We often complain about the secularisation of British society – by which we mean the extent to which God, religion and Christianity in particular are meant to be kept out of public life, to become purely private things. A good way to challenge this is to realise that the EU referendum is primarily theological: it is about Christian moral teaching, much of it Catholic social teaching, and this, like the rest of our moral tradition, is binding on the faithful.
I am not interested in the politics or the economics; nor am I going to defend current EU policies. But there are three principal theological reasons which show that the anti-EU campaign is at odds with Catholic teaching. The first is to do with the principle of solidarity. St John Paul II taught us that this is not a “feeling of vague compassion or shallow distress” but rather “a firm and persevering determination to commit oneself to the common good; that is to say to the good of each and every individual, because we are all really responsible for all.” So countries following this vision make sacrifices of their sovereignty and their self-interest for the sake of the “common good”; this is what inspired Schuman, Adenauer and the other European leaders to set up common European institutions after the war.
Therefore, the popes since St John XXIII and the bishops of Europe have consistently backed moves towards European unity. The most recent example is the speech Pope Francis made when he accepted the Charlemagne Prize in April. Of course the Church has pointed out how far Europe has failed to live up to this ideal, but the aspiration towards unity and co-operation remains crucial and cannot be abandoned.
Secondly. the anti-EU campaign has an over-exalted view of the nation state. Catholics should be wary of this as our primary loyalty is to the worldwide Church: the nation’s claims on us are always qualified. The anti-EU campaign is obsessed with national self-interest and is incapable of looking beyond this. St Augustine, in his critique of the Roman Empire in The City of God, is helpful as we question the state’s overblown claims on our loyalty, the cause of so many wars. Catholics, of all people, should be urging others to look beyond the nation because of our history.
Finally, the emphasis in the anti-EU campaign on migration is malign and anti-Christian, fuelling fear and suspicion. Hostility towards migrants, in which the Leave campaign is implicated, has in some places led to hatred and violence. By contrast, the Church has taught repeatedly that it is our duty to welcome and show hospitality to migrants, refugees and asylum seekers. It has opposed both national and EU policies which are at odds with this teaching. While the Church (the largest provider of support for refugees in the world) accepts countries’ right to regulate migration, it sees migration as a basic human right and constantly calls on us to see how we can do more to support these children of God, not less.
As with the issue of national self-interest, both sides in the referendum campaign have been at fault, but the fear element has been far more prominent in the anti-EU camp. The Christian response to the migrant crisis, as the Holy Father has taught us, has to be: how can we best accept more migrants into our communities? How can we do more to help them? What sacrifices can we make to do so? By doing this, we advance in virtue and goodness. We become more holy, we become more like Christ, showing his unconditional and generous love to those most in need. This is a defining issue for Catholics, since we are a Church of migrants in this country. Moreover, our parishes and schools have been enriched by migration, both from inside and outside the EU.
From a Christian point of view, the referendum campaign has been pretty dismal, on both sides. But I think it is clear from our moral teaching, outlined above, that the arguments of the Leave side are at odds with the teachings of the Church and uncharitable. Dire as the campaign has been, we still have an opportunity to share our teachings with others, give a moral lead to the country, strike a blow against secularism, refute error and denounce what is wrong.
St Thérèse of Lisieux once said: “Every task is a chance to make the love of God more concrete.” We are called to follow this and be “do-gooders” in these last days before the vote.
Fr Ashley Beck is programme director of pastoral ministry at St Mary’s University and assistant priest of Beckenham in Southwark archdiocese. The university is exploring the possibility of setting up a new MA degree in Catholic social teaching. If you are interested, contact Fr Beck at [email protected]