VATICAN CITY — “Europe is wanting to go its own way without God,” a Benedictine monk recently remarked, “and I'm afraid that God is going to let them.”

But an Italian politician's plans to form a religious lobby group and “battle for the freedom of Christians” in Europe could go some way toward preventing this.

The proposal comes from Rocco Buttiglione, a friend and biographer of Pope John Paul II with close ties to the Vatican. In November, Buttiglione was forced by the European Parliament to withdraw as a candidate for a senior European Union post because of his Catholic values.

Buttiglione, the minister for Europe in Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi's Italian government, said in an interview earlier this month that he intended to create a Christian network to exert pressure on institutions such as the European Parliament that discriminated against him.

“What I am thinking of is a group to battle for the freedom of Christians, which is the freedom of everyone, a group to fight against the kind of creeping totalitarianism which has emerged recently regarding my personal situation,” he said.

Senior aides to Buttiglione said the network would not take the form of a political party but be a “movement or association” committed to a greater role for Christian principles in public life.

The 56-year-old Christian Democrat, who as professor at Pontifical Gregorian University in Rome has helped write a number of papal encyclicals, was opposed in October by a group of socialist parliamentarians who believed his views on abortion and homosexual relationships made him unfit for the position of European justice commissioner.

‘Anti-Catholic Inquisition’

However, Buttiglione sees the controversy over his withdrawal from the commission as a “gift from God” and a chance to stand up to what has been called “secular fundamentalism” — which he prefers to call “an anti-Catholic inquisition.”

“We have to react,” he said during a debate in Milan in November. “Otherwise, they could one day say, ‘As you are Catholic, you cannot be a university professor or teacher.’”

Thousands of well-wishers from all over Europe have sent him messages of support, including Italy's Jewish and Muslim communities. “They are asking me not to let the matter drop but to get something going through political and cultural initiatives,” Buttiglione said in Rome earlier this month.

In other parts of Europe, where interfaith dialogue has seen significant advances in recent years, Muslim and Jewish groups also welcomed Buttiglione's firm position and his plan to create a lobby group. They see the proposal as an opportunity to work together on promoting shared moral values.

“In principle, we've so much in common that it's a shame we've not worked closer before in this area,” said Rabbi Jeremy Rosen, professor at the Faculty of Comparative Religion in Antwerp, Belgium. “We ought to come together on these issues (but) so far the emphasis has been on bridging the gap between the faiths, on how we overcome the past, and not enough effort has been made to work together on these issues in the European Union.”

Rosen's comments were echoed by Dr. Mohammed Abdul Bari, deputy secretary general of the Muslim Council of Great Britain. While unclear about the precise nature of Buttiglione's plans, Bari said Muslims welcome the initiative to bring moral values to public attention because Muslims “subscribe to these values.”

Bari was also in agreement with Buttiglione on resisting fundamentalism in secular society. “We must work against any kind of totalitarianism, whether it be religious or secular,” he said.

Natural Law

One way in which Buttiglione's group could effectively counter this fundamentalism is through encouraging greater debate of the natural moral law.

In an address to the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith in February, Pope John Paul II put the cause of humanity's lack of a common ethical foundation down to a rejection of the natural law. Such law, he said, is “accessible to every creature” and “points to the first essential norms that regulate moral life.”

Therefore, not only is natural law held by Catholics, but also other denominations, faiths and even atheists. Although it is interpreted slightly differently in Judaism and Islam and is dependent on Islamic law and tradition, the general belief that all humanity is stamped with the natural order of creation is common to all the Abrahamic faiths. It also served as the foundation for modern democracy, in which a general set of moral values on issues such as social justice and human rights were shared by everyone, including Enlightenment philosophers.

But for the past 30 years, the concept of natural law has eroded. John Paul has called this a “crisis in metaphysics” leading people to no longer “recognize a truth engraved on every human heart.” To redis-cover this truth, the Pope has called for the establishment of a platform of shared values around which can be developed “a constructive dialogue with all people of good will and, more generally, with secular society.”

Guiliano Ferrara, who participated in the debate with Buttiglione in Milan and describes himself as a non-believer, agrees “absolutely” with the Pope's call. He believes religious thinking has to be further integrated into the “reality of the world” rather than the object of “deconstructionist thinking.”

Ferrara, a philosopher and editor of a conservative Italian newspaper, is convinced that “the real challenge of our time is rationally reconstructing the Ten Commandments along the laws of nature, the natural law and rational law, in contact with the culture of the ancients.”

It is a task that, as the Buttiglione case showed, is an urgent one.

“We must recover the basis on which democracies have been established,” said Father Augustine Di Noia, undersecretary at the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. “Otherwise, we're facing the specter of a phenomenon that the Pope is so concerned about: that if democracy is not based on truth, it's based on power.”

Edward Pentin writes from Rome.