Church proclamations cut little ice with officials at the European Union, says Edward Pentin
Many times this summer Pope John Paul 11
pleaded with Europe to return to its Christian roots.
During one of his most recent Angelus addresses to pilgrims in Rome, he called on those charged with examining the new European Constitution to include explicit references to Christianity in the document, adding that only if the continent returns to Christian values would its future be guaranteed.
It is a concern echoed by many practicing Catholics who are uneasy about a growing secularism in Europe. The papal apostolic exhortation, Ecclesia in Europa, issued in June after four years of consultations with European bishops, was unflinching in its evaluation of what Europe has become.
Its people, it said, are facing a "silent apostasy". They live in a new culture of "relativism in values and morality, a cynical hedonism in daily life" which conflicts with "the Gospel and the dignity of the human person".
The Pope's persistence in this matter is understandable. "I think [he] wants to remind society as a whole of the foun
dations provided by Christianity," says John Coughlan, spokesman for the Commission of Bishops' Conferences of the European Community (COMECE). "He also wants to challenge the Church itself to examine how it relates to modem society, how it responds pastorally and spiritually to these disturbing realities."
For some, the finger of blame is pointed squarely at the European Union itself. "[It] is contributing to the apostasy of Europe", says James Bogle, vice-chairman of the Catholic Union of Great Britain, a group for Catholics in public life. "The European Union and its institutions are mostly made up of people who are liberal Catholics, secular humanists, or atheists who would no more take notice of the Church than fly to the moon."
The values it espouses, Mr Bogle says, mean the European Union and the Church are on a "collision course and the Church doesn't seem to realise it".
This, however, is not the official Vatican position, nor is it that of COMECE, which has been in close consultation with the European Convention, the body responsible for drawing
up the new Constitution. "Our view is that the process of European integration, embodied in the European Union, is a major contribution to the pursuance of peace and the common good on the European continent," says Mr Coughlan.
"European societies in general are facing a crisis of values. However, this is a symptom, not the cause, so we need to focus on the roots of the problem and our own responsibility for addressing it, rather
than conjure up a false demon in the form of the EU."
But Mr Coughlan concedes there are weaknesses: "Democratic politics depends on compromise and, unfortunately, such compromises sometimes stray away from the clear line of Church teaching."
Highly contentious issues liable to compromise are those concerning abortion and euthanasia, both of which are becoming more acceptable within member states. But EU supporters argue that article two of the Charter of Fundamental Rights stipulates that human dignity is inviolable and everyone has the right to life — it is therefore arguably a solid constitutional basis for opposing such prac
tices as euthanasia and abortion.
On these matters perhaps, but will social institutions such as marriage be protected? Mr Bogle is pessimistic: "It's certainly not being protected in most countries in Europe at the moment," he says, adding that to ensure institutions such as marriage arc protected "we should be using the musete power of the hierarchy of the Church [which) is not doing nearly enough".
Bishop Joseph Duffy, who
represents Ireland on COMECE, believes that people overestimate ecclesial influence. "People think the Church has a power which in today's secular society it simply doesn't have. Rather it is one of various groups which does have some indirect influence". The main problem, he asserts, is that "there's so few of us concerned with these real issues".
"People will quickly blame the hierarchy," a senior ranking Vatican official told me. "The answer does not only lie with bishops confronting a very substantial body like the EU, but also in providing better catechesis in schools."
That said, the May publication of Europe's new Constitution without any inclusion of a reference to God drew criticism from many quarters, even from Poland's atheist president. Alexander Kwasniewski.
John Bruton, a former Prime Minister of Ireland and, until recently, a key figure in the Convention, also expresses his disappointment, but believes the case for an explicit reference to Christianity is overstated.
"I think whether this reference is contained in the Constitution or not is of secondary importance," he says. "It is of symbolic rather than substantial value." For Mr Bruton, it is more important that Europe "live its political and economic life in accorstance with the values that are inherent in Christian thinking and in the thinking of other great religions".
There is still a chance for an inclusion of a Christian reference before a treaty on the Constitution is signed in October. But at present, all the signs indicate that for the Church to succeed in thwarting Europe's descent into secularism and rediscover its Christian values, a miracle is needed.
Edward Pentin works for Vatican Radio.