How Catholic-bashing became respectable

It is worth asking in passing whether Jews could now be depicted with the same idiom as is now being

It's not that often a train of thought unites Nicole Kidman and Peter Viereck, the American maverick conservative. But I had been to a screening of The Golden Compass, the film that Kidman effortlessly illumines, and I was thinking about the villain of the piece, which wasn't anyone at all so much as an institution called the Magisterium. In the Philip Pullman novel on which the film is based, the other word for the Magisterium is the Church. Or, as the author explains, "Ever since Pope John Calvin had moved the seat of the papacy to Geneva and set up the Consistorial Court of Discipline, the Church's power over every aspect of life had been absolute. The papacy itself had been abolished after Calvin's death, and a tangle of courts, colleges and councils, collectively known as the Magisterium, had grown up in its place."

The clerics of the Magisterium are characteri sed by authoritarianism, hatred of sexuality, a penchant for heresy-hunting and black vestments, and an animus towards intellectual inquiry. Or as Eva Green, in the role of the witch Serafina Pekkala, hisses, they're out to get "Free Will".

This is, in other words, the pocket image of the Catholic Church carried by many British liberals - except that, for Rome, read Geneva. Which brings us to Peter Viereck and his remark that "anti-Catholicism is the anti-Semitism of the intellectual". Every group needs its bogeymen to reinforce a collective identity and, for British liberalism, that function is usefully fulfilled by the Church.

As it happens, I rather enjoyed the rollicking pace and the scary bearfights of The Golden Compass, and I devoured the books. But the mental furniture that occupies the novels and the film - the creepy cleric who doesn't baulk at poison, the glowering institution that opposes free intellectual inquiry (and, oddly, is situated in the Royal Naval College) - why, it comes from a familiar part of the English nursery, the bogey of anti-popery.

Actually, to get some idea of the suppositions on which this kind of anti-Catholicism is based you need only return to the cinema to see Elizabeth. That, too, is redeemed by a luminous actress, Cate Blanchett, but it is a remarkable summary of the old Protestant clichés about Catholicism as the other, the enemy.

The Catholics in it are physically deformed, shrouded in darkness and forever doing funny things with dripping vats of blood-red dye, and Philip of Spain goes around clutching not one rosary but several (how many does a man need?). Elizabeth, by contrast, is bathed in light just to illustrate that she embodies a kind of proto-Enlightenment - she kicks off by declaring that she will judge her subjects by their actions, not beliefs - and she rounds off her exhortation to the troops at Tilbury by declaring that the Spanish ships carry "the Inquisition in their bowels". And, sure enough, when the ships go down, rosaries and a cross go floating to the bottom.

Of course, there are elements of truth in all this - that's the thing about clichés - yet it's also a travesty of history. Elizabeth's way of dealing with her Catholic problem resulted in the torture and deaths of some 200 Catholics - indeed, two conspirators are tortured in the film. But the moral of both films is simple: that the Catholic Church is the enemy of freedom and reason.

Of course, there is infinite scope in film, as in ordinary secular polemic, for a frank examination of the relationship between the Church and freedom of intellectual inquiry. It would be nice, incidentally, if that debate could be rather better informed. It was ironic to find Eva Green hissing that the Magisterium is out to get Free Will, given that the Catholic Church was once the great defender of that doctrine.

But to get back to Viereck's dictum, it is worth asking in passing whether Jews could now be depicted with the same idiom as is now being deployed against Catholics. You don't have to think particularly hard to conjure up the Semitic equivalent of the crazed popish assassin, the Jesuit plotter, the Vatican conspiracy against the nation state, do you? But while the stereotype of the Jew is dead, that of the Catholic Church as a force for evil has been given a new, and rather disagreeable, lease on life.

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