In a 2014 referendum, Scots narrowly voted not to press ahead with national independence, inducing sighs of relief from the rest of the United Kingdom.
But if the rest of Britain votes to leave the European Union in a new referendum on 23 June, local politicians could demand a fresh independence ballot. Like it or not, independence looks set to remain a live issue.
“Many Catholics feel independence would free us up to be ourselves and bring out the best in us,” Peter Kearney, director of the Scottish Catholic Media Office, told Catholic News Service. “The church itself already has its own independent hierarchy, it wouldn’t necessarily make a big difference anyway. But there are clear fault lines now between what Scots think and the decisions taken by the British government in London.”
Scotland already enjoys its own legal and educational system and has had its own government and parliament in Edinburgh since 1999, under a first minister appointed by Britain’s Queen Elizabeth II.
The 2014 independence vote – 45 per cent for and 55 per cent against on a high turnout of 85 per cent – was welcomed by those defending the three-centuries-old union of Scotland and England.
Yet it also divided local churches, with many believing Scotland could cope on its own, while remaining secure and prosperous in NATO and the European Union. The predominant Church of Scotland broadly came out in favour of independence, while the smaller Free Church of Scotland feared independence could endanger historic safeguards for the Protestant faith.
The Catholic bishops’ conference was careful not to take sides, with its president, Archbishop Philip Tartaglia of Glasgow, urging Catholics only to make a “prayerful judgment”.
But Kearney thinks the debate has moved on. Scotland would have taken a different stance than the rest of Britain, he said, on key issues such as the Iraq War and refugee crisis. More and more Catholics now view independence as their country’s best chance to make its own choices, he said.
Catholics, a third of them practicing, make up 17 per cent of Scotland’s 5.25 million inhabitants, according to surveys. Pockets of sectarianism still exist, compounded by recent abuse scandals and the 2013 sex-related resignation of Cardinal Keith O’Brien of St Andrews and Edinburgh.
Liz Leydon, editor of the Glasgow-based Scottish Catholic Observer, said if the church can offer real guidance on independence, pressing Scots to think beyond superficial economic categories, it will be performing a public service. She said the church faces tough challenges retaining young people and making Catholics more visible as a social and cultural force, but added that decreasing church affiliations do not necessarily signify a decline in religiousness.
“Despite all its high-profile problems, I think the church is learning, growing and regrouping now,” Leydon told CNS.
“It’s also speaking with a stronger voice and using its resources effectively. Having been humbled, it’s gaining respect – non-Catholics aren’t so quick to judge and dismiss it now,” she added.
At the University of St Andrews, Mark Elliott, professor of divinity, said he thinks churches will have a significant part to play in the coming debates on Scotland’s future.
He said although “most Catholics, with their international aspirations, will favor staying in the European Union, there’s a strong feeling in all churches now that independence is the next step for us.”