LONDON — The U.K.’s hierarchy, clergy and laity appear to be evenly split ahead of a contentious and historic referendum in the country on whether to remain in or leave the European Union — the result of which is expected to be close.

The British people, many of whom have long been skeptical of the 28-member economic-political union, go to the polls on June 23 to decide whether they would like to remain in the EU. The bishops of England and Wales have said the decision has implications not only for future generations, but also for “Europe and for the world.”

British Prime Minister David Cameron pledged in 2013 to negotiate more favorable arrangements for continuing British membership of the European single market and regional bloc, and to then hold a referendum on whether the U.K. should remain or leave.

His decision was made in response to growing resentment over ever-increasing political and economic integration that so-called “Brexiters” — those wishing for Britain to exit the EU — see as undermining the country’s sovereignty as well as fostering an unaccountable, undemocratic and corrupt bureaucracy. They are particularly concerned about uncontrolled immigration deriving from one of the EU’s proudest achievements: freedom of movement between member states.

Cameron and other EU supporters, on the contrary, believe the union and its single market makes the country economically stronger, helps preserve peace and stability and fosters greater opportunity, especially in terms of work and migration.

A poll of polls, as of June 7, gave the “remain” campaign a narrow lead of 51% to 49%.

 

Bishops Remain Neutral

The bishops of England and Wales have collectively, as a matter of prudence, resisted becoming directly involved in the debate, instead issuing a neutral statement April 15 that underlined “the historic nature” and potential impact of the vote.

“In our view, three things are essential,” they wrote: “that we pray for the guidance of the Holy Spirit; that we all inform ourselves of the arguments on both sides of the debate; that we each exercise our vote with a view to the common good of all.”

They drew attention to how the European project of integration was born out of “catastrophic” war, how “trade was harnessed to peace” and highlighted Pope Francis’ emphasis on the ideals that shaped the EU (peace, subsidiarity and solidarity).

The referendum is “about much more than economics,” they contended, and reminded voters of the Christian roots of the continent, acknowledged the “justifiable concerns” of increasing integration and the need to reflect on cherished values with “mutual respect and civility.” Scottish bishops have also declined to come down on either side, instead urging Scots to “engage positively” in the vote and calling on God “to guide us and bless us in whatever choice we make in good conscience.”

While also officially neutral, the bishops of Northern Ireland issued a June 8 statement that is clearly supportive of remaining within the European Union.

But individually, bishops are known to differ on the issue, with Cardinal Vincent Nichols, the archbishop of Westminster, and his predecessor, Cardinal Cormac Murphy O’Connor, in favor of remaining, and others, such as Archbishop Peter Smith of Southwark, either skeptical of the campaign to remain or outright wishing to leave.

A group of interreligious leaders, including the Rt. Rev. Rowan Williams, the former Anglican archbishop of Canterbury, signed a statement in favor of remaining, citing their reasons as peace and stability and issues such as climate change, which they see as only being effectively tackled in a “European, and indeed, a global, context.”

 

Secularizing Influence?

One of the chief concerns among practicing Catholics is the secularist influence of the EU and what Christian critics view as the foisting of anti-Christian values on member states. Most recently, the European Commission, the executive branch of the EU, teamed up with several social media giants, such as Facebook and Twitter, to agree — without consulting member states — to actively censor “hate speech.” Given the EU’s support for homosexual rights and gender identity, as well as EU funding to abortion providers, it is expected to mean censorship of these and other conservative or minority opinions.

An English priest contacted by the Register, who requested to remain anonymous, said that, given their deeply rooted Christian faith, the EU’s founding fathers — Konrad Adenauer, Alcide De Gasperi and Robert Schuman — would be “deeply unimpressed” by the EU’s secularist agenda on issues such as life, marriage and the family.

The European Parliament frequently votes in favor of issues contrary to Church teaching, such as reproductive rights (contraception and abortion) and embryonic stem-cell research, and is currently debating extending civil marriage to same-sex “marriage.” However, according to Charles Tannock, a Conservative member of the European Parliament for London, who is Catholic, the EU has “no competence to legislate directly in such matters,” and the EU also has a “stated foreign policy of opposing the death penalty everywhere and for all reasons.” Many also argue that the U.K. did not require any prompting from the EU when it introduced abortion on demand, same-sex “marriage” or legalized experiments on human embryos, including so-called “three-parent” embryos. 

