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Why Catholics can’t agree on Brexit

'Catholics I've met across Europe are overwhelmingly negative about the EU'

In 1933 a German dissident named Konrad Adenauer was placed under house arrest by the Nazis. A devout Catholic, he took the opportunity to study the Church’s social teaching.

In the great encyclicals of popes Leo XIII and Pius XI he found an immensely appealing vision – “an order willed by God which was perfectly practical in terms of modern society”.

When Adenauer became West German Chancellor after the war, he drew on that same tradition. And one of his major achievements – shared with those other Catholic statesmen, Alcide De Gasperi in Italy and Robert Schuman in France – was the work of European unification which would become the European Union.

Whatever the EU is today, its beginnings are inseparable from Catholic thought. When the British government, in the early 1950s, was weighing up the pros and cons of joining the European project, one significant worry was its noticeably Catholic flavour.

Conspiracy theorists still argue that the whole idea of European “union” is a Vatican plot, probably inspired by the Antichrist.

But if the EU really is a popish conspiracy, the first fortnight of the UK referendum campaign suggests that it’s a very badly organised one.

Rome is not in control of the “Catholic vote”. No one is. Although there are many pro-EU Catholics in the public eye, including John Gummer, now Lord Deben, and Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O’Connor, Outers are well represented, too.

Iain Duncan Smith, for a start. And on the back benches, Sir Bill Cash, the grand old man of Eurosceptics, and Jacob Rees-Mogg, whose withering line about “thin gruel” set the tone for the response to David Cameron’s renegotiation.

In the British press, too, some of the most consistent Eurosceptics are Catholics.

I asked one of them, the Telegraph’s Charles Moore, whether his faith plays a part in his decision to vote “leave”.

He says it does, but not straightforwardly. “I would have thought that traditionally it would be more natural for a Catholic to be on the Europhile side, because, in its origins, the European Union has more Catholic influence than anything else. And Catholics will tend to see it, particularly in England, as a way of moving beyond Protestant disapproval of Catholicism.”

But Moore thinks these arguments are now out of date. “The European Union has become godless,” he says.

“When they had a draft constitution, they deliberately kept God out of it. That wasn’t something that offended me, because as someone who has a great respect for God, I wouldn’t particularly want him to be in the European Constitution – but it worried some Catholics, I know.”

The notion of the European Union as a bulwark against Protestantism is also redundant, adds Moore: “I think the thing that’s collapsed in modern times is not Christianity but Protestantism. The word is hardly used now.”

Non-Catholic Christianity is alive and well, but the sense that one is defined by not being Catholic has faded. So although the ideal of “Catholic Europe” was once powerfully appealing, “it’s not where we are now”.

Moore is chiefly concerned by the EU’s current problems, particularly the single currency and the migration crisis – twin “disasters”, he says, which have resulted from “the whole attempt to create a United States of Europe, though they always avoid that phrase”.

But does that mean we should give up on the whole idea? Some people would say that the EU has at least embodied an attempt at solidarity between nations that, however imperfect in execution, must not be abandoned.

“The great error from the beginning,” says Moore, “was that the European Community tried to bypass the wishes of the population and to structure itself, modelled by politicians-cum-bureaucrats, rather than rooting itself in democratic institutions and making sure that it had got consent.

“And so the solidarity that you speak about turns out to be something that doesn’t exist when you really need it.

“When the bonds come under strain, as they have over the euro and migration, they pretty well snap. Everybody is actually more bitter and angry than they would otherwise have been – and they certainly can’t act together in a successful and organised way.”

Moore thinks the EU “is bad for European civilisation” – which is reason enough to oppose it. “I haven’t detected a specifically Catholic reason for being a Eurosceptic,” he says. “I just think that it’s compatible with Catholicism.”

Not everyone agrees. Fr Ashley Beck, who teaches at St Mary’s University, Twickenham, created a stir on this magazine’s letters page recently with his claim that “you cannot be a faithful Catholic and a Eurosceptic”.

Over email, he defends his position, quoting St John Paul II: “The unity of the continent, which is gradually maturing in people’s consciousness and receiving a more precise political definition, certainly embodies a great hope.”

This statement, Fr Beck says, amounts to a commendation of both the “hope” and the “political definition”. “How can Catholics be faithful to this,” he asks, “if they want us to withdraw from the process?”

Fr Beck can certainly point to many warm papal words for the European project; but the extent of his claim took some readers aback. Quite apart from the question of how much those statements affirm, and of which statements demand what kind of obedience, is this really how to apply Catholic political thought?

