Bishops in Brussels: A Rear-view Mirror Vision of the World

COMECE’s outdated warnings on the dangers of nationalism miss the larger threat.

In The Great Divorce, C.S. Lewis describes a broad-minded Anglican bishop who, given the chance to go to Heaven, prefers to return to Hell, where he is scheduled to read a paper to the “Theological Society.”  Rather than adjust to the (initially) hard realities of Heaven, the bishop prefers to hold on to the old and secure habits of thought that, while serving to advance his earthly career, eventually landed him in Hell.

I was reminded of Lewis’ cautionary story on reading of the annual meeting of the Conference of European Justice and Peace Commissions (COMECE)—a group that was formed in 1971 by conferences of European bishops. I’m not suggesting that the bishops are headed for Hell, but only that, like the liberal bishop in The Great Divorce, they can’t seem to let go of old thought patterns.

The theme for this year’s conference is “The Nationalism of Exclusion.”  According to a Catholic News Agency report:

The commissions hone in on the growing phenomenon of racism and xenophobia across Europe—as evidenced by the rise of UK Independence Party, a British anti-immigration political party skeptical of the EU…the October 2014 formation of PEGIDA, a German political organization that demonstrates against “Islamization of the West,” and anti-Semitic attacks in France which led 7,000 French Jews to emigrate to Israel last year.

The bishops’ fear that these nationalistic political movements, led by “populist nationalist politicians,” are reminiscent of the “belligerent and ultra-nationalist politics which preceded both World Wars.”  What they mean, of course, is that the populist parties are Nazis in the making.

That’s the old idea that keeps the bishops and the EU leaders from confronting new realities.  After the war, a consensus of opinion determined that nationalism—as in National Socialist German Workers Party (the Nazis)—led to racism, which in turn led to Auschwitz. International bodies such as the UN were created in order to ensure that ultra-nationalism would never again raise its ugly head. That was also a large part of the thinking behind the creation of the European Union, and the EU’s adoption of the Schengen Convention—an agreement which more-or-less dissolved the borders between 26 European nations.

The bishops’ “Nationalism of Exclusion” conference is very much in this vein. They criticize political parties that advocate for “narrow national interests,” and they call on Europeans to focus instead on “universal human values” and international obligations. Moreover, they rise to the defense of the EU against Europeans who are tempted to blame it for their own “domestically generated problems.”

In short, the bishops seem to think that nationalism is the cancer and internationalism is the answer.

That sounds nice, but the internationalist vision of a borderless world is now bumping up against harsh new realities. In fact, it never made complete sense even during the war years. After all, it was the intense nationalistic fervor of the British, the Free French, and the Russians that enabled them to resist the Nazi onslaught.

Moreover, in the post-war years it was not nationalism that enslaved half of Europe, but an international movement with global ambitions—namely, Soviet communism. “Workers of the world unite” is not exactly a nationalistic slogan. Recall also that the unofficial anthem of socialist and communist movements everywhere is a little ditty titled “The Internationale.”  That doesn’t sound xenophobic or exclusivist; neither do such lyrics as “decree the common salvation” and “The Internationale will be the human race.”

The internationalism of militant Islam

The bishops seem to have ignored the fact that the internationalist ideal, like the nationalist ideal, has dangerous potentials. ISIS, for example, is very much an internationalist movement. The Caliphate they are trying to establish is intended to be a one-world government. And it’s intended to be borderless, as well. ISIS had already dissolved the border between Iraq and Syria and is seeking other boundaries to erase. In a sense ISIS has a Schengen Agreement of its own. Moreover, it makes good use of the EU’s own Schengen Convention—an arrangement which facilitates the free movement of terrorists and weapons from one European cell to another.

Much of the bishops’ conference is taken up with protecting immigrants and ethnic groups from the nationalists who want to exclude them. One doesn’t have to read too far between the lines to realize that the main group they have in mind are Muslims. This is ironic for a number of reasons. For example, according to the CNA report, the bishops are concerned over anti-Semitic attacks in France and the emigration of Jews out of Europe. Yet the most rabid anti-Semites in Europe are Muslims. The Jews are not fleeing France in order to get away from nationalistic patriots. They are much more worried about the anti-Semites that the EU has been importing from North Africa, and other parts of the Muslim world. So in their efforts to prevent a new Nazism from arising in Europe, the bishops are throwing their weight behind the bearers of a religious ideology that considers Jews to be cursed.

