An unpopular European Union. A wildly popular Pope. A tendency to make secularist demands on Catholics and an aversion to making those same demands on religious minorities such as Muslims. This is the setting Pope Francis will step into tomorrow when he flies to the French city of Strasbourg to deliver addresses to the European Parliament and the Council of Europe.
Benjamin Harnwell is the founder of the Rome-based Dignitatis Humanae Institute (Institute for Human Dignity), a think-tank founded in the European Parliament in 2008 whose goal is to protect and promote human dignity based on the anthropological truth that man is born in the image and likeness of God. Its primary aim is to promote this vision of authentic human dignity mainly by helping Christians to be Christian in public life.
On Monday, Harnwell discussed the threat of increasing secularist intolerance against Catholics who serve in the European Institutions, even at European Commissioner level. He also shared his thoughts on what the Pope might say in Strasbourg Tuesday.
Harnwell spoke to Aleteia in a personal capacity.
What is your background working in the European Parliament?
I worked for the senior British MEP Nirj Deva, for over 15 years (starting when he was an MP in the House of Commons), eventually serving as his Chief of Staff, based in the European Parliament.
I should say straight away that many others who have far greater experience working in the European Institutions, serving at higher levels than I did, have diametrically opposite opinions from mine on these things, so I don’t want to give any impression that what follows is typical of all Christians who work in Brussels. I had one set of experiences, and drew certain conclusions from them.
What are the benefits of Pope Francis addressing the European Parliament?
Actually, it’s a little easier to see how a papal visit benefits the European Parliament, rather than to identify how it might benefit Pope Francis.
The EU is currently suffering record levels of unpopularity: the European elections earlier this year for example saw this discontent manifesting itself in unprecedented support to the traditionally “non-establishment” parties. This centrifugal development was largely towards anti-austerity populism on the one hand, and to euro-sceptic dissatisfaction on the other.
Given this grim picture, the EU will not hesitate to maneuver itself into any potential updraft: and Pope Francis obviously has stratospheric popularity levels with a demographic that is far from insignificant: according to the EU’s own 2012 statistics, 72% of EU citizens are Christian and nearly half — 48% — are Catholic. From the EU’s point of view, therefore, what could be more timely than a few dropped signals hinting that “to be a good Catholic one must be a good European?’
Those with longer memories, however, will think immediately of the rather cynical manipulation of Pope St. John Paul II, at the time of Poland’s EU accession referendum back in 2003, who was persuaded to put significant pressure on the Polish Church to lobby for a “yes” vote. It’s broadly accepted that without the Church’s support, the government would have lost that referendum. Funnily enough, I don’t remember many of the EU’s professional secularists (all fervently pro-European) passionately arguing that the Church shouldn’t get involved with politics on that occasion.
JPII had been promised (according to well-placed friends involved at the time), a quid pro quo for his Euro-enthusiasm, the famous “God” clause in any future constitutional treaty. One remembers the painful humiliation and disillusionment within the Vatican at how this promise melted like summer snow once the Church’s usefulness to the EU project was over.
I only hope that in this context, EP President Martin Schulz isn’t going to get away with playing the Catholic Church like a Stradivarius. A real risk, given that people are pretty cynical these days, would be that some of the European Union’s growing unpopularity rubs off, by association, on the Church.
If all we get tomorrow are foggy reminiscences about Robert Schuman and Jean Monnet, and “Martin Schulz was educated by Jesuits” then we will see the EU doesn’t have much serious to offer Catholics in return for being ‘legitimized’ by a papal visit, other than warm memories of the past, masking a hard-line secularist intolerance today.
European Catholics, who lest we forget are also taxpayers and voters, deserve to have their faith taken seriously by the EU.
Is there much of a danger that a papal visit could give credence to the secularist agenda of the EU, and especially that of the current president of the EP, Martin Schulz?
Yes, there is absolutely this danger, in my opinion. One has to be alert to the pressures being put on Catholics these days to “de-catholicize” themselves. Yet a Catholicism devoid of Catholic content is essentially a Christianity without Christ. Catholics need to be courageous about saying — about shouting from the rooftops, in fact — all the stuff that only a Catholic would say. The Pope could use his opportunity tomorrow to politely — but firmly — request greater space for this. He could show that he is aware of these pressures, and that they pain him.
I’m not saying that the Catholic Church should use irresponsibly the influence it has: however, there are the non-negotiables that cannot be compromised; and these apply to all Catholics: whether they work in public, or in private, life. A continuance of the current secularist intolerance would succeed in driving all faithful Catholics out of public service.
So what does this militant secularism actually look like in practice? Rocco Buttiglione (the Dignitatis Humanae Institute’s founding patron) was vetoed by the European Parliament in 2004, because he was Catholic. One senior British Socialist, who was leading the revolt, said at the time that: “Rocco Buttiglione’s nomination [as Vice-President of the European Commission, responsible for Justice and Home Affiars] is unacceptable. It is unacceptable not for anything he has ever said, but for what, as a Catholic, he might think.”
