Fr Lombardi is wrong: the judgment on crucifixes isn’t about Europe’s Christian roots

A crucifix hangs in a school classroom in Rome (CNS photo/Reuters)

Here is an edited version of the opening paragraphs of a Zenit news story:

Says Decision Affirms Christianity’s Role in Europe’s History
VATICAN CITY, MARCH 18, 2011 ( The director of the Vatican press office is welcoming today’s ruling from the European Court of Human Rights, which found that crucifixes can be displayed in Italy’s public schools.
Jesuit Father Federico Lombardi said in a statement that the Holy See received the ruling “with satisfaction.”
He called it historical, noting the widespread opposition to the court’s November 2009 decision that the presence of crucifixes in schools was an affront to human rights. Italy was joined by more than 20 countries as well as a number of non-governmental organizations in appealing the ’09 ruling.
Father Lombardi said that today’s decision recognizes “that the culture of the rights of man must not be in opposition to the religious foundations of European civilization, to which Christianity has made an essential contribution.”

Now, the whole point of the judgment just handed down by the grandiloquently named “Grand Chamber” of the European Court of Human Rights is that it simply isn’t about any kind of recognition that (as Fr Lombardi puts it) “the culture of the rights of man must not be in opposition to the religious foundations of European civilisation”.  Basically, it said that crucifixes don’t make any difference one way or another so far as the promotion of Christianity in general or the Catholic religion are concerned, so you may as well allow them: “The Court … observed that a crucifix on a wall was an essentially passive symbol whose influence on pupils was not comparable to that of didactic speech or participation in religious activities. Therefore there was no violation of fundamental rights protected by the Convention” [my italics]. Well. An essentially  “passive symbol”, eh? No “didactic” influence? Still, if that’s what they think, and as a result won’t interfere with the Italians to stop them putting up crucifixes, why not?
What is actually much more interesting about the court’s full judgment is that it gives a lengthy account, with generous quotations, of the original judgment in an Italian court which was subsequently set aside by the European Court, a reversal now itself reversed by the highest European Court, the “Grand Chamber” (maybe it doesn’t sound so silly in French). The Italian judgment found in favour of keeping crucifixes, not for their religious value, but because they symbolised the moral values which in the end led to the Enlightenment and the modern Italian secular state. Neat, eh? This the Italian court did by delivering itself of a lengthy disquisition on Italian cultural history which had nothing whatever to do with legal argument at all, long and windy stuff (wonderfully Italian: you simply can’t imagine it in an English courtroom), a lot of which is actually rather interesting stuff.
Here is a short extract from the original Italian judgment; I think you’ll enjoy it:

11.1.  At this stage, the Court must observe, although it is aware that it is setting out along a rough and in places slippery path, that Christianity, and its older brother Judaism – at least since Moses and certainly in the Talmudic interpretation – have placed tolerance towards others and protection of human dignity at the centre of their faith.
Singularly, Christianity – for example through the well-known and often misunderstood “Render unto Caesar the things which are Caesar’s, and unto …” – through its strong emphasis placed on love for one’s neighbour, and even more through the explicit predominance given to charity over faith itself, contains in substance those ideas of tolerance, equality and liberty which form the basis of the modern secular state, and of the Italian state in particular.
11.2  Looking beyond appearances makes it possible to discern a thread linking the Christian revolution of 2,000 years ago to the affirmation in Europe of the right to liberty of the person and to the key elements in the Enlightenment (even though that movement, historically speaking, strongly opposed religion), namely the liberty and freedom of every person, the declaration of the rights of man, and ultimately the modern secular state. All the historic phenomena mentioned are based to a significant extent – though certainly not exclusively – on the Christian conception of the world. It has been observed – judiciously – that the rallying call “liberty, equality, fraternity” can easily be endorsed by a Christian, albeit with a clear emphasis on the third word.
11.5  The link between Christianity and liberty implies a logical historical coherence which is not immediately obvious – like a river in a karst landscape which has only recently been explored, precisely because for most of its course it flows underground …

Cor! Karst landscapes, underground rivers; how very unlike the home life of our own dear Queen’s legal system. And there’s a lot more, a lot more where that came from: do have a look at it. It reminded me, by contrast, of the wonderful courtroom scene in Chesterton’s novel The Ball and the Cross, in which the accused has perceived an insult to Our Lady in a headline displayed at a newspaper office: when the magistrate asks him why he has smashed the editor’s window, his answer is unintelligible to him:

“He is my enemy,” said Evan, simply; “he is the enemy of God.” Mr. Vane shifted sharply in his seat, dropping the eye-glass out of his eye in a momentary and not unmanly embarrassment. “You mustn’t talk like that here,” he said, roughly, and in a kind of hurry, “that has nothing to do with us.” Evan opened his great, blue eyes; “God,” he began. “Be quiet,” said the magistrate, angrily, “it is most undesirable that things of that sort should be spoken about – a – in public, and in an ordinary Court of Justice. Religion is – a – too personal a matter to be mentioned in such a place… to talk in a public place about one’s most sacred and private sentiments – well, I call it bad taste. (Slight applause.) I call it irreverent. I call it irreverent, and I’m not specially orthodox either.” “I see you are not,” said Evan, “but I am.” 

As Chesterton had put it in the opening chapter of Heretics, “[t]he old restriction meant that only the orthodox were allowed to discuss religion. Modern liberty means that nobody is allowed to discuss it. Good taste, the last and vilest of human superstitions, has succeeded in silencing us where all the rest have failed.” But not in Italy, God bless ‘em all; in an Italian court you can go on at length about anything you like: even religion.