A further irony is that these supposed victims of exclusion are the most exclusionist group in Europe. Witness the hundreds of no-go-zones in Europe—Muslim enclaves from which non-Muslims are de facto excluded. On the whole, Muslim immigrants do not seem inclined to assimilate and the bishops don’t seem to expect them to assimilate. According to the CNA story, “Commission members also affirmed the right of minorities living in foreign countries to maintain a strong attachment to their place of birth and mother tongue.”

Mullah Krekar, for one, seems to have maintained just such an attachment. Although he’s lived in Norway for 24 years, the provocative cleric has never bothered to seek Norwegian citizenship, and in a recent interview he responded to his Norwegian host in Arabic. When asked if a Norwegian citizen should lose his life for burning a Koran, the Mullah replied in the affirmative, because it “is stated in the law”—by which he meant not Norwegian law but sharia law.  Most Muslims in Europe are not as radical as Mullah Krekar, but, for a great many of them, their first allegiance is not to Norway, or France, or Germany—but to the “ummah,” which Krekar describes as “our Muslim brotherhood.”

In that sense, Islam is a far more universalist project than the EU. Yet, at the same time, it’s exclusionist. Islam is the most exclusive club in the world, with special privileges for members and special restrictions against non-members. It’s easy to join the club, but not so easy to leave. Unlike other fraternal organizations, the ummah offers only lifetime memberships.

Speaking of universalist/internationalist organizations, the bishops’ declaration makes no mention of the “antifas”—the leftist “anti-fascist,” “anti-racist” organizations that attack and intimidate the supposedly racist and xenophobic populist groups. Although the bishops condemn “racist and xenophobic violence in word or deed,” they say nothing about violence committed in the name of “anti-fascism,” “anti-racism,” and “anti-nationalism.”

That’s strange, because the antifas have shown themselves to be far more violent than the groups that the bishops censure. Organizations such as PEGIDA have “evening strolls” which culminate in the singing of Christmas carols in city squares. The antifas, on the other hand, throw rocks, bottles, and darts. Though they call themselves “anti-fascists,” they resemble nothing so much as the blackshirts and brownshirts who supported the fascist regimes of Mussolini and Hitler. Do the bishops not know about the antifas? Or are they fooled by the “anti-fascist” label? Or do they subscribe to the liberal view that there is no danger on the left?

The “populists” were quick to reply to the bishops’ criticism. Steven Woolfe, a Catholic UKIP member of the European Parliament reminded the bishops that “St. Thomas Aquinas teaches that patriotism, i.e., love of your country and its people, is a Christian virtue.” “UKIP,” he said, “is rising in the polls among churchgoers because it has defended religious freedom, the institution of marriage, and our Judeo-Christian culture as the basis for a shared civic space.” On the other hand, he observed, “COMECE is a federalist fan club based in Brussels which endorses every EU treaty and power. It has done nothing over many years to stand up for Christian beliefs and values. Instead it acts as a cheerleader for the secularizing EU.”

The bishops’ conference has indeed always been a strong supporter of the European Union. They seem to think that the only alternative to the EU is “xenophobia”—a word that appears four times in their three page declaration. “Xenophobia” means “fear of strangers.” Technically, it means an irrational fear of strangers. Yet there is such a thing as rational fear. For example, it seems rational to worry about the importation of tens of millions of people who, by and large, refuse to integrate with European culture. A rational person might also calculate that if present demographic trends continue, Islam could be the dominant power in Europe within two or three decades. For example, in Brussels, where the bishops’ conference is headquartered, the Muslim population has grown to 25 percent and is expected to top 50 percent within 15 years. In the face of the huge demographic shift that EU bishops have worked to facilitate, the much-disdained populists seem justified in their fears.

It’s no wonder then that the bishops’ conference is a staunch defender of the EU against its critics. Like the EU elites, they are deeply implicated in Europe’s present problems—especially the problems that result from mass immigration. They bear a certain responsibility for the “conflicts” they now decry. Thus, they urge European citizens to “withstand any temptation to scapegoat the European Union for domestically generated problems.” In other words, you Germans, French, and Dutch have no one but yourselves to blame for your problems. But in what sense, can the problems that accompany mass immigration be considered “domestically generated problems”? German, French, and Dutch citizens were never consulted about the matter. Immigration policies were simply mandated from above.