For this reason, Italian politician Rocco Buttiglione doesn’t see Brexit as a solution, despite coming face-to-face with what many viewed as the EU’s secular fundamentalism when members of the European Parliament (MEPs) turned him down as a prospective EU commissioner in 2004, on grounds of what he might think as a Catholic.

“The battle for the defense of Christian values is the same in the U.K. as in Europe, and so I don’t think it’s more likely to win if it is isolated than if it were to continue to participate in the EU,” Buttiglione told the Register. Quoting U.S. Founding Father Benjamin Franklin, he said it is a case of “either we all hang together or, most assuredly, we shall all hang separately.” But in the end, he added, “our Gospel will win; the only thing is whether we resist until the Second Coming.”

The Commission of the Bishops’ Conferences of the European Community, which does not have an official position on the referendum, was not sure what was meant by “secularist policies,” but, in any case, did not think it will make any difference if Britain leaves the EU.

Spokeswoman Johanna Touzel told the Register that the EU has “no competence in religious matters” and noted that issues such as the banning of wearing religious symbols in the workplace have been made by the European Court of Human Rights and the Council of Europe, which are not part of EU structures (although a recent judgment on this issue was made by an EU judge).

 

Subsidiarity

A further, related concern is the lack of subsidiarity, a key principle of Catholic social teaching that  states that higher levels of government should only perform those tasks that cannot be performed at a more local level. The EU’s detractors argue that the European Union’s impulse to harmonize actually “pulls upwards all manner of technical minutiae to the supranational level,” said Register blogger Benjamin Harnwell, a former political adviser to Conservative MEP Nirj Deva. “We have to stop kidding ourselves that this is still the model envisioned by Schuman and De Gasperi.”

But other Catholics supportive of the European Union argue that EU treaties are infused with principles drawn from Catholic social teaching. “All competences to the EU have been voluntarily ceded by a mechanism of pooled sovereignty in successive treaties agreed by national governments and parliaments,” Tannock told the Register, adding that “any repatriation of power can be achieved by changing the treaties.” And the U.K. government will have achieved this if it votes to “remain” on June 23, he added, because it signed an agreement with the EU earlier this year to end “ever closer political union.”

Still, many think the devolvement of power to Brussels has gone too far. “Americans would never accept an analogous system, where another supranational organization (like the United Nations) could freely write law that automatically overwrote Congress and the Supreme Court,” said Harnwell. And as for peace and stability, the EU’s opponents argue that war has been largely prevented in Europe, thanks to NATO and the nuclear deterrent, not courtesy of European Union structures.

 

Queen Elizabeth’s Views

Queen Elizabeth II, who also serves as the supreme governor of the Church of England, is thought to be concerned about giving too much sovereign power to Brussels. In March, it was claimed that she had expressed concerns about the direction of Europe during private conversations, and one informed source has said reports about her preference to leave the EU are “credible.”

But constitutional specialist and herald to the queen Alastair Bruce told the Register that the English monarch has no view except to “remain completely detached from what is a political debate. She understands wholly that this is what the British expect of a constitutional monarch.”

Among many of Britain’s Catholic laity, further concerns include allegations of corruption and waste in EU institutions (exorbitant salaries and allowances for officials are often cited). The bishops’ Touzel, however, argues that fraud affects just 0.2% of the EU’s annual spending, that the 40,000-strong staff of EU institutions is comparable to the number employed by the BBC and that the annual EU budget of €155 billion ($175 billion) is smaller than those of the Austrian or Belgium governments.

 

The European Project

Overall, and despite its flaws, Buttiglione believes the European project is worth fighting for, but he distinguished between those whose vision of Europe is akin to those of its founding fathers and others whom he calls “individual and collective egoists” promoting “nationalist egoism and the egoism of social groups,” who defend one minority against another, often those defending Church teaching.

At the same time, Buttiglione refrained from telling the British people how to vote. Nor, as a former confidant of Pope St. John Paul II, would he say which side he thought the late pope would have backed. John Paul II, he said, was a firm supporter of the European project, who tried hard to reconnect the continent with its Christian roots. He provided “moral energy” that “gave shape” to today’s Europe and the collapse of communism, Buttiglione said, although how much he would support the economic and political union of today is an open question.

Both the British ambassador to the Holy See and the Vatican declined to comment on the issue.

Edward Pentin is the Register’s Rome correspondent.