I suggest to Fr Beck that the Church’s social teaching isn’t about affirming this or that specific organisation: it’s about the principles by which we should be guided.

He disagrees. “To restrict social teaching to general principles is to ignore most of it and to marginalise it.” He points to St John XXIII’s encyclical Mater et Magistra, which was positive about the UN, as an example of how Church teaching can be specific.

Leaving the EU, he argues, would be to give up on a project every Catholic should approve of; it would also be to give in to some unpleasant forces. “The whole Brexit campaign is largely driven by suspicious and ungenerous attitudes towards asylum seekers and refugees – attitudes fuelled by the right-wing press which are un-Christian.”

What does Charles Moore make of that? “I think that’s quite wrong,” he says. “People are entitled to be hostile to immigration if immigration is imposed on them by powers outside their control.”

Moore himself favours “quite a generous immigration policy” – but it needs a democratic mandate. Pressure on jobs and public services “are genuine problems for the less prosperous and educated people in our country, many of whom are themselves of immigrant origin, but they also suffer from great waves of new mass immigration”.

Immigration is the most delicate and difficult subject raised by the referendum. The bishops of England and Wales have noticeably kept their distance from Ukip. They have also previously implied support for Britain’s EU membership, though exactly what they will say about the
referendum is in doubt.

“It’s complicated,” says Fr Beck, “because the referendum actually involves three bishops’ conferences.” (Northern Ireland is under the Irish bishops).

“It’s conceivable that the Scots and Irish conferences will be more forthright about this than the conference of England and Wales.”

Fr Beck agrees that the EU has often fallen short: he cites, among other things, its trade policies towards the developing world, which Cafod and Caritas have both criticised; its increasingly secular nature; and its emphasis on economic competition rather than co-operation.

Recent popes have recognised that Europe has problems that need to be addressed. “But they have never suggested that we will do this if we abandon the European project or the quest for ever closer union.” What’s needed, he says, is for Catholics to involve themselves in European institutions, and reconnect the EU with its Christian roots. Those roots run impressively deep.

Alan Fimister, a scholar of EU history who also teaches at St John Vianney Seminary in Denver, says that the founding of the EU resulted from the postwar triumph of Christian Democratic parties.

“After the war, everyone to the right of Christian Democracy in mainland Europe was totally discredited, and at the same time people were terrified of communism,” he says. A previously quite marginal political force became the mainstream. “Christian Democracy was on steroids. They were really powerful all of a sudden, very strangely.”

Christian Democracy on steroids: Konrad Adenauer greets Robert Schuman in 1950 (Photo: AP)
Christian Democracy on steroids: Konrad Adenauer greets Robert Schuman in 1950 (Photo: AP)

This was the tradition of Konrad Adenauer, Alcide De Gasperi and Robert Schuman. Schuman is an intriguing figure. A daily Mass-goer, formed by a life of constant prayer and close acquaintance with Catholic social teaching, he was twice French prime minister.

Europe Day, May 9, marks Schuman’s 1950 speech which led to the European Steel and Coal Community – the first stage in the EU’s history. Schuman once said that “Europe is the establishment of a generalised democracy in the Christian sense of the word”.

At the same time, says Fimister, Schuman had doubts over whether European unity would turn out well. “Schuman thought that the Church has to keep its game up, basically. Because if it doesn’t, if the institutions turn against Christianity and the Church, what will happen is that they will turn into anti-Christian institutions: a sort of nightmare.”

Schuman wrote that a Union which rejected Christianity would be “a caricature ending in anarchy or tyranny”. He did not live to say whether his hopes or his fears were a more accurate prediction.

I ask Fimister if British Catholics see the EU any differently from their European co-religionists. His reply suggests a division between Catholics rather than countries.

The “Lord Acton-style liberal Catholic”, he observes, has always been keen on progressivist causes. But “Orthodox Catholics across the EU, from my experience – I’ve met a lot of them, because I taught many nationalities when I was in Austria – are overwhelmingly negative about the European Union, and not just for reactionary reasons. They’re negative because they just see it as part of the general secularising trend.”

Fimister speaks of a “culture of death – the general drift of all Western societies towards a weird, radically atomised individualism where you create your own identity”. This is so corrosive and demographically lethal that it cannot last – but it will cause “an enormous amount of damage in the meantime”.

How much this is the EU’s fault is an open question. But it is interesting to reflect that, when Catholics cast their votes on June 23, they will be giving their verdict on a project which, without Catholicism, might never have even begun.

Dan Hitchens is deputy editor of the Catholic Herald

This article first appeared in the March 4 2016 issue of The Catholic Herald. To download the entire issue for free with our new app, go here