Outdated solutions to contemporary problems

The bishop in The Great Divorce suffers from intellectual pride. He adopts a condescending attitude toward the heavenly spirit who is trying to persuade him to join the ranks of Heaven. His arguments are variations on the theme of “You’ll understand these things better when you are older, my boy.” Unfortunately, there’s a bit of this patronizing paternalism in the bishops’ declaration about “The Nationalism of Exclusion.” There’s nothing wrong, of course, with bishops having a paternal concern for the flock, but it’s supposed to be a concern based on the wisdom of the Church, not the wisdom of the age. And the bishops’ understanding of the European situation seems to be very much rooted in the wisdom of the current age—an age that is now rapidly passing away.

Like the bishop in the story, they live, mentally, in the past: not the far past, but the near past—a past in which a narrow nationalism was the biggest threat; a past in which it was possible to believe that immigration would always be a culturally enriching additive; a past in which Islamic supremacist ambition was not even a blip on the radar.

As one example of this rearview mirror view of the world, take this statement from the COMECE declaration:

Rapidly aging societies in Europe face a growing shortage of labor…without migration, Europeans will not be able to maintain a high level of social care for the ill and the elderly and for other social services.

Aside from the fact that Europe’s rapidly aging societies are in part a result of the bishops’ reluctance to impart Catholic teaching about sex, marriage, and family, the “shortage-of-labor” rationale for immigration is more than half-a-century old. And it’s wearing thin. The immigrants who are contributing most to the Western European labor pool tend to come from other parts of Europe, such as Poland. When it comes to Muslim immigration, however, it turns out that the migrants are as likely to use up social services as to provide them. For example, Muslim make up only 5 percent of the population of Denmark, but receive 40 percent of welfare outlays. Similar ratios can be found in other European countries.

The idea that a heavy influx of immigrants from the other side of the Mediterranean would solve Europe’s economic and social welfare problems seemed to make sense—about 50 years ago. Now, it looks as though liberal immigration policies are more likely to sink European economies rather than save them. As the bishops observe, “to look for a single, simple solution to the complex realities of life is an innate human reaction.” It’s an “innate human reaction” the bishops themselves have been unable to avoid. The “complex realities of life” are unfolding all around them, but they seem determined to hold on to old ideas, no matter how unworkable.

History repeats itself

Meanwhile, while European bishops are debating the finer points of nationalistic exclusion, to their south and east other anti-nationalist groups are laying plans to take Rome. The Islamist radicals are anti-nationalist because they believe that possession of only a single nation is unworthy of Islam. As Sayyid Abul A`la Maududi, one of the 20th century’s most important theorists of jihad, maintained, “Islam requires the earth—not just a portion, but the whole planet.”

Right now, the Islamic state is turning its Sauron-like gaze toward the European portion of the planet. According to a recent ISIS publication, the attack will be launched from the north coast of Africa—an area that once was called the “Barbary Coast.” For more than a thousand years, Islamic marauders ravaged the Mediterranean coast of Europe. It wasn’t until the 19th century that Western powers finally put an end to the burning and pillaging of coastal towns and the enslavement of European Christians.

When I was in school, the Barbary Coast was something you read about in history books. Those unpleasant years seemed safely consigned to the past. But now, of a sudden, barbarism in the name of Allah has made a startling comeback. Why didn’t the Euro elites and the ecclesiastical elites see it coming? One possibility that strongly suggests itself is this: with their gaze fixed firmly on the near past, they failed to notice that the far past was gaining on them. The trouble with living mentally in the near past is that when the far past comes knocking at your door with a scimitar in hand, you’re liable to mistake him for the local halal butcher and open wide the door. We all know that it’s important to learn the lessons of history, but it’s also important to understand which lessons apply to us and which do not. While the bishops are watching for the next National Socialist German Workers Party to make its appearance, the Islamic raiding parties are making ready their high-speed boats.


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About William Kilpatrick 57 Articles
William Kilpatrick taught for many years at Boston College. He is the author of several books about cultural and religious issues, including Psychological Seduction, Why Johnny Can’t Tell Right from Wrong and, most recently, Christianity, Islam, and Atheism: The Struggle for the Soul of the West. Professor Kilpatrick’s articles on cultural and educational topics have appeared in First Things, Policy Review, American Enterprise, American Educator, The Los Angeles Times, and various scholarly journals. His articles on Islam have appeared in Aleteia, National Catholic Register, Investor’s Business Daily, FrontPage Magazine, and other publications. Professor Kilpatrick’s work is supported in part by the Shillman Foundation. For more on his work and writings, visit his website, turningpointproject.com.