Pope's Constant Theme: Preserving Christianity in the New Europe

VATICAN CITY — Time and again this summer Pope John Paul II has pleaded for Europe to return to its Christian roots.

During his weekly Angelus to pilgrims in Rome on Aug. 24, the Pope called on those charged with examining the new European Constitution to include explicit references to Christianity in the document, adding that only if the continent returns to Christian values will its future be guaranteed.

There is still a chance to include a reference, but it is unlikely. A conference of national governments in the EU will launch a review of the draft constitution next month. The constitution must be ratified by parliaments of all member states and by the European Parliament.

Supporters hope it will go into effect by the end of 2005. Next year 10 countries are set to enter the EU, which now consists of 15 states.

The future of Europe and of Christianity on the continent is a concern echoed by many practicing Catholics who are uneasy about a growing secularism. The papal apostolic exhortation Ecclesia in Europa (The Church in Europe), issued in June after four years of consultations with European bishops, was unflinching in its evaluation of what Europe has become.

Its people, the letter said, are facing a “silent apostasy.” They live in a new culture of “relativism in values and morality, a cynical hedonism in daily life,” which conflicts with “the Gospel and the dignity of the human person.”

“I think [the Pope] wants to remind society as a whole of the foundations provided by Christianity,” said John Coughlan, spokesman for the Commission of Bishops' Conferences of the European Community. “He also wants to challenge the Church itself to examine how it relates to modern society, how it responds pastorally and spiritually to these disturbing realities.”

For some, the finger of blame is pointed squarely at the European Union itself. “[It] is contributing to the apostasy of Europe,” said James Bogle, vice chairman of the Catholic Union of Great Britain, a group for Catholics in public life. “The European Union and its institutions are mostly made up of people who are liberal Catholics, secular humanists or atheists who would no more take notice of the Church than fly to the moon.”

The values it espouses, Bogle said, mean the European Union and the Church are on a “collision course and the Church doesn't seem to realize it.”

This, however, is not the official Vatican view, nor is it that of the Commission of Bishops' Conferences of the European Community, which has been in close consultation with the European Convention, the body responsible for drawing up the new constitution.

“Our view is that the process of European integration, embodied in the European Union, is a major contribution to the pursuance of peace and the common good on the European continent,” Coughlan said. “European societies in general are facing a crisis of values. However, this is a symptom, not the cause, so we need to focus on the roots of the problem and our own responsibility for addressing it rather than conjure up a false demon in the form of the EU.”

But Coughlan concedes there are weaknesses: “Democratic politics depends on compromise and, unfortunately, such compromises sometimes stray away from the clear line of Church teaching.”

Issues

Highly contentious issues liable to compromise are those concerning abortion and euthanasia, both of which are becoming more accepted within member states. But EU supporters argue that Article 2 of the Charter of Fundamental Rights stipulates that human dignity is inviolable and everyone has the right to life — it is therefore a very solid constitutional basis for opposing such practices as euthanasia and abortion.

But will social institutions such as marriage be protected? Bogle is pessimistic because, he said, “it's certainly not being protected in most countries in Europe at the moment.” To ensure institutions such as marriage are protected, he said, “we should be using the muscle power of the hierarchy of the Church, [which] is not doing nearly enough.”

Bishop Joseph Duffy, who represents Ireland on the Commission of Bishops' Conferences of the European Community, believes people overestimate ecclesial influence.

“People think the Church has a power, which in today's secular society it simply doesn't have,” he said. “Rather it is one of various groups which does have some indirect influence.” The main problem, he asserted, is that “there's so few of us concerned with these real issues.”

“People will quickly blame the hierarchy,” a senior ranking Vatican official told the Register. “The answer does not lie with bishops confronting a very substantial body like the EU but in providing better catechesis in schools.”

That said, the May publication of Europe's new constitution without any reference to God drew criticism from many quarters, even from Poland's self-declared atheist president.

John Bruton, a former prime minister of Ireland and, until recently, a key figure in the convention, also expressed his disappointment but believes the case for an explicit reference to Christianity was overstated.

“I think whether this reference is contained in the constitution or not is of secondary importance,” he told the Register. “It is of symbolic rather than substantial value.” For Bruton, it is more important that Europe “live its political and economic life in accordance with the values that are inherent in Christian thinking and in the thinking of other great religions.”

Jonathan Evans, a Catholic and leader of Britain's Conservative Party in the European Parliament, criticizes “grandstanding” concerning the constitution.

“The trouble is, the process has been hijacked by those people drawing it up who have different agenda — one in which they are more concerned with their place in history than anything else,” he told the Register. “There is a palpable sense of self-importance by certain members of the convention, which is fundamentally unchristian.”

But despite the flaws of the constitution's authors, Coughlan maintains there remains much to be welcomed in the document, including concessions made to include direct references to religion. And he is quick to dismiss accusations that the Church has not lobbied hard.

“Day in, day out, [the bishops' conference commission] is working to ensure that Europe's Christian heritage is at the heart of the new Europe, he said. “The result of all [our consultations] was that the place of religion in the draft constitution became one of the most hotly debated subjects — which was quite remarkable given that religion has never before been a significant issue for the EU.”

Edward Pentin writes from Rome.

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