Opinion & Features

Should Catholics vote for Europe?

When John Paul II addressed the European Parliament in 1988, Ian Paisley denounced him as “the Antichrist” before being ejected from the chamber by his fellow MEPs. The Protestant firebrand was denouncing not just the Pope but also the relationship between the European Community and the Catholic Church. He saw a “Popish plot” undermining Protestantism in Europe.

Although Paisley’s rantings were dismissed as paranoid fantasies, he was not entirely wrong in claiming a special relationship between the Church and European integration. It is worth recalling this as British Catholics along with their fellow citizens prepare for the referendum on whether they should stay in or leave the European Union.

The founding of the European Community after the Second World War was an attempt to overcome what some European elites saw as the baleful legacy of “nation-state nationalism”. These included the founders of European Christian Democracy: the Frenchman Robert Schuman, the German Konrad Adenauer and the Italian Alcide De Gasperi. All three were Catholics, all three came from border regions in Europe where more than one language was spoken, and all three saw the modern nation state as the root of Europe’s conflicts.

In fact, this opposition to the nation state and nationalism was the position the Church had taken since the Reformation and, later, the French Revolution. These events had sundered the unity of Western Christendom and had given rise to movements such as Freemasonry, liberalism, nationalism and socialism – all of which were fiercely anti-Catholic as well as fervent advocates of the nation state.

The 19th-century Catholic Church defined itself politically and theologically largely in response to attacks from these quarters and, battening down the hatches, became a “fortress Church”. Pius IX denounced their ideas in his 1864 Syllabus of Errors.

It was only with the election of Pope Leo XIII in 1878 that the Church began to accept to some extent modernity, an acceptance which culminated at the Second Vatican Council (1962-65) and especially Gaudium et Spes, the Pastoral Constitution of the Church in the Modern World. This did not mean an acceptance of every modern development. There remained a strong resistance to some of the features of modern nation-state nationalism, at least in its secular form (Catholic nationalism also existed in Poland, Ireland and Franco’s Spain).

There appeared in the 1920s and 1930s, groups of Catholic intellectuals in France, Belgium, Germany and Italy who developed a political philosophy known as personalism. One such group was Ordre Nouveau, which opposed totalitarian movements such as fascism, Nazism and Stalinism, as well as liberal capitalism, on the grounds that they crushed the human person.

Personalists understood the individual as someone rooted in a community (of language, ethnicity, religion) but opening out to others in similar communities. They believed that the modern nation state destroyed these natural communities in favour of divisive party politics. They advocated a federal system as a way of establishing relations among the communities.

Some federalists wished to abolish the nation state and create a European federation of “communities” – the origins of the idea of a “Europe of the Regions”. The more moderate thought this impossible but wished to contain the nation state in a European system of governance.

After the Second World War the second group was dominant and influenced Schuman who, with help from Jean Monnet, set up the European Coal and Steel Community, followed by the European Atomic Energy Community (Euratom). The idea was to share the production of coal, steel and atomic energy (the basic materials of war) among the nations that had been in conflict – especially France and Germany – in such a way that they could no longer be used for these purposes. A set of supranational institutions was established to regulate these processes, and these institutions formed the embryonic European Union.

The popes looked on these developments with approval. Since the beginning of the 20th century, they had ardently advocated peace within Europe but also on a global scale. Pope Pius XII regarded the founding of the European Economic Community (EEC) in 1957 from the perspective of these calls for universal peace. Furthermore, the new EEC was fiercely anti-communist and we have to remember that Stalin’s USSR still posed a serious threat to Western Europe in this period.

Finally, the newly founded Christian Democrats, close to the Vatican, were heavily involved in the new developments. It was not surprising, therefore, that the EEC was signed by the six founding members in Rome and received the blessing of Pius XII. Successive popes (and the diplomacy of the Holy See) have basically supported the institutions, although each has given his own distinctive emphasis. John XXIII, for example, was more interested in world peace than European integration as such.

How should contemporary British Catholics evaluate the EU and make the crucial decision to stay or leave? On the one hand, the European project has had many positive features. War within EU countries has been abolished. There exists today a mutual understanding and sympathy among the different peoples of Europe which was scarcely thought possible in previous periods (even the fraught relations between Ireland and Britain have been vastly improved because of their common EU membership).

Conflicts such as those that took place in the Balkans in the 1990s have ceased because of the prospect of EU membership. Furthermore, after the collapse of communism in east and central Europe, the EU was a powerful magnet for countries seeking to install democracy, functioning market economies and the rule of law. The role of the EU’s programmes to prepare them should not be underestimated. Finally, the EU’s internal market has undoubtedly increased the economic prosperity of Europe as a whole.

On the other hand, we have to recognise some of the failures. Probably the most glaring is the disjunction between the EU institutions and the peoples of Europe.

This is sometimes called the “democratic deficit”. The regulation of the internal market has also at times created a deadening bureaucratic uniformity that fails to respect the rich cultural diversity of Europe. The nature of the bureaucracy, now administering to 28 member states, makes decision-making slow and cumbersome. Recent problems, such as the euro crisis and the invasion of migrants from the Middle East, illustrate this.

But from the perspective of Catholicism, perhaps the greatest defect in the way the EU has developed is the loss of the moral and spiritual vision of the founding fathers.

The more political and cultural dimensions have been squeezed out by the emphasis on the market and bureaucratic regulation. Furthermore, there have been inappropriate applications of human rights and anti-discrimination measures that contradict Catholic moral teaching, particularly with regard to sexual ethics.

So, how to vote? The Church leaves its individual members free to vote according to their own judgment and conscience.

But we Catholics should at least take into account the Church’s overall positive position towards European integration, as well as the many positive achievements particularly with regard to peace and prosperity.

We should also recognise some of the imperfections and, if we do stay in, we should seek to rectify these.

We must ask ourselves whether a vote to leave the EU will really benefit Britain since we will continue to be affected by what happens in the other member states. We should also remember the baleful legacy of nation-state nationalism in European history.

Professor John Loughlin is a member of Blackfriars Hall, Oxford. He is an Emeritus Fellow of St Edmund’s College and, until recently, directed its Von Hügel Institute