Since its inception, the European Union has had an appeal for Catholic Britain. Indeed, it is at the foundations of the EU where its Catholic heart is most evident. The four founders of the European Coal and Steel Community were all devout Catholics.
But the EU, like Europe in general, is not as Catholic as it was in the 1950s. Secularization in Europe, combined with booming Catholic populations in Asia, Africa, and Latin America, have driven a wedge between Catholicism and its European heartland.
The 2003 EU draft constitution was a bellwether point, in purposefully avoiding a reference to Christianity as part of Europe’s heritage. John Paul II wrote a lengthy critique of this decision. Yet, at the same time, he actively campaigned for his home nation of Poland to join the EU.
This represents, even today, how many Catholics view the EU. The appeal of integration with Europe, and with the faith of Europe, remains strong. But we recognise that the EU is in many respects a secularized bureaucracy, which stands at risk of forgetting its Catholic Christian foundation.
At a more practical and immediate level, the EU may also be criticized in its recent approach to poorer member states, especially Greece and Portugal. Since the global recession, the EU has followed an economic policy which seems to favour the strongest member states at the expense of the weaker. The poor are disproportionately affected, while many of the source cities of Europe continue to gain wealth and prosper.
But, when voting, it is particularly important to reflect that economic arguments are not the beginning and end of the Referendum debate. Economic arguments have a tendency to drive debate in the current political climate. But despite the importance of the economy at this time, there are other issues which are arguably as important, if not more important, to the Catholic Christian ethos. Moreover, it is perhaps in the economic debate where a lack of Christian behaviour is most evident, from both the Remain and Brexit campaigns.
The EU is involved in many areas of public concern, behind the economic marquee. For example, the EU is on the frontlines of the response to the refugee crisis in the Middle East. This response does not always reflect Catholic Christian values. However, within the EU, we have opportunities to exert positive change for those fleeing their homes in search of peace and shelter. In many cases, advocacy for refugees is backed by the European Convention on Human Rights, which effectively links Catholic Natural Law principles to British Common Law principles – a lingering testament to the EU’s Catholic heritage. Moreover, we cannot abscond from our responsibility to refugees, or to human rights in general, by allowing a populist xenophobia to take root in our country. As the Catechism states: “Public authorities should see to it that the natural right is respected that places a guest under the protection of those who receive him”.
Our membership in the EU is also meaningful for the issue of climate change. In his recent encyclical Laudato Si’, Pope Francis called for “stronger and more efficiently organized international institutions… empowered to impose sanctions” to combat climate change and encourage ecological responsibility. In the same text, he has also noted the “myopia of power politics” which is driven by overly “technological” or “consumerist” responses to climate change. While far from an endorsement of the EU itself, this highlights the need for organisations like the EU to exert pressure on nation-states and other, more localised political organisations when needed.
Lastly, there is the ongoing need for integration and co-operation. While the EU may not be the ideal organ for exercising civic responsibility in Europe, that responsibility is not dimmed. As one of the strongest and most influential members of the EU, the United Kingdom has a particular responsibility. To quote Pope Francis’ most recent address to the EU, in September of last year, the values of “peace, subsidiarity, and solidarity” must be promoted where and when we can.
May the peace of Christ and the inspiration of the Holy Spirit be with us as we cast our votes this week.
Though Cardinal Vincent Nichols, the Archbishop of Westminster, has been very careful not to allow his personal views to be interpreted as spiritual instruction, the Justice and Peace Commission would like to voluntarily extend our support to his personal statement on the EU. His comments were ably represented by the Telegraph in April: http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/2016/04/15/cardinal-leaving-eu-would-leave-uk-facing-more-complex-problems/
The Catholic Bishops of England and Wales have issued a statement which remains neutral on the issue, while highlighting some important points for prayerful consideration. It can be read in full here: http://rcdow.org.uk/cardinal/news/bishops-statement-on-the-eu-referendum/
Sources and Further Reading
Catechism of the Catholic Church
2241 (care of refugees)
1913-1917 (active citizenship and participation)
European Convention for the Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms 1950
St. John Paul II’s statements on Poland’s accession to the EU