In the last 50 years, the Church has taken a generally sympathetic view of supranational organizations such as the United Nations and the European Union. Most recently, Benedict XVI’s Caritatis in Veritate and Pope Francis’s Laudato Si both call for international bodies to have more power over financial regulation and the environment.
The key concept in Catholic teaching here is of solidarity. Pope St John Paul II’s 1987, encyclical, Sollicitudo Rei Socialis says solidarity is not ‘a feeling of vague compassion or shallow distress’ but ‘a firm and persevering determination to commit oneself to the common good’. Later on John Paul specifically affirms international groupings which are geographically based.
Blessed Paul VI’s letter on world development from 1967, Populorum Progressio. Attitudes and structures which frustrate this vision are roundly described as ‘structures of sin’. The heart of it all is simply the basic injunction from ordinary moral teaching to always put the other person first, never self.
This is why national self-interest – whichever side of the EU referendum debate use it – is such a bad basis for discourse. We bring up our children not to be selfish, to be considerate, to put other people first. Why should self -interest be an acceptable moral category when looking at the morality of international affairs? The Compendium, drawing on SRS, makes it clear that approaching international affairs in this way is a reflection of the Trinitarian nature of God
This doesn’t mean that the Church supports everything that the EU or other intergovernmental organizations do: far from it. In many ways we are more distanced from specific policies than in the past. But this does not detract from the basic ideals which see co-operation and the pooling of sovereignty as good things.
This giving up or limiting of some aspects of national sovereignty was what made the Schuman Declaration, and the setting up of the ECSC so important, and all that has flowed from that rests on the same principle that if you are committed to something wider than the interests of your own country you are willing to sacrifice something of your independence in to serve the wider common good.
While both sides of the referendum debate have been guilty of using the self-interest argument, the inability of the Leave campaign to understand or accept what I have just described is the fundamental reason why it is at odds with Catholic teaching.
In the past thirty years there has been a been a great revival in study of St Augustine, and much of it has concentrated on his political theology. To cut a long story short, what has become clearer through this scholarship is Augustine’s very negative evaluation of the ‘earthly city’, the civitas terrena. It is a den of thieves, an empire which has nothing really to offer because it does not honour the one true God.
Rowan Williams has summarised Augustine’s view in The City of God as follows: “A state may claim to possess the necessary concord as regards the objects of its dilectio; but what degree of stability can such a society possess? It is doomed to vice (XIX, 25) and its security is transitory (XIX, 26). In short, while it may be empirically an intelligibly unified body, it is constantly undermining its own communal character, since its common goals are not and cannot be those abiding values which answer to the truest human needs.”
It seems to me that the view of the nation state put forward by the Leave campaign is rather like what Augustine is questioning and attacking, above all in its pretensions to absolutism and the obsessive wish to restore functions allegedly lost to the UK Parliament. In Catholic social thought, although democratic structures are favoured, the Church is keen to stress that these don’t give states the power to do what they want in moral terms. The State becomes an idol.
Arising from this is one issue which I think is crucial. It seems to me that migration is a distinctive Catholic moral issue: for this reason alone, the fear-based anti-migrant rhetoric of the Leave campaign, riddled with inaccuracies, does not envisage what the bishops call a ‘culture of acceptance’: it is not only inconsistent with Catholic teaching but something which should be condemned as sinful.
Against such rhetoric I would offer the vision of St John Paul II expressed when he added three women as patron saints of Europe (one of whom, St Catherine of Siena, has her feast on Friday):
“Thus may Europe grow! May it grow as a Europe of the Spirit, in continuity with the best of its history, of which holiness is the highest expression. 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 … Before [Europe] lies the daunting challenge of building a culture and an ethic of unity, for in the absence of these any politics of unity is doomed sooner or later to failure.”