Professor Tom Devine, of Edinburgh University, said the statement on the nation’s “deep, wide and vicious” sectarianism was the most public condemnation yet issued by the Catholic Church in this country, and reflected a sea change in the mindset of the Scottish Catholic community.
“Whether one accepts it or not, it is historically significant,” he said, adding that “this is the first time that an official spokesman for the Catholic Church in Scotland has come out to say this with such vehemence”.
Mr Devine, who has written extensively on the history of sectarianism and the Catholic experience in Scotland, said the days of discrimination in the job market are long gone. Catholics under the age of 55 now sit equally alongside the rest of the population according to a range of socioeconomic measures, he said. However, a secondary type of sectarianism, expressed through “nasty and unpleasant” bigoted attitudes, is “alive and well”, he argues.
He said: “This is a reflection of the fact that people of a Roman Catholic background, overwhelmingly from an Irish ethnic tradition, have a renewed self-confidence in Scottish society.
“Until the 1970s, the whole attitude -- and I’m a Roman Catholic, so I know this -- was ‘Don’t disturb things’. The Kearney intervention is a very dramatic reversal of that, and this is the great irony: the reason why it has occurred is in large part because of the new confidence of Catholic people in Scotland.
“The fact that labour market discrimination is no longer able to hold them back [means] many of them are now in professional, academic, business occupations. The Kearney intervention is a symbol of this new collective self-consciousness; that they’re able to stand up and be counted.”
Sectarianism rose to the forefront of political debate in 2002, when then first minister Jack McConnell spoke out against “Scotland’s secret shame”, in allusion to a speech by the Catholic composer James MacMillan at the Edinburgh Festival in 1999.
At the time of a 2001 census, there were 803,700 Catholics in Scotland, compared to slightly more than two million Church of Scotland adherents.
In 2002 Holyrood unveiled a 12-point, cross-party plan to stamp out sectarianism. The police and the Commission for Racial Equality were consulted and, in 2005, Mr McConnell stated his belief that bigotry could be eliminated within a generation.
However, he criticised his successors, the SNP, saying they had failed to pursue the anti-sectarian forums he had initiated.
In 2006 a campaign was launched to twin faith schools in a bid to assimilate children but, three years later, an investigation by The Herald found that fewer than half of local authorities had put the plan in action.
Debate was re-ignited earlier this year when Benedict XVI visited Scotland at the height of the Catholic Church’s sex abuse scandal. Many people, as Mr Kearney also points out, felt that the vilification of the priesthood for this was unjustified; less than one in 200 Scottish priests over the past 25 years has been convicted of sexual abuse, but all have been tarred by the scandal.
Chillingly, according to Mr Kearney, a current of anti-Catholic violence has reared its head, with attacks on priests and churches, terrifying the clergy. The crimes he describes have not been brought to light, and eyes will now be on the Scottish Government’s response to this apparent threat.
“If this is to be taken further, and taken seriously, then systematic evidence has got to be provided so that authorities can respond in an appropriate way,” Professor Devine said. “What we need ... is for the hierarchy of the Roman Catholic Church in Scotland to come clean on this.”