(As an aside, it was in response to this very event that the Dignitatis Humanae Institute was formed. The Universal Declaration of Human Dignity was launched in the European Parliament by its then Speaker, Prof. Hans-Gert Pöttering MEP, which I strongly invite all Aleteia readers to sign.)
Moving on in time, in 2012, Tonio Borg, the Catholic Maltese Commissioner for Health and Consumer Affairs, at risk of finishing in the same sticky end during his own nomination process, had to write to MEPs, to assure them that he would not let his private views influence his professional role as a Commissioner, and then again, to assure them of seven special guarantees, before they would approve his nomination. Even then, the socialist and liberal MEPs, despite crowing about these concessions that they had secured, refused to vote in support of him.
The European Union gives every indication of only tolerating the Catholic faith as long as it has been shorn of everything about it that is specifically and uniquely Catholic. Unless, in the years ahead, we don’t want our public officials metaphorically reduced to praying on rosaries with no crucifixes, we need to start institutionally asking the question of why members of other religions, say for example, from the Muslim community, have their sensibilities meticulously taken into account, when they are in reality, far smaller in number.
What would you most like the Holy Father to say?
I know precisely what I would like to hear the Holy Father say: exactly the same speech, word for word, that he delivered to the Humanum Conference last week (the International Inter-religious Colloquium on the Complementarity of Man and Woman). There is no social policy facing the EU as important as the decline of the traditional family.
The Pope’s speech achieved near universal, worldwide acclaim. It would be nice if the legislators of the European Parliament, people who really need to hear it, could be likewise enlightened.
What harmful proposed EU legislation should Catholics be aware of?
Just briefly, one piece currently on the agenda, that people should be aware of, is the so-called “Equal Treatment” directive — which is really just the LGBT lobby’s wish-list for a draft charter. There is a huge possibility, that if passed in its present form, it will become a licence for grave harassment of Christians — on an institutional level, backed by law. A development that would contain within it sinister overtones that bode very badly indeed for the future.
The UK is seeing a growing rejection of the EU in its current form. What possibilities and likelihood is there of reform, especially in the area of subsidiarity?
Any power structure — such as the EU — seeks to do the absolute minimum it needs to do in terms of subsidiarity, in order to maintain maximum control and yet still survive.
The real variable here is the absolute opposite of what people normally think. In a democracy, it’s not really the constitution, but the expectations and demands of the electorate, that regulates the accumulation of power by government. If people demand genuine subsidiarity, and demonstrate resolutely at the ballot box that they are not going to be fobbed off with anything less, they will get it.
I can’t predict the outcome of the UK’s renegotiations — but the comforting thought is that however it ends, the decision will lie with the British people: and that’s exactly how it should be.
The European Centre for Law and Justice recently reported that the Council of Europe is refusing to oppose neonatal infanticides. How do you believe the Pope can most effectively address this?
The ECLJ is a truly excellent NGO, run by the legendary Grégor Puppinck. I was very impressed by this piece of research. I think the Holy Father can most effectively oppose neonatal infanticide in the same way that he might oppose any systematic murder of people based on an arbitrary characteristic — which in this case is merely the person’s (young) age — by unhesitatingly and unceasingly drawing attention to it.
Perhaps the Holy Father can read out, during the intercessions of his daily Mass, the deaths of all the children who have been barbarically killed in the last 24 hours, and the hospital where the child was executed, entrusting the souls to the mercy of God. People across the world could telephone in on a special hotline with the sorrowful details. Though the infant might have been neglected and hated by the world in its little short life, it will be forever remembered by the God who Himself was rejected and despised by men.
How unspeakably sad that in so-called “civilized” societies we now routinely kill children whose time in the open air is so short, they are not even given a name before they are tossed away — literally — with the rubbish. This seems to me like a crime tailor-made to arouse the just outrage of the Pope who made famous the critique of the “throwaway culture.”
I would like to close with the idea that an authentic dialogue involves a mutual exchange of ideas. Both sides listen to one another. Given the current realities, a more humble EU might like to consider asking the Pope what it might learn from the Catholic Church about how to develop staying power, and how to nurture a genuine affection in people’s hearts. The Catholic Church pre-existed the European Union by some nineteen and a half centuries, and my money is therefore on the likelihood that it will survive its passing too; as it has seen all the other kingdoms of the world come and go.
Furthermore, in politics, the real tragedy is always that of the lost opportunity. When I see leading actors within the European Institutions using the Church when it is convenient, and then scorning the faith of Catholics, I always think straight away of the good friends I made when I was in Brussels, Catholics and Protestants alike; people who have dedicated their lives to promoting peace among the peoples, and promoting the common good in society through their public service. Tireless and passionate politicians, and public officials, many of whom have been denied or overlooked promotion because of their commitment to live coherently according to the Gospel. I think of Paul VI’s statement that politics is the highest form of charity. I think of these friends, and say to myself: these people don’t deserve to be treated like this. I hope the Holy Father will hold these people in his heart when he visits Strasbourg tomorrow.
Diane Montagna is the Rome correspondent for Aleteia.