Speech by John Bruton at the Human Dignity group meeting in the European Parliament on Wednesday 14th April 2010
I will address the relationship that should exist between the Christian churches of Europe, and the European Union. I am very grateful to my friend, Gay Mitchell MEP, for giving me this opportunity to speak to you.
My basic thesis is that the European Union is open to be influenced by people of faith; that getting involved on a day to day basis with its work is the best way to promote Christian values; and that opting out in an effort to recreate a romanticised past would lead nowhere. Essentially, just as a person of faith fights his or her corner on the local political scene on a daily basis, one should do the same in the European Union.
What should the relationship be between the churches and the European Union?
Secularists might claim that there should be no such relationship, that the European Union is a political institution for all the people and that, as such, it should operate in an entirely separate sphere from that of the churches, who should neither influence, nor be influenced by , political institutions. They would say that political institutions should remain strictly secular not only in their form but also in the influences brought to bear upon them.
I believe this secularist view is naive in its understanding of human nature for a number of reasons.
First, Voters do not divide their minds up into watertight compartments, marked “religious”, “political,” ”personal,” family” and so forth. What goes on in one part of their mind influences what goes on in all the others?
Second, no one will deny that ethical beliefs can, and should, influence the actions of political institutions whether that be at national, local or European level. It would be very difficult to separate people’s ethical beliefs from the religious source from which many people’s ethics spring. So if ethics influences politics, religious belief will also influence it.
That is not to claim that people with no religious belief have no ethical beliefs, of course they do, often very strong and considered ones, but it is to say that those who have religious beliefs do draw heavily on their religious heritage and practice in formulating, and more importantly in holding themselves accountable for how they follow, their ethical beliefs.
Third, Humans are social beings. They do not live atomised lives. They live in multiple overlapping communities of families, of neighbourhoods, of workplaces, political parties, nations, sports clubs, and for many….in the community of a church.
The ethos of society is formed, in varying degrees, in all of these communities. And without a shared ethos, it is very difficult for any society to function. In varying degrees, the shared ethos of each European society has been formed, among other things, by the religious beliefs of some or all of its citizens and by the thought that they give to these beliefs when they come together in churches , meeting houses and mosques.
Laws are obeyed not only out of fear of retribution but just as importantly out of this sense of a shared ethos, an ethos that forms a basis for trust, an ethos that thus makes government and governance possible. It is impossible completely to disentangle this from religious belief, or unbelief.
Therefore I suggest that as long as religious belief exists, and there is every reason to believe it will always exist, a secularist notion that religion and politics should be kept entirely separate is simply unrealistic, even naive.
And naive beliefs pursued relentlessly, as they often are, lead toward either tyranny or the breakdown of the pluralism that is required if democracy to function. People of faith are part of society, and they deserve to be able, in the exercise of pluralism, to bring their beliefs into the public sphere just as much as people of other beliefs are entitled to do so.
Of course, secularism did not appear out of thin air. It was a reaction to an excessive and immoderate intertwining of religion and politics in the past, but secularists should now beware of committing the same errors of immoderation today, that they justly condemn churches for in the past.
For example, to seek to use the power of the state to remove every symbol or sign of religious belief from the public space would be just as immoderate as were past efforts to harness the powers of the state to push one religion on people.
It is worth recalling too that the European Convention on Human Rights, approved in 1949 before the EU came into existence, guarantees to every European the right , in its words, to
“manifest his religion, with others in public or private , in teaching, practice , worship and observance”.
This right to manifest religious belief is not subordinate to other rights in the Convention.
The Convention must be read as a whole. And the EU submits itself to the whole Convention, including to this article about how people may exercise their religious freedom, in the Lisbon Treaty. It is, of course, to point out that the Convention extends its protection to all religions and not just to Christianity.
In that context, it appears to me that the Swiss vote to ban minarets on mosques in Switzerland is a denial of the right to “manifest” religious belief “in public” as guaranteed by the Convention.
