VATICAN CITY — When the United Kingdom voted in a referendum for “Brexit” — to leave the European Union — on June 23, it sent shockwaves throughout Europe, rattled stock markets around the world and angered the EU’s political elites.
The majority of British people rejected the economic-political bloc, deeming it an undemocratic, bureaucratic and wasteful entity that had lost the vision of its Catholic founders. The final count was 52%-48%.
Originally established as a trading area to help guarantee peace and stability after two catastrophic world wars, it has been steadily becoming a secularist, political superstate, in the view of its critics.
Always sensitive to foreign interference and intrusion, the majority of British people disliked what they saw and made a bid for freedom with their vote.
Most of all, they wanted to regain the control and sovereignty that they felt the country had lost to the EU over the 43 years the U.K. had been a member. A key issue was also immigration, and pro-Brexit voters believed that the EU’s free-movement policy of persons between member countries had meant the U.K. had lost control of its borders, allowing in hundreds and thousands of migrants from Europe and further afield.
Pope Francis acknowledged the referendum result was the “will of the people” and stressed those in charge of the transition have a “great responsibility” to ensure peaceful coexistence, but he also recognized the desire to leave the union, which he has frequently observed over the past couple of years as being in “decline.”
Answering a question put to him by the Register on the papal plane from Armenia June 26, about whether he feared “Brexit” could ultimately lead to the disintegration of the EU, the Holy Father spoke of a “climate of division”; but it wasn’t clear where his precise preferences lay with respect to the EU’s future.
On the one hand, he spoke of the need for a “healthy disunity” and “another form of union,” one that is stronger and more creative, by drawing on its Christian roots. On the other, he said “we should not throw the baby out with the bathwater” but look instead on how to “redeem things and recreate.”
His fondest wish, as he explained in his speech upon receiving the prestigious European Charlemagne Prize in May, was that the Continent be one of “fraternity,” finding a way of becoming “creative and fruitful,” however that might be attained.
Nigel Baker, the U.K.’s ambassador to the Holy See, told the Register he was struck by the Pope’s comments, adding that the U.K. has “huge amounts” of dynamism and creativity to offer, “whether or not we’re members of the EU.”
He said the Holy See is taking a long view of the U.K.’s decision, hoping that the country and the European Union handle Brexit responsibly and that the U.K. continues to help safeguard Europe’s peace and stability.
“They’ll be looking to us to continue to play a leading, global role, and that’s something we can do outside as well as inside the EU,” he said. “The bilateral relationship with the Holy See will continue pretty much as before.”
“Of course,” he added, “we had some discussions with the Holy See as members of the EU, but, essentially, it’s about a bilateral relationship between two global networks, the U.K.’s and the Holy See’s, and that will continue.”
As the Holy See will be looking for “creative engagement with the outside world,” Baker said he was sure there can be “very positive and interesting conversations” on a “whole range of issues” over the next few years.
The Catholic hierarchy appeared to favor the status quo, and consequently showed more overt disappointment than the Pope.
German Cardinal Reinhard Marx, president of the Commission of the Bishops’ Conferences of the EU, said he found the referendum result “extremely regrettable,” as it denoted a break with the EU’s “project of community and solidarity.” But he also acknowledged the need to “rethink” the European project, which requires unity if it is to achieve a “true European humanism,” as advocated by Pope Francis.
In view of concerns over growing nationalism and racist attacks related to the referendum, the German cardinal was also firm in rejecting “increasing nationalism,” which he said “must not become again the trigger of ideological delimitation, hostility and discord.” (It’s important to note that “Leave” campaigners have disassociated themselves from such attacks, stressing that Brexit was actually based on a more globalist, liberal economic vision than a protectionist one limited to the European continent.)
Similar sentiments were shared by the bishops of England and Wales.
Noting that some U.K. Polish communities had witnessed an “upsurge” in xenophobic attacks following the vote, Cardinal Vincent Nichols of Westminster warned that “racism and hatred must never be tolerated,” but added there is “no need for fear.” He highlighted the need for a transcendent dimension in people’s lives, in order to avoid becoming self-centered, and a sense of common purpose, and he warned that if the nation remains divided, it will weaken the country and prevent it from being able to tackle “the world’s problems.”
