The United Kingdom—and at the moment it is still united—has voted to leave the European Union. Are there any specifically Catholic aspects to this decision? On the face of it, yes—at least in general terms.
The European Union had Catholic roots: the vision of Catholic thinkers and politicians including Robert Schuman, Alcide de Gaspetri, and Konrad Adenauer in the years immediately following World War II. The aim was so to lock together the economies of the major Western European nations as to make war between them impossible and, because of the trust thus forged, unthinkable. These were the years of the Cold War, of Stalin’s brutality in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe, of Germany recovering some hope amid ruined cities and broken people.
Precursor of the EU
The European Community—or Common Market as it was called in Britain in the 1960s and ’70s when suggestions were first made about British membership—always included the notion of some form of full political unity and integration. But it seemed a distant possibility right up until the 1980s. Britain joined in the early ’70s amid promises that political unity would never happen. Suggestions that it was on the agenda were met with scoffs from enthusiasts for the European project.
After the fall of the Berlin Wall and freedom for Eastern Europe, extension of the European Community (that was its name by then) seemed logical, and there was a belief that including the nations of the former Eastern bloc placed the possibility of full political unity even further out of reach. Why would any nation recently released from Soviet control want to be pushed into another form of political union?
Pope St. John Paul II spoke often and with passion about Europe, calling for a revival of the Christian faith that had shaped European culture and values. He lifted the whole debate about Europe—not only in his native Poland but also in the hearts of Catholics across the continent—to a different level. But did he insist on the need for full political integration? And was the European Union that emerged into the twenty-first century one consonant with Catholic values?
Catholic origins obscured
By the time the clamor in Britain for a referendum on the possibility of a British exit (hence the coinage Brexit) from the European Union had become too loud to ignore, the EU seemed distant from its origins. Nation after nation across Western Europe was adopting laws allowing—even promoting—abortion, easy divorce, and same-sex “marriage." Church attendance figures, plummeting for years, reflected increasing secularism. If it was meant to be a Catholic venture, the EU had clearly lost its way; and in any case, few if any involved in its day-to-day management ever made any reference to those Catholic origins and were probably ignorant of them.
And so to Brexit. Spiritual values and Catholic social teaching did not feature in the campaign. The issues were political and economic, many simply assuming that leaving the EU would be a financial disaster and voting accordingly. The main issue at stake was what even some Euro-enthusiasts admitted was a “democratic deficit": the complete lack of any accountability on the part of the unelected bureaucrats running the EU. To a nation proud of its Parliamentary traditions, this is a major issue.
Catholics in Britain were and are divided on Brexit. Some (I’m one) believe that the EU stands in opposition to Church’s understanding of the need for subsidiarity, i.e., the principle that decisions should be taken by the smaller and more responsible levels of community life rather than the larger, the opposite corollary being that huge, impersonal organizations and structures are contrary to real human needs. Others argue that the original ideals of the founders of the whole project could still resonate and that opposition is centered on nationalism and is small-minded, even bigoted.
Not political union but re-evangelization
Britain has now made its decision, but the divisions remain. Scottish Catholics will certainly use the argument about subsidiarity to support their claim to be a nation, separate from England and Wales, within the EU. A clear majority of Scots voted to remain in the EU, a dramatic contrast to the vote in England.
Meanwhile, from the general Catholic perspective, Europe’s need is not for political union, but for re-evangelization and a great Christian renewal. Nationalism is on the rise and could do much harm. Something deep and real needs to be on offer.
We caught a glimpse of its possibilities when Pope Benedict XVI came to Britain and, overcoming appalling initial hostility through the sheer graciousness of his personality and behavior, spoke superbly at Westminster about the authentic relationship between faith and reason, Church and State. It was a voice of sanity and of hope offering a real way forward and paying tribute to the finest aspects of Britain’s parliamentary heritage while drawing gentle attention to the sacrifices still required in being, in St. Thomas More’s immortal words, “the king’s good servant, but God’s first."
Post-Brexit, Britain will need work closely with Europe. How could it be otherwise, when cheap jet flights, the Internet, mobile phones, and the Channel Tunnel combine to make isolationism merely a bizarre nonstarter every day of the week? We may joke about enjoying warm beer and village cricket, but the reality is that a multiracial Britain shares with the rest of Europe common concerns on everything from militant Islam to drug abuse and family breakup.
Brexit will turn out to be a good decision. But to resolve Europe’s real problems, we should look to that Christian faith that has shaped Britain and the rest of Europe for centuries—and pray for its revival.
By Joanna Bogle