Pope John Paul II this week repeated his call for the forthcoming European constitution to acknowledge Europe’s Christian heritage. Three days later, the presidents of Poland and Lithuania (two of the 10 nations entering the European Union next year) joined the leaders of Ireland, Italy, Portugal and Spain in supporting the Pope’s idea. High officials of the Anglican and several Orthodox churches have also lent their endorsement.
The current draft of the constitution contains no specific reference to Christianity, though it fleetingly invokes “religion” as one source of Europe’s values. Valéry Giscard d’Estaing, the former French president who headed the group that produced the draft, has said that mentioning Christianity was impossible without support from all the member states.
France and Belgium were reportedly at the forefront of the opposition. Objections included possible legal ramifications for controversial issues such as abortion, and the sensitivities of Europe’s growing Muslim population. The prime minister of Turkey has also spoken against mentioning Christianity (though given how reluctant the E.U. is to let Turkey in, that can’t have made much difference).
Faced with accusations of divisiveness and suspicions of bigotry, proponents have argued on historical grounds. The prime minister of Portugal recently noted that “to talk of Europe from a cultural point of view without mentioning the legacy of its Judeo-Christian roots is purely and simply a historical mistake.”
So obvious and irrefutable is this truth, responds Giscard, that it might as well go without saying; everyone will know what the constitution means by “religion.”
At this point, even believers might be wondering why any of this should matter. Christianity doesn’t need validation from the E.U., of course. Yet John Paul, an ardent and emphatic supporter of European integration, evidently believes that the E.U. needs validation from Christianity.
Common sense suggests that the E.U., an unprecedented experiment in uncoerced supranational governance, and therefore dependent on the voluntary suppression of patriotism and national interest, can’t succeed unless it appeals to some deeper impulse than the desire to eliminate trade barriers. Without Germany or Russia posing an imminent threat to European peace, fear won’t do the trick.
The German philosopher Jürgen Habermas, one of the most influential thinkers on the subject of European integration, has argued that the continent’s unity depends not just on Europeans’ common economic interest but on their collective “attachment to a particular ethos … a specific way of life.”
For Habermas, that ethos is the welfare-state ideal of social justice and solidarity. The E.U.’s draft constitution states that the “Union is founded on the values of respect for human dignity, liberty, democracy, equality, the rule of law and respect for human rights … in a society of pluralism, tolerance, justice, solidarity and non-discrimination.”
The problem with such values, as the political scientist Glyn Morgan points out, is that they are no justification or argument for European integration. Europeans can enjoy all these goods living under an old-fashioned system of nation states.
Nor is the E.U. necessary for Christianity or any other religion. Yet if the Pope is right, Christianity favors and fosters European unity. As he put it last Sunday: “The gospel of Christ, which has been a unifying element for the European people through centuries, still remains an unfailing source of spirituality and brotherhood today.… The explicit recognition in the treatise of the roots of Christianity in Europe would become the principal guarantee of the future of the continent.”
Less than two months before E.U. members meet in Rome to consider the constitution, the campaign to write Christ into the document seems quixotic, doomed to failure by the spirit of the age. On the other hand, when the Pope came to the throne in 1978, who would have predicted that then-Communist Poland would 25 years later be a leading advocate for declaring Europe Christian? Probably nobody except John Paul himself.