Ireland's troubles and even less about Hamas, with its corruption, its intolerance towards gays, and its backwards attitudes to women.
At one time the Catholic Church in Scotland would have been able to intervene among their flock (who make up the bulk of Celtic’s support) and knock some sense into their militant tendencies. That was certainly the case in previous decades and is one reason why Ulster’s violence did not transfer across the sea. But secularisation has brought distance between the Church and the 'Celtic family'. 'Cultural Catholics’ in Scotland are now prone to the flotsam and jetsam of any radical anti-establishment fury that happens to be on the current wind. Meanwhile the Catholic Church in Scotland has gradually lost its spiritual presence among Celtic fans, even though many of its functionaries seem to share their angry outlook on politics. So even if the Church had the will to guide the Celtic family away from its nationalist and militant rages it would now be powerless to do so.
The Church's wooing of the SNP is largely to blame. It started when Cardinal Winning clashed with the then Labour Executive over their social liberalism. Winning and many of the other people in charge convinced themselves that the nationalists were going to be more onside on issues like abortion. There was absolutely no evidence that this would ever be the case, as the Catholic community are about to find out. Instead, they have been played for useful fools by Salmond et al, whose entryists have done the necessary spade work from within.
These days the Archbishop of Glasgow, Philip Tartaglia, a season ticket holder at Celtic Park, is effusive in his praise for the ruling SNP government. Immediately after the referendum he released an embarrassingly toadying statement praising Alex Salmond and then welcomed the new First Minister Nicola Sturgeon with unprecedented over-eagerness. And in the 2014 vote, many of his clergy and church functionaries were publicly involved in supporting the separatist cause. There was little subtlety amongst them as - on social media, from the pulpits, in the classrooms - they linked their 'social justice war' tendencies and latent anglophobia with their new heroes in the SNP.
The links between the Scottish Catholic Church and the SNP have been obvious for a while. The Director of the Scottish Catholic Media Office, Peter Kearney was, in a previous job, the SNP’s political education and training officer, a parliamentary candidate and deputy leadership candidate for the party in 2000. His name reportedly appeared during the referendum as a press contact for former SNP leader and extreme leftist Jim Sillars, who was busy threatening Scottish business leaders with ‘a day of reckoning’ if they supported the 'No' side.
There is also a certain nonchalance in the way that the Church authorities have reacted to other appalling lapses in judgment by Catholic teachers in Glasgow. One teacher at St George’s Primary School invited former MSP Tommy Sheridan to talk about politics to the children, and later organised them into mounting their own kiddy-demo in the city against austerity. Another teacher, at St Mark’s Barrhead, tweeted comments supportive of the Provisional IRA and pictures of gun-toting terrorists, as well as selfies with Nicola Sturgeon. The local Church authorities tried their best to sweep this under the carpet, and excuses were made which passed the buck to the local state education officers. (Scotland has a unique, but increasingly tense arrangement, that allows Catholic schools to be run under local Council control.) All subsequent approaches from media, anxious parents and the faithful were met with silence, in the hope that the issues would go away. Sometimes they do, but the reason it won't wash in the long run is that many of the teachers in Glasgow's Catholic schools now put their own identity politics before their faith.
Glasgow’s Herald reported recently that Scotland's only national Catholic newspaper, the Scottish Catholic Observer, is in difficulty and likely to be sold off by its present London-based owners. This once vibrant publication, founded in 1885, is now a forlorn shadow of its former self, with sales down to dangerously low levels. Editorial and journalistic standards have slipped to an embarrassing and risible state. Its demise is symbolic of the trouble the Church is facing.
The Scottish Catholic Church is not in a good place. Some of its clergy and functionaries act more as partisan political cheerleaders than as dedicated pastors keen to strengthen its community in an increasingly secular era. Those of us who are a little more sceptical of the new cultishness engulfing the country look on in astonishment as our beloved Church gives the impression of being sidetracked from its historic mission. The Scottish Church had its faults prior to the rise of the SNP. But it has now become a useful ally for those who want to destabilise Scotland, and in doing so, has put the interests of its own flock in jeopardy.
Sir James MacMillan is a Scottish classical composer and conductor