ROME — The Vatican is finding that its positions on abortion, homosexuality, euthanasia and other issues are being constantly challenged in a Europe that is struggling to forge a common set of rules while keeping national identities intact.
On the eve of the historic signing of the European Constitution, Pope John Paul II met with outgoing European Commission President Romano Prodi to remind him that Christian values are at the base of European identity.
Christianity, he told Prodi Oct. 28 at the Vatican, “contributed to the formation of a common conscience of the European peoples.”
“Whether recognized or not in official documents, this is an undeniable fact that no historian can forget,” he said.
The constitution does not mention Europe's Christian roots, a reference the Vatican had sought repeatedly.
In light of this and other developments within the European Union and in individual countries, top Vatican officials have been speaking out because they feel the values of the Church are being ignored or trampled.
The most recent example of friction erupted when Rocco Buttiglione, a candidate for European commissioner, said last month that, as a Catholic, he believes that homosexuality is a sin and that women should have the protection of a man so they can raise a family.
The uproar that followed forced the European Commission president-elect, Jose Barroso, to delay an Oct. 27 vote that was to have confirmed his commission choices. On Oct. 30, Buttiglione withdrew his candidacy, charging that he was the “innocent victim” of a “superficial and very crude press campaign,” Agence France Presse reported.
Added Buttiglione, “I am happy to have been able to bear witness to the values in which I believe and to suffer for them.”
Buttiglione and others said he was singled out for his strong Catholic beliefs, and the case offered fertile terrain for a public discussion about the influence — or lack of it — the Catholic Church has on contemporary European society.
The incident apparently was at least partly responsible for remarks by Cardinal Renato Martino, head of the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace, who said powerful lobbies in Europe were trying to “silence the Church.” He told reporters Oct. 18 that “any method is legitimate” for these lobbies, “from intimidation to public scorn, from cultural discrimination to exclusion.”
In Spain, the cabinet has approved legislation that would allow homosexuals to marry. The government also has announced plans to make religious education optional in the overwhelmingly Catholic country, although neither measure has been approved by the Spanish Parliament.
On Sept. 26, Cardinal Julian Herranz, a Spaniard and president of the Pontifical Council for the Interpretation of Legislative Texts, warned of a “lay fundamentalism” and an “aggressive laicism” in Spain. Speaking to Spanish faithful in Rome, he expressed the Spanish bishop'’ concern “about what's happening in our country, at the political level and with public opinion.”
In an interview with the Italian daily La Repubblica, the Vatican secretary of state, Cardinal Angelo Sodano, avoided commenting directly on the Buttiglione incident.
However, he said, “It's not the first time that Catholics … find themselves confronted with problems of this sort and the dangers of isolation and discrimination. Just look at the history of the Christian Church.”
Cardinal Sodano warned, however, that the Church would be increasingly obligated in the future to claim the right to preach the Gospel, which, he said, “is tied directly to the sacrosanct principle of freedom that is the right of every person beyond the faith they profess, their race and their political choices.”
The Church finds itself constantly challenged by legislation passed and proposed in European countries. Some examples are:
— In August, the British government gave permission to a team of researchers to begin cloning human embryos for research, in so-called therapeutic cloning. The Vatican opposes human cloning for any purpose.
— Italians are expected to face a referendum in coming months that would repeal a law passed earlier this year that limits assisted fertility procedures and prohibits stem-cell research.
— In 2001, the Dutch Parliament passed a law permitting euthanasia in some cases and under certain provisions. Church teaching does not allow euthanasia in any circumstance.
Father Michele Simone, vice director of the Jesuit monthly La Civilta Cattolica, said the Buttiglione case should not be used as an indicator because there are strictly political components to the issue as well.
But Father Simone said he believes anti-Christian sentiment exists in Europe and that there is a “de-Christianization” of contemporary society because of excessive consumerism, the influence of the media and the tendency of individuals to create a “personal morality.”
Pope John Paul II dedicated his Oct. 31 Angelus address to the signing of the new European Constitution, which now must be ratified by the 25 countries that make up the union.
The prime ministers and heads of state of the countries signed the constitution Oct. 29 in a fresco-covered hall on Rome's Capitoline Hill.
The Pope said the signing of the constitution was “a highly significant moment in the construction of the ‘new Europe,’ to which we continue to look with hope.”
“The Holy See was always in favor of promoting a united Europe on the basis of those common values which are part of its history. Taking into account the Christian roots of the continent means being able to count on a spiritual patrimony that remains fundamental for the future development of the union,” he said.
John Paul asked European Christians “to continue to bring to every sphere of the European institutions those Gospel values that are a guarantee of peace and of collaboration among all citizens in the shared commitment to serving the common good.”
(Register staff contributed to this story.)