I begin these few words by returning to the year 2004, when after a very nasty campaign by an alliance of secularist activists comprising many of the usual suspects, the appointment of the distinguished Catholic statesman and academic Rocco Buttiglione as a European Commissioner was prevented. At the time, the Italian Justice Minister Roberto Castelli denounced Buttiglione’s opponents as “fundamentalist” anti-Christians. And so they were: but the incident was simply taken by Catholics as confirming what we already knew: that the EU had become an intrinsically secularist and anti-Catholic organization.
Early last month, it looked as though the same thing was about to happen again, when a campaign by another group of fundamentalist anti-Christians, including the European Humanist Federation, the International Lesbian and Gay Association, ILGA – Europe, and the International Planned Parenthood Federation was getting well under way against the appointment of the “conservative” (ie faithful) Catholic Maltese deputy Prime Minister Dr. Tonio Borg as the new EU Health and Consumer Protection Commissioner, on the grounds of his “staunchly conservative and outdated” views on homosexuality, divorce and abortion (in other words, on the grounds that he was a believing and practising Catholic). On November 28, it was announced that to everyone’s astonishment he has actually been appointed.
Does this presage some kind of policy change? I suppose that given the fact that even as small a country as Malta is entitled to have a Commissioner appointed, and that unlike Italy (which has plenty of secularists to go round, many of them lapsed Catholics) there are very few Maltese non-Catholics available for appointment. It’s a country of strong believers, God Bless them, as I know from my own personal knowledge over many years. Very few Maltese secularists actually get anywhere.
All the same, it’s still a surprise. Over recent years, the EU has attempted to write its Christian roots out of its DNA, and despite the firm Catholicism of many of its founding fathers, it now tends to exclude openly practising believers, as far as possible, from positions of power and influence. When, in the end, the European Union cooked up a “Constitution” as one stage towards the eventual achievement of a united European state, it contained no mention of Christianity in its historical preamble, despite the fact that for more than two years, Pope John Paul II had urged EU member nations to include some kind of acknowledgement of Europe’s Christian roots. Several members, including France, Belgium and Finland, argued against a religious reference, preposterously maintaining the need for a separation of church and state—as though simply acknowledging Europe’s Christian roots did anything—or was intended to do anything—remotely like Christianising its corrupt and turgid institutions (if only).
The then Cardinal Ratzinger took up the campaign for some kind of EU acknowledgement of the Christian origins of European culture in a lecture given the day before Pope John Paul’s death. We must, he said:
again address the two controversial points of the Preamble of the European Constitution. The banishment of Christian roots does not reveal itself as the expression of a higher tolerance, which respects all cultures in the same way, not wishing to privilege any, but rather as the absolutizing of a pattern of thought and of life that is radically opposed, among other things, to the other historical cultures of humanity.
The real opposition that characterizes today’s world is not that between various religious cultures, but that between the radical emancipation of man from God, from the roots of life, on one hand, and from the great religious cultures on the other. …
Thus, even the rejection of the reference to God, is not the expression of a tolerance that desires to protect the non-theistic religions and the dignity of atheists and agnostics, but rather the expression of a conscience that would like to see God cancelled definitively from the public life of humanity, and relegated to the subjective realm of residual cultures of the past.
Neither Pope Benedict nor Pope John Paul, however, addressed the fundamental institutional failings of the EU itself: both Popes, especially Pope John Paul, praised it as a brave and imaginative adventure. Now, however, Pope Francis has perceptively exposed the institutions themselves, as well as returning to Pope Benedict’s criticism of “a conscience that would like to see God cancelled definitively from the public life of humanity, and relegated to the subjective realm of residual cultures of the past”.
The results of this cancellation of God, says Pope Francis, are now to be seen in a real loss of vitality and purpose in the institutions of the Community, and in a “growing mistrust on the part of citizens towards institutions considered to be aloof, engaged in laying down rules perceived as insensitive to individual peoples, if not downright harmful. In many quarters we encounter a general impression of weariness and aging, of a Europe which is now a “grandmother”, no longer fertile and vibrant. As a result, the great ideas which once inspired Europe seem to have lost their attraction, only to be replaced by the bureaucratic technicalities of its institutions.” He asks the question, how Europe is to recover “that confidence needed to pursue the great ideal of a united and peaceful Europe, a Europe which is creative and resourceful”.
To answer this question, allow me to use an image. One of the most celebrated frescoes of Raphael is found in the Vatican and depicts the so-called “School of Athens”. Plato and Aristotle are in the centre. Plato’s finger is pointed upward, to the world of ideas, to the sky, to heaven as we might say. Aristotle holds his hand out before him, towards the viewer, towards the world, concrete reality. This strikes me as a very apt image of Europe and her history, made up of the constant interplay between heaven and earth, where the sky suggests that openness to the transcendent – to God – which has always distinguished the peoples of Europe, while the earth represents Europe’s practical and concrete ability to confront situations and problems.
The future of Europe depends on the recovery of the vital connection between these two elements. A Europe which is no longer open to the transcendent dimension of life is a Europe which risks slowly losing its own soul and that “humanistic spirit” which it still loves and defends
In another speech, to the Council of Europe, he returned to another part of the problem, one which Pope Benedict had already addressed in what he said were the consequences of the “banishment of Christian roots”. The results of this banishment, said Pope Francis could be seen in a loss of creative vitality. “Throughout its history”, said the Pope, “Europe has always reached for the heights, aiming at new and ambitious goals, driven by an insatiable thirst for knowledge, development, progress, peace and unity. But the advance of thought, culture, and scientific discovery is entirely due to the solidity of the trunk and the depth of the roots which nourish it. Once those roots are lost, the trunk slowly withers from within and the branches – once flourishing and erect – bow to the earth and fall.”
It seems to me that these two speeches, taken together, constitute one of the most substantial analyses yet of what has undoubtedly gone so badly wrong with the EU, whose problems are not merely economic, serious though the damage done to the economies of so many European countries by the adoption of a single currency has undoubtedly been. The real problems are spiritual: that is what the Eurocrats need to get into their skulls.
Maybe they have already listened to the Pope? Maybe the surprise appointment of Dr Borg is a first step? Who knows? Maybe pigs will fly, you may respond. All the same….
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