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The Catholic Church in Scotland

Wednesday, February 08, 2012
The Catholic Faith was established across Scotland in the middle of the first millennium, principally by Celtic monks, including St Ninian (d c 450) and St Columba (d 597). The church was renewed and brought into more substantial unity with the then continental expressions of Catholicism under St Margaret (d 1093) and her sons, 3 of whom were Scottish kings. The church abandoned Rome by parliamentary act in 1560 and after a turbulent and often violent period of struggle between Presbyterians and Episcopalians for around 120 years, the Presbyterian polity underpinned by Calvinist theology, was given legal status as the National Church of Scotland. This remains the case though the Church of Scotland is no longer officially wedded to Calvinism and the culture is increasingly secular. Some areas of Scotland, in the Highlands and islands, remained Catholic throughout and are still very Catholic to this day. However, most of the current Catholic population has come from waves of immigration, most notably from Ireland from the middle of the Nineteenth century onwards.

Scotland currently has a population of about 5.2 million people. The often mountainous terrain means the people are concentrated in the central built from Glasgow to Edinburgh spreading in the east up to Dundee. Beyond that and Aberdeen, the population is scattered diffusely. Of this total, in 2009 the RC church estimated its population as about 643,000 (12.3% of total) though the most recent government national census indicated a significantly higher figure, above 16% of the population. Of these about 175,000 ( 27.2% of Catholics seemingly known to the Bishops) come to Mass on a weekly basis. These numbers are almost exactly half of the figure in 1984, though the rate of decline has slowed in recent years. It is still a matter of very serious concern. Most denominations have suffered – some far more badly - and the current Catholic numbers put us on a roughly equal footing with the Church of Scotland for weekly church attendance, and far above any other religious group of any sort. But the real trend is towards religious apathy and secularisation and this needs addressing. Virtually all baptisms are of babies and children, and more ought to be done to evangelise the adult population.

There are 8 dioceses, vastly different in size and Catholic population, making up the Scottish Bishops’ conference. The Catholic population is not spread evenly. It is concentrated in the west end of the Central belt. The dioceses of Glasgow and Motherwell have the highest Catholic populations but are the second and third smallest in area respectively. Overall there are 452 parishes and 740 priests, including retired ones, are based in Scotland. There has been a reduction in vocations in recent years, resulting in all seminarians now being trained outside Scotland, mainly in Rome. This presents a challenge. Lay participation in the church is almost entirely voluntary and unpaid and I think more could be done to educate and train the laity and develop their capacity and often great willingness to contribute to the life and work and witness of the church.

In areas of sufficiently dense Catholic population – which means the Central Belt – the state provides Catholic Primary (age 5-11) and Secondary (11-18) Schools. The state pays for them and the Church controls the RE curriculum and other areas of ethos and policy effected by the faith, and has to approve all teaching appointments. Though many of the children do not practice, it is a great opportunity to introduce them to the Gospel and form them in Catholic values, and nurture committed faith. However, if this is to happen, the real situation of young people, the lack of parish participation, and the corrosive nature of much of modern culture needs to be taken seriously in order to develop and provide effective programs and pastoral strategies.

The Catholic Community is noted for its close knit communities, its respect for church authority, a positive vision and valuation of creedal orthodoxy, a direct and often bold way of addressing social issues and presenting the Catholic case, especially on moral issues, but also for a real practical concern for justice, and compassion and generosity, demonstrated in lots of practical projects. At the same time it still tends to be a bit marginalised or feel trapped, especially among older generations. This is partly due to the problem of sectarianism, which has steadily been addressed in recent years and in general is reducing in its impact. Catholics in Scotland, increasingly feel Scottish in identity which, with the emergence of devolution, a Scottish Parliament and the growing possibility of independence, means the Catholic contribution to this land may be about to enter a new but significant phase. The present situation thus presents both opportunities but also threats. Whatever happens politically it is vitally important that Catholics learn how to respond to secular and relativistic materialism, by deepening their faith, maintaining strong communities but ones equipped and confident to go and evangelise and to transform society with the Gospel. Hopefully, the Dominicans can contribute to this work: we currently have houses in Edinburgh and Glasgow, and run university chaplaincies in these cities and also in Aberdeen, as well as involvement in parish and prison ministry. Oh, for more labourers to send into the vineyard!

Andrew Brookes OP


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