Growing Tensions

Elections in June for the European Parliament will reveal whether the EU is serious about respecting the Church.

On June 4-7 an estimated 342 million Europeans will vote in elections for the European Parliament (EP). With 785 members representing all 27 Member States of the European Union (EU), the EP is the only directly elected parliamentary institution of the EU. Together with the Council of the European Union (the Council), it forms the bicameral legislative branch of the EU’s institutions and has been described as one of the most powerful legislatures in the world.

The parliamentarians serve the second largest democratic electorate in the world (after India) and the largest trans-national democratic electorate in the world. Despite this status, the EP, like many of the other institutions of the EU, has struggled to remain relevant in the everyday lives of ordinary Europeans.

Alasdair Murray of the Centre for European Reform says ordinary Europeans view the EP as a distant institution. “Ever since direct elections to the Parliament were introduced in 1979, voter turnout has fallen steadily, and it slipped below 50 percent in the last election in June 2004,” he notes. “Too many voters regard the European Parliament as a weak and inconsequential institution.”

Andrea Riccardi, head of the Romebased Sant’Egidio Community, has often lamented that too many Europeans “never experience the EU at an emotional level.” Riccardi believes that “as long as Europeans experience European integration merely in an institutional sense they will find it difficult to have affection for the project.”

In spite of the EU’s problems, the Vatican has always viewed the aim of European integration positively. After the end of the Second World War, moves toward European integration were seen by the Vatican as a welcome escape from the extreme forms of nationalism that had devastated the continent.

One such attempt to unite Europeans was the European Coal and Steel Community, which—while having the aim of centralized control of the previously national coal and steel industries of its member states—was declared to be “a first step in the federation of Europe.” In 1957, the Treaty of Rome created the European Economic Community. It should also be pointed out that the founding fathers of European integration were themselves deeply committed Christians. Robert Schuman, one of the three so-called “Fathers of Europe,” was deeply influenced by the writings of Pope Pius XII and St. Thomas Aquinas. His cause for beatification is currently being considered.

In 1990, after the fall of the Iron Curtain, the former East Germany joined the European Economic Community as part of a newly united Germany. The European Union was formally established when the Maastricht Treaty came into force on November 1, 1993. Sixteen years later, the EU has expanded to embrace most of central and eastern Europe, including many former Communist states.


Pope John Paul II was one of the most enthusiastic supporters of European integration. Speaking just days after his native Poland joined the EU in 2004, he said, “In these days, Europe is reaching another important landmark in its history: 10 new countries are entering the European Union. Ten nations, which by culture and tradition were and felt European, are now to belong to this Union of States.”

But he warned that “if the unity of the European peoples is to endure, it cannot be merely economic and political…if the soul of Europe is still united today, the reason is that it refers to common human and Christian values.” He continued, “Only a Europe that does not eliminate but rediscovers its Christian roots will be able to take up the challenges of the third millennium: peace, intercultural and interreligious dialogue, the safeguarding of creation.”

A key tension between the Vatican and the expanding EU emerged while the latter was in the process of drafting a European Constitution, from 2001- 2003. Vatican representatives wanted a specific reference made to the “Christian roots” of Europe in the preamble to the document.

Poland and Ireland, backed by Malta, had been strongly pushing to have a reference to the Christian heritage of Europe in the text, but this was strongly opposed by other Member States, among them France and Belgium. On the sidelines, Turkey, a prospective member of the EU and majority Muslim nation, warned that such a reference would risk “making Europe a Christian club.”

The Commission of the Bishops’ Conferences of the European Community (COMECE) welcomed the draft EU Constitution when it was published in 2003, specifically a clause that obliged the EU to engage in regular “structured dialogue” with the Church. But Pope John Paul II entered the debate shortly thereafter, insisting that there also needed to be a reference to Europe’s Christian heritage.

The debate over whether or not to mention the Christian roots of Europe emerged as a kind of proxy war for a much greater clash of ideology within Europe. Pat Cox, an Irish politician and former president of the European Parliament, told CWR that “while we were drafting the [EU] Constitution what really emerged were very aggressive secularist forces who wanted to relegate religion completely to the private sphere. As far as they were concerned, faith had no role to play in the EU, never mind the Constitution.”

