Pope Francis was spot-on when he pointed out last week that there was more than a whiff of totalitarianism about the European Commission’s bizarre instructions to its administrators essentially to airbrush Christianity from everything they officially said or wrote. If you have forgotten, this document, entitled Guidelines for Inclusive Communication (available here), included advice to refer to Christmas as “holidays”, not to be seen to promote marriage, and to downplay personal names with a Christian heritage. It has now been hurriedly withdrawn.
But there is more to all this than a simple issue of totalitarianism. Brussels certainly doesn’t want to be totalitarian; and it undoubtedly sees itself as promoting sound morality, albeit from a secular point of view. What is interesting is how it seems to have comprehensively misunderstood both morality and the mood of Europe.
The problem lies in the Commission’s curious ideas of secular government, an idea it undoubtedly does believe in. Now, as such this holds no terrors for Catholics. Its authority is entirely in accordance with scripture (and more recently with documents such as Rerum Novarum). Provided it acts consistently with the teachings of the Church, social rights and its subjects’ conscience, a secular administration commands the right to obedience from its subjects. Nor is there anything wrong with participating in it. A believer can in perfectly good conscience support (for example) the French state with its strict commitment to laïcité, or for that matter the American or Australian constitutions, both of which expressly forbid state involvement on religion or anything in the nature of an established church.
The difficulty with the Commission’s version is that it goes much further. In a misguided effort not to be seen to be partisan in favour of any one faith, it becomes impartially anti-religious, thus turning freedom of religion into freedom from religion. By asking its officials who are Christian actively to avoid referring to Christian festivals, or to typical Christian names, it is demanding that they dissemble their faith. In requiring them to take steps not to be seen to prefer the idea of Christian marriage over other intimate relationships it is asking them to deny its tenets. Neither of these is reconcilable with the teachings of the Church; furthermore, they also fail to respect the conscience of the officials concerned. If this is the idea of secular government which Brussels wants to promote, it is up to the faithful to gently but firmly resist it.
Furthermore, even if one leaves religious arguments aside and sees the matter as a secular issue of equality and social harmony, the Commission’s approach shows an odd misunderstanding of the psychology of both Christians and laypeople in Europe.
For one thing, it is all very well to say that one should not refer in passing to Christian ideas because this amounts to an offensive assumption that the audience will share them. But this is simply not true. If a Jewish person wishes a Gentile a happy Hanukkah, he is making no assumption at all; the same goes for a Christian wishing a Muslim a happy Christmas. Nor is it easy to see much evidence of offensiveness. Does anyone, beyond the odd fanatic from Secularism UK, actually prefer people to refer to “holidays” rather than Christmas? It seems unlikely, any more than a Christian would object to the use of “holidays” by the zealous atheist who lives next door. Is there any indication that numerous ordinary Muslims who are not Islamist activists are particularly fazed about hearing references to John and Jane rather than Rafiq and Kemal? If anything is patronising and insulting to minorities, it’s the idea that they would.
More importantly, however, the mere fact that the governing class in the EU could have produced such a peculiar document as these guidelines is indicative: it shows how much it is now an elite which knows little, and probably cares less, about the way ordinary, believing people think. Its cosmopolitan, secularist world view and perceived mission to mould European states in that image reflects the earnest but now rather dated belief of the leaders that formed the EU, coming from states recently at each other’s throats, that nationalism and populism need to be curbed and controlled by an enlightened technocracy. Matters such as the deep-seated Catholicism of southern Germany or for that matter the serious Protestantism of the Netherlands it sees not so much as social realities to be accommodated as obstacles to be cleared.
This is a problem likely to become more marked in the more recently absorbed eastern EU states. Even if the peoples of western Europe might be persuaded to be gently secularised by a benevolent and all-knowing EU elite, there is – fortunately – little chance of this happening in states like Poland, Bulgaria or Lithuania, where Catholic tradition is not only established but permeates much of government and society. Here secularism EU-style will simply not fly. We have already seen this in the arguments between the EU and Poland on such subjects as sexual morality and abortion, where the Brussels elite could not reconcile itself to the idea that things like this matter to ordinary people. There, one suspects, one would not have needed the Pope to denounce this squib from the Commission. It would have been simply laughed out of existence, burnt on bonfires or trampled underfoot in the soft brown slush of the Eastern European winter.
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