Hey Paddy – are you a Protestant Saint or a Catholic Saint?

Politicians in Northern Ireland embarrass their constituents with unseemly quibbling about who gets to claim which religious emblems. We are told that to project the wavelength of light between yellow and blue is apparently Irish and nationalistic, and therefore unbefitting of a saint who somehow anticipated the ideas of Martin Luther by a millennia.

When ex-DUP councillor Ruth Patterson claimed St Patrick was a former Protestant (presumably she meant “proto-Protestant”, but never mind) many found the claim laughable, and understandably so. This is a ludicrous position, but it was one that echoed earlier claims made by someone who is still a member of the party, DUP minister Maurice Morrow. He also claimed that Saint Patrick “was in fact a Protestant” and followed up with the delicious irony that he didn’t want to see St Patrick “used as a political football”. Too late for that now minister.

Image of St Patrick from Hartmann Schedel's Nuremberg Chronicle.
If only he’d gotten rid of all the snakes. From Hartmann Schedel’s Nuremberg Chronicle.

An honest and informed appraiser would come to the conclusion that St Patrick was neither Protestant nor Catholic. The Ionian church to which he belonged would not come under official sway of the Catholic church until the Synod of Whitby in 664. What controversy existed between the traditions prior to the Synod had nothing to do with Lutheran notions of protest, and more to do with arguments about when religious festivals ought to be celebrated.

Only someone possessed of the ludicrously narrow-minded notion that anything not explicitly Roman Catholic is therefore Protestant would make such statements about St Patrick.

But it’s not just the DUP who are satisfied to talk absurdities on this subject. Sinn Féin’s Phil Flanagan stepped up to the plate to ensure the disinformation flowed both ways.

“Maurice Morrow’s hanging about England too much. He needs to actually catch himself on, running about telling people that St Patrick was a Protestant. As far as I remember when I was taught at school there was no such thing as a Protestant religion in 432.”

Now why would a Sinn Féin politician seem to infer that the reason Mr Morrow talks nonsense is down to his hanging around with the English as opposed to being a home-grown piece of craziness? Catholics and Protestants in England do not tend to quibble over this sort of nonsense and in English schools the phenomena of Protestantism, even as it is most liberally understood, is taught as taking place about a millennia after the death of St Patrick.

Mr Flanagan went on to insist that St Patrick was a “saint that existed before there was any division in Christianity.”

This is a bold claim, and it’d be interesting to see if Mr Flanagan could back it up. Prior to the council of Nicea the Christian faith was not so much divided as it was entirely incoherent. Christians of the Arian tradition were declared heterodox at the council, beginning a fine tradition of the expulsion and persecution of heretics. The split between those churches following orthodox dogma and the Coptic Church occurred during St Patrick’s lifetime, so division within Christianity was very much an active concern in the fifth century AD.

And so we are left with two flavours of embarrassment, one side seemingly comfortable with the notion that any Christian who isn’t straightforwardly a Catholic must somehow be a Protestant, and the other thinking that no schism occurred prior to the reformation and blaming thoughts to the contrary on the influence of the perfidious English.

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