Bishop Declan Lang, who chairs the English bishops’ department for international affairs, added his voice to the concern, saying “hatred or bigotry” must never be allowed to “poison our society” and that migrants from Europe and beyond have “consistently made an overwhelming contribution” to the country. He urged Catholics to “actively oppose the appalling prejudice we have seen in recent days.”
Dissatisfaction With Leaders
Part of the reason why such attacks are tied to the referendum is because immigration was an important issue in the campaign, although, according to polls, only a distant second to people’s grievances over the EU’s lack of democracy.
The Catholic principle of subsidiarity was steadily eroded, many believe; and, instead, EU leaders have become viewed as unaccountable, arrogant bullies. Observers said this was clearly seen after the vote, when EU Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker and European Parliament President Martin Schulz spoke bluntly against the U.K.
Their attitude is said to be emblematic of much dissatisfaction across the EU with the political class.
What many appear to want, in other EU member nations as well as in Britain, is for EU leaders to sit up, listen and recognize that issues such as migration are matters of genuine concern to people that can’t be brushed under the carpet by deeming concerns as “racism” or by imposing solutions from Brussels. But instead of listening to the electorates, EU’s leaders are pushing for deeper integration.
A few member states, such as Poland, are already seeing this and calling for the resignations of the EU’s executive leaders.
Among Catholic laity who voted to leave the EU, not all are wholly positive about the future; but they found it largely to be the lesser of two evils that at least gives hope that the imposition of secularist values by the EU on the U.K. can be minimized.
“I voted ‘out’ to restore my democratic right to elect my political representatives,” said Thomas Ward, founder and former president of the U.K.’s National Association of Catholic Families. “We have little chance of changing the legal assault to our values at Westminster, but none in Brussels.”
He noted that the result “was a victory for freedom, for ordinary people, against the London metropolitan elite of the government, the Labor Party and social democrats, the Bank of England, big business, Obama and the EU.” (In a direct message to the British people during the Brexit campaign, President Barack Obama urged them to support the EU.)
And even despite warnings that the economy would be damaged by leaving, he said, “We still voted for our freedom.”
Christopher Gillibrand, an English Church historian who spent 10 years in Brussels as head of a trade association, lays much of the blame for the Brexit vote on the Church’s lack of influence in the EU and believes the union will never be reformed “until the secularizing, both by the Church and the state, comes to an end in the wider world.”
For Austen Ivereigh, a British writer and founder of Catholic Voices, the way the Brexit referendum vote was run was deeply flawed. Writing in Crux, he criticized the “Leave” campaign for not directly addressing issues of concern and observed that, in the final weeks, the conversation was not about the EU at all, but about national and domestic grievances such as the “gulf between north and south, the well-off and the poor.” The “Leave” campaign, he said, misleadingly sold the idea “that abandoning Europe would solve them.”
But he also criticized the “Remain” campaign, which, instead of engaging the disaffected in a conversation about how Europe could better serve them, “lectured them about the perils of leaving.”
“It is the lack of that solidarity that Brexit Britain has so cruelly exposed,” Ivereigh argued. “The culture of exclusion replaced the culture of encounter. Rather than engage with the peripheries, our political and economic leaders reinforced the center.”
What many Catholics see as the “secularist tyranny” of the EU was laid out by Italian Church historian Roberto de Mattei, who wrote June 30 that, in its short life, “the European Union, unable to define a common foreign and security policy, has turned itself into an ideological platform, churning out resolutions and directives to push national governments to get rid of the family and traditional values.”
The U.K., he added, has been a major part of this ideological force. While it slowed the Franco-German plan for a “European superstate,” it has forced on Europe its own “‘civil conquests,’ from abortion to euthanasia, homosexual adoptions to genetic manipulation.”
Moreover, because of the U.K.’s moral laxity, he believes the nation probably faces only decline.
“The identity and freedom of a people are based on respect for the divine and natural law, and no political gesture can restore the freedom that a country loses because of its own moral decay,” he said.
The Pope’s Prescription
To prevent this, the Church has the remedy, as Pope Francis said in his speech upon receiving the Charlemagne Prize.
“To the rebirth of a Europe weary, yet still rich in energies and possibilities, the Church can and must play her part,” he said. “God desires to dwell in our midst, but he can only do so through men and women who, like the great evangelizers of this continent, have been touched by him and live for the Gospel, seeking nothing else.”
“Only a Church rich in witnesses,” he said, “will be able to bring back the pure water of the Gospel to the roots of Europe.”