Fall 2003, Vol. 6, No. 3

Table of Contents
Fall 2003

Quick Links:
Articles in this issue

From the Editor:
Under Whatever

The Anglican Crackup

The View From Lagos

Special Supplement:
Religion and the 2004 Election

The Case of Chaplain Yee

Instructions From the Vatican

The Social Gospel Lays an Egg in Alabama

God and the EU Charter

Mel Gibson, the Scribes, and the Pharisees

Gibson and Traditionalist Catholicism

The Religion of Country



God and the EU Charter
by Jean-François Mayer

Writing in the French news magazine L’Express July 17, Bernard Guetta claimed that the “most explosive topic” in framing a European Constitution would be whether to acknowledge Europe’s Christian roots. “Christ,” warned Guetta, “will divide Europe.”

At a time when the European Union (EU) is struggling to bring countries from the former Soviet bloc into its ranks, Christ is hardly the only source of division on the continent. But the Enlightenment anticlericalism that still runs strong in parts of Western Europe and the presence of large numbers of Muslim immigrants throughout the EU make the question of Europe’s Christian heritage a potent source of tension.

From February 2002 to July 2003, the drafting of the new Constitution was in the hands of a convention chaired by former French President Valéry Giscard d’Estaing. Frantic lobbying and heated rhetoric surrounded the question of whether the Preamble, in setting forth Brave New Europe’s fundamental philosophical and historical orientation, should refer to Christianity and/or God?

Some Christian Democrat members of the European Parliament proposed a nod to God along the lines of the current Polish Constitution. Mentioning the Deity “beyond religions and denominations” would provide, they said, a useful reminder that power cannot be exercised only for its own sake—and also that Europe “has a memory,” as Matthias Drobrinski put it in the Süddeutsche Zeitung October 6. In an op-ed published last December in a number of German newspapers, Hildesheim Bishop Josef Homeyer, the president of the Roman Catholic Commission of the Bishops’ Conferences of the European Community, contended that mentioning God would be “a guarantee against totalitarianisms.”

But most observers were dubious. “When it comes to democracy, human rights and equality, God is only a recent convert,” declared Spanish socialist politician Josep Borrell Fontelles. “God,” the Guardian’s Ian Black pronounced May 29, “has not always been on the side of the angels.” On October 3, Black reported that Prime Minister Tony Blair, “a devout Christian in a deeply agnostic country, takes the view that religion is such a difficult, divisive—and personal—issue, that it is best not dealt with in Brussels.”

There was more support for acknowledging Christianity. A group called the Convention of Christians for Europe, launched in April 2002, issued a manifesto declaring that “neutrality does not consist in denying the social dimension of the Christian conscience of the majority of the people of Europe, but in recognizing it, together with other religious and non-religious global conceptions with which it dialogues.”

Opposition to any mention of Christianity was led by the center-right French government in the name of laicité, a concept often mistranslated as secularism but which reflects two centuries of resistance by the French state to the once dominant Roman Catholic Church. Writing in the November 9, 2002 issue of the newspaper Libération, the well-known French political analyst Alain Duhamel claimed that the recent victory of a moderate Islamic party in Turkey justified France’s uncompromising approach: Only by firmly anchoring European constitutionalism in laicité could Europeans eventually bring Turkey with its huge Muslim population into the EU.

Across the channel, London Times essayist Jonathan Meades on May 10 denounced pro-Christianity lobbying as “essays both in the repoliticisation of the Church and in turning back the clock to a denominationally homogeneous Europe—a Europe which doesn’t exist but which the Vatican’s will might cause to come to pass.”

