News Analysis

Church officials disagree over the EU’s future

Bishops fear the end of the European Project (Getty Images)

Bishops fear new radical parties will undermine the EU project

As voters across Europe prepare to elect a new European Parliament, bishops have urged continued support for the European Union against a current wave of discontent.

Yet some Catholic leaders are warning the EU’s established practices could face a serious challenge from new radical parties following the May 23-26 ballot.

“The Church has always viewed European unification positively, but it’s generally favoured a ‘Europe of homelands’, rather than a federal project”, said Mgr Piotr Mazurkiewicz, former secretary-general of Comece, the Brussels-based commission of EU bishops’ conferences. “It’s also long been concerned that the EU doesn’t step outside its competence by trying to impose decisions on ethical issues such as religious freedom and the defence of life.”

Mgr Mazurkiewicz made his comments amid campaigning for the 751-seat Parliament, which will help set EU priorities until 2024, as well as tackling problems with the euro currency, refugees and migrants, and the Britain’s delayed departure. He told the Catholic Herald that fears had grown that the EU could force the Church to conform to its secular policy, linking EU funding with abortion rights, same-sex marriage and gender-neutral teaching.

However, the warning was played down by bishops from Belgium, France, Germany and Luxembourg, who called on Catholics to recognise their common heritage and the benefits of membership by taking part in the continent-wide vote.

“Some seek to oppose the EU and resort back to independent nations – we are certain solidarity and collaboration between nations is the most fruitful response,” the bishops from a dozen frontier dioceses said in a early May appeal.

“To abandon Europe would be not just to register a suicide, but to incur a terrible responsibility before history … We must support Europe in its radiance and force – its secular mission of promoting dialogue and integration.”

Turnout has habitually been low in European Parliament elections. This time, the vote is expected to benefit far-left and far-right groupings from Spain’s Unidos Podemos to Germany’s Alternative für Deutschland, at the expense of the centre-right European People’s Party and centre-left Progressive Alliance of Socialists and Democrats, who have previously dominated with two thirds all seats. They’re likely to demand a shake-up in the governmental methods of the 28-country EU, whose rotating six-months presidency is currently held by Romania.

Article 17 of the 2007 Lisbon Treaty requires the EU to recognise the identity and “specific contribution” of churches and maintain “an open, transparent and regular dialogue” with them, a task entrusted by the Catholic Church to Comece, whose mostly lay staffers have vigorously backed closer integration. In a February statement, Comece urged EU citizens to end their “sterile confrontations” and help “relaunch the European project”, while its president, Archbishop Jean-Claude Hollerich of Luxembourg, told Germany’s KNA news agency that “Brexit, populism and nationalism” currently pose key threats.

However, prominent Catholics like Mgr Mazurkiewicz believe some broadening of the democratic process is inevitable, if alternative views among the EU’s 512 million inhabitants are to be fairly represented.

“The really radical and extremist groupings – from nationalists to communists – generally stand a long way from Christianity,” Mgr Mazurkiewicz said.

“But there are others who, far from rejecting the EU, have sensible ideas about reform. If Christian elements in these quarters emerge stronger after the elections, we may well see the EU functioning differently, with a more conservative attitude to religion, family life and national identity”.