Likewise Christians should not confuse Christianity with some form of Euro centric cultural nationalism. Christians believe Christ came on earth to save all mankind, not just people who can prove European ancestry.
I hope I have shown that it is not possible entirely to separate the religion practised by a significant body of its members or citizens from any political entity such as the European Union, or vice versa.
But there are, of course, clear distinctions of function which must be respected. Working out these boundaries will be an unending task, and the boundaries will shift slightly from time to time. That there will be a continuing argument about the exact boundary at a given time should be accepted and should not be seen as threatening on either side. In the past, churches took in roles that the state was unwilling or unable to take on. Some of these can now more easily performed by the state, with its increased resources and the reduced fulltime manpower available to the churches.
But there are areas the state should not enter, and areas that the church should leave to secular authorities. As the Lisbon Treaty puts it, the Union
“respects and does not prejudice the status under national law of churches” and “shall maintain open, transparent and regular dialogue with these churches”.
Now that the Lisbon Treaty is finally passed, that dialogue is formally required of the Union .
Such dialogue would only make sense, and the Union would only have committed itself to it in the most solemn way possible in a Treaty, if it open to be influenced by the churches. What other purpose would the dialogue have? It is important to ensure that both the Union and the churches take the new obligations in the Treaty seriously.
It will be interesting to see where responsibility to implement this Treaty obligation is placed within the EU institutions.
Will a particular member of the Commission take on the role?
Will a Committee of the European Parliament take it on?
It seems to me that all institution will in some measure have to share the role
Equally churches have an obligation to respect duly constituted political institutions exercising their proper functions.
Churches do not take over the role of a state, or of its citizens, but they can help them discern what to do, and have the patient commitment to carry it through
Or, as Pope Benedict put it in his latest Encyclical, ”Caritas in Veritate”
“The Church does not have technical solutions to offer and does not claim to interfere in any way in the politics of states. She does, however, have a mission of truth to accomplish in every time and circumstance”
Recently the Catholic Bishops of the EU identified the core motivation of the Schumann Declaration, the declaration on 9 May 1950 of the French Foreign Minister which led to the setting up of the European Union ,as being
”essentially an appeal for mutual forgiveness”,
and as such a profoundly Christian act, a Christian duty too ,but one too often neglected in relations between states and nations. I know that will find similar sentiments in the doctrines of other religions active in Europe.
Forgiveness is a key word here. It is all too easy to get support for demands for apologies for this or that historical wrong committed against ones nation, but rarely does one hear calls for full and final forgiveness to be granted.
Indeed the culture shaped by the modern media seems to leave little space for forgiveness. But it was mutual forgiveness that was the unique element in the formation of the European Union. That point seems lost on some nowadays.
The formation of the European Union was also driven by an impulse of solidarity, solidarity between European states and between the people of Europe, a solidarity not confined within national frontiers.
As the Pope Benedict put it in his recent Encyclical,
“Without internal forms of solidarity and mutual trust, the market cannot completely fulfil its proper economic function. And today it is this trust that has ceased to exist, and the loss of trust is a great loss”
This is a very important insight.
All markets depend on trust. Without trust, we would find ourselves spending so much on lawyers that trading with one another would become incredibly expensive.
But where does trust come from?
It comes from a shared ethos or belief system. And where, for many people, does their ethos come from? To a significant degree, it comes from their religious beliefs or heritage.
National, European and international Regulations alone cannot create the degree of trust and confidence necessary for markets to function. There has to be trust too. Ask business people about doing business in China today and they will tell you about great opportunities there that are severely mitigated by symptoms of lack of trust, like corruption and intellectual property theft.
To summarize my argument, this is what churches contribute to the process of building the European Union,
• an understanding of the project’s moral and spiritual roots ,
• an insight on the need for the mutual trust necessary to build a common market,
• the patience and wisdom that comes from being a 2000 year old institution and
• a perspective on our responsibility towards future generations yet unborn.
These are strengths on which Europeans can draw. They threaten nobody. They diminish nobody. They are not all of what Europe is about, but they are an important part of it.