A draft of the Preamble published May 28 omitted any explicit reference to Christianity: “Drawing inspiration from the cultural, religious and humanist inheritance of Europe, which, nourished first by the civilisations of Greece and Rome, characterised by spiritual impulse always present in its heritage and later by the philosophical currents of the Enlightenment, has embedded within the life of society its perception of the central role of the human person and his inviolable and inalienable rights, and of respect for law…”

This was “a victory for the churches,” suggested Jean Quatremer in Libération May 29. It didn’t “negate religious realities” but put them “into an historical perspective which, Giscard hopes, will be acceptable to everybody.” Jerusalem, Athens, and Rome are indeed the three sources of European culture, remarked retired professor of pastoral theology Casiano Floristan in Madrid’s El Pais May 29, but there is no need to “mention the contribution of the Christain faith explicitly in the European Constitution” as long as “basic values of the Christian tradition endorsed by modernity” are present in it.

The churches themselves, however, didn’t see it that way.

Vatican foreign minister Jean-Louis Tauran denounced the text as the product of an “authoritarian temptation to rewrite history.” As far as the Moscow Patriarchate was concerned, the “special reference to the philosophical currents of the Enlightenment” revealed “an ideological bias.” Such currents should only be mentioned, said the Patriarchate, “along with the Christian inheritance and perhaps that of other religions visibly present in Europe”—a riposte to Giscard d’Estaing’s remark that Christianity could not be included without referring to Judaism and Islam as well.

What was at stake, wrote Le Monde religion editor Henri Tincq June 12, was the “way religions are perceived” in today’s Europe.

After many last minute interventions and pressures, the convention chose a minimalist solution, dropping all references to specific historical civilizations and movements: “Drawing inspiration from the cultural, religious and humanist inheritance of Europe, the values of which, still present in its heritage, have embedded within the life of society the central role of the human person and his or her inviolable and inalienable rights, and respect for law…”

This did not satisfy Greek Orthodox Archbishop Christodoulos of Athens (who called it “a dagger in the back of European civilization”) or several Roman Catholic prelates. But others in the religious camp felt that sufficient progress had been made.

In a lecture at the University of Fribourg, Switzerland on June 12, a few hours after the final draft of the Preamble had been disclosed, an influential Italian Roman Catholic, Prof. Giovanni Barberini, suggested that the (provisional) outcome should not be seen as a defeat for the Roman Catholic Church and could have been half a victory: Although Christianity was not mentioned, references to the Enlightenment had disappeared.

Moreover, Barberini said, Article 51 of the draft met some of the more concrete desires of Catholic Church, including recognition of the particular church-state arrangements of each EU member state and a promise to maintain “an open, transparent and regular dialogue” with churches and other religious organizations. Indeed, faced with new institutions spanning the European continent, Europe’s Christian churches sense new opportunities as well as threats and are determined to be seen as respected players even in a context of secularization.

In October, as an Inter Governmental Conference (ICG) began work to finalize the draft Constitution by the end of the year, changes in the Preamble were still possible. Although French President Jacques Chirac warned in September that “the secular character of French institutions does not allow them to accept a religious reference,” several countries—primarily Italy, Spain, Ireland, and Poland (slated to joint the EU in 2004)—continued to push for some explicit mention of Christianity. Writing in El Mundo October 3, magistrate Jose Luis Requero insisted that historical truth required a deeper understanding of the content of Europe’s civilizational work than the one offered by the draft.

All in all, the Preamble has served as the occasion for a wider debate over the place of religion in Europe. On one side are high Enlightenment types like lawyer Jose Maria Ruiz Soroa who, writing in El Pais July 23, denounced the return of religion “disguised as cultural roots,” since what defines Europe as a political community consists in “having expelled [religion] from the political sphere forever.”

On the other side are those like the Neue Zürcher Zeitung’s Klara Obermüller, who in a June 22 commentary wrote that the Enlightenment had “reached its limits” and that “today one who doesn’t want today to know more about religion is outmoded, while one who is aware of its growing importance—for good as well as for evil—is modern.” Europe, she continued, is “a continent whose fate…was and under many aspects still is influenced by religion.”

 Perhaps, as Anthony Bellanger philosophically put it in Agence France Presse’s Courrier international July 18, the authors of the draft Preamble could not have been expected to solve “the question of God.” Although it is peacefully taking place in chanceries and conference halls, “there is,” Luc de Barochez commented in Le Figaro October 6, “a war of religion in 21st-century Europe.”










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