Cox met with Pope John Paul II in Rome to discuss Vatican concerns. But the final drafting of the text only contained a reference to “the cultural, religious, and humanist inheritance of Europe” without mentioning Christianity.

This ill-fated European Constitution was never ratified, having been rejected by Dutch and French voters. But then the text was largely repackaged as the Lisbon Treaty and has now been ratified by every EU Member State except Ireland.


Concerns over the future relationship between the EU and the Church continue. One senior Brussels-based EU diplomat told CWR that many of his colleagues “are both fully Catholic and fully European, but are experiencing a growing tension between those two elements of their identity.”

It’s a tension noted by Primate of All-Ireland, Cardinal Sean Brady, who said, after the Irish people rejected the so-called Lisbon Treaty in a 2008 referendum: “At least some of those who were previously enthusiastic about the founding aims of the EU, both social and economic, are now expressing unease. The reasons for this are complex. But one reason influencing some Christians may be what Pope John Paul II described as the ‘loss of Christian memory’ in European institutions and policy.”

There is some evidence that the bureaucrats in Brussels are increasingly aware of the concerns expressed by many religious European voters. In the aftermath of the referendum defeat of the EU Reform Treaty last June, the European Council, the supreme decision- making body in the EU comprising the heads of state or government from all 27 Member States, agreed to add special “legally binding guarantees” to a revised text. Specifically, the guarantees promise to respect the right to life of the unborn, the traditional understanding of marriage, and the right to religious freedom. While drafts are currently in discussion, officials are hopeful that the final texts will address the concerns of faith-based voters.

Dick Roche, Ireland’s Minister for Europe, said to CWR: “The [Irish] government is confident that when the final texts are agreed, they will satisfy the real concerns that people have about sensitive moral and ethical issues.” He adds, “The government is certainly very conscious to address these concerns and that the EU institutions continue to respect basic fundamental values.”

Roche rejected claims that the EU, as a whole, is deaf to the religious voice. “For the first time ever the [Lisbon] Treaty establishes the Church as a partner for real and structured dialogue. This is huge.”

The article to which Roche refers is 17.3, which reads: “Recognizing their identity and their specific contribution, the Union shall maintain an open, transparent, and regular dialogue with these churches and organizations.” Mary-Frances McKenna, a researcher at the Mater Dei Institute of Education in Dublin, says this article means “the EU is legally obliged to talk to and listen to the Church about issues of import.”

The Lisbon Treaty is not binding on any EU Member State until approved by the people of Ireland. A second referendum is scheduled for later this year.

At a Europe-wide level, bishops from the 27 Member States are encouraging voters in the June 4-7 poll to show support for candidates who support the protection of life from “conception to natural death” as well as the integrity of marriage. The bishops insist that the “process of European integration deserves to be appreciated, in spite of some shortcomings.”

Unfortunately, the European Peoples Party, the largest bloc in the EP, is calling on member states to adapt their policies ‘‘in support of family life to take account of demographic aging and the growing diversity in family relationships,” signaling support for “family diversity” over marriage.

According to John Allen, a seasoned reader of Vatican affairs, “in broad strokes, both Benedict XVI personally and the Vatican corporately support the project of European integration, which is nothing more than a concrete application of the universality and consequent relativization of national identity that is of the essence of Catholicism.”

“Basic support for European integration is simply part of the ‘DNA,’ so to speak, of the Vatican. To translate this point into political language, one could say that the Vatican is certainly not a ‘Euro-skeptic,’” he says.

Still, there are many points concerning the direction of the European Union about which the Pope and senior Vatican officials remain skeptical, even as they share the hopes for an integrated continent. Vatican diplomats often point with pride to the European Union as a compelling model of how countries can transcend antique differences based on borders and ethnicity.

After the June 4-7 polls have closed, it will become clearer whether the EU is serious about talking to the Church as a partner. Much will depend on whether the so-called “structured” dialogue between the EU and the Church actually takes place.


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About Michael Kelly 29 Articles
Michael Kelly is editor of the Irish Catholic, Ireland's best-selling religious newspaper.