Leading article: Bloodshed and toleration

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The Independent Online

The revelation that Britain now has more practising Roman Catholics than Anglicans will be met with concern, perhaps even alarm, in some quarters. There is a historic reflex at work here. The modern British state was founded on Protestantism. Centuries of civil bloodshed, martyrdom and regime change over religion have shaped the British national consciousness. To this day the head of state cannot be a Catholic. It is telling, too, that Tony Blair felt the need to wait until leaving office before converting, despite the fact that there is no constitutional barrier to the Prime Minister being Catholic. It seems Mr Blair understood that there is a lingering sensitivity in Britain about Catholics holding high political office.

But not all the concerns are of a conservative nature. Liberals have long been nervous of the notoriously emotive and uncompromising Catholic activism on abortion. In May this year, the head of the Roman Catholic Church in Scotland, Cardinal Keith O'Brien, compared abortion to the massacre of schoolchildren in Dunblane and urged Catholic MPs to attempt to reform the law. This has stoked concern that the resurgence of UK Catholicism will mean the importing of an illiberal religiosity into British political life.

However, we would argue that Britain can afford to be more relaxed. There is another historic tradition in this country (albeit one that is younger than anti-Catholicism): toleration. The discriminatory laws against Catholics began to be repealed in the late 18th century, culminating in the 1829 Catholic Emancipation Act. Since then, freedom of conscience has been one of the pillars of our society.

Incidentally, another virtue of our society is the openness of our economy. One of the reasons why Catholics are now in a majority is the number of predominantly Catholic Poles who have come to work in the UK in recent years. It would be hard for even the most staunchly anti-Catholic zealot to portray this as some kind of spiritual invasion. The reality is that the force which governs most of our lives is no longer religion, but economics. And these tens of thousands of industrious Poles have been a considerable economic blessing.

Concern over the reactionary tendencies of hard-line Catholic activists is more well-founded. But Britain is still, mercifully, very far from being like the US, where issues such as abortion and stem-cell research are a staple of political debate. For all the brimstone sermons of the Catholic Church, Britain remains a country resistant to dogmatism.

The way to respond to any assaults religious or otherwise on medical or scientific freedom is through cool and reasoned debate, not panic.