From the time of the French revolution, the Catholic Church has always encouraged relationships between nations that draw them together rather than divide them. It is for this reason that the Church has always been broadly supportive of the European Union, although with reservations.
There will be many Catholics on both sides of the coming referendum. Many of us have concerns about recent developments in the EU, such as the official removal of the reference to the continent’s Christian history from the European Constitution a few years ago. The more general push towards secularisation troubles us, too.
Recent popes have questioned the tendency to regard the goal of the EU as the optimisation of market forces. They have challenged Europe to rediscover its roots and to renew itself and reconnect with its citizens, and to realise that a narrow EU will eventually atrophy and die.
It is instructive to read what Pope-emeritus Benedict says about Europe. He argues that the approach of Europe’s founding fathers — which spoke to the moral heritage of the continent — is absent from the debate about its future. Europe’s founding fathers, he says, ‘were seeking a European identity that would not dissolve or deny the national identities but rather unite them at a higher level of unity into one community of peoples’.
He argues that, without reference to the values and common traditions that made Europe in the past, the future of Europe is at risk. Europe ‘must not give up on itself’, he says. He further warns of a Europe that has come about through the rupture of faith and reason that began during the Enlightenment and developed in the centuries since then. It is a Europe cut adrift from its roots and history, a Europe that separates itself from ethical traditions and relies solely on technological reasoning and its possibilities. Christianity, in Benedict’s view, has a significant role in contributing to the renewal and building of a new Europe. So also, I believe, has Britain in shaping Europe for future years.
Pope Francis has not addressed the concept of Europe as much as his predecessors, in part because he is Argentinian. Yet, addressing the European Parliament two years ago, he too urged the continent’s democratic leaders ‘to return to the firm conviction of the founding fathers, of a European Union which envisioned a future based on a capacity to work together in bridging divisions and in fostering peace and fellowship between all the peoples of this continent’.
‘A Europe which is no longer open to the transcendent dimension of life is a Europe which risks slowly losing its own soul and that humanistic spirit which it still loves and defends,’ he added. Pope Francis affirmed that ‘Unity does not mean uniformity of political, economic and cultural life or ways of thinking. Indeed, all authentic unity draws from the rich diversities which make it up. In this sense it is like a family, which is all the more united when each of its members is free to be fully himself or herself. I consider Europe as a family of peoples.’
I was born and brought up in England and, like many others, I have Irish roots. One of my brothers was a regular officer in the British Army and fought in the Korean War. I care deeply about Britain and its future. However, I also feel close to Europe because I lived for many years in Italy and, as a bishop, I have been in touch with fellow bishops from all the European countries on a regular basis. As a result, I understand how they feel about the need for wider European unity and cooperation.
This year’s EU referendum requires the people of our country to think seriously about a range of questions. Is Europe just a marriage of convenience or has it a set of common values? How can we ensure that the engagement and debate of the weeks leading up to the referendum are not held at the level of the lowest common denominator or simply reduced to the utilitarian? Is there the risk of a wave of English nationalism? Would a vote to leave the EU lead to Scottish secession? Would it confuse and complicate the relations between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland? The EU has been a stabilising force in Europe over the past 60 years: how would those advocating a ‘leave’ argument build bridges with the EU rather than barriers? How can all Europeans take up the challenge of the popes to refocus and to renew Europe?
It seems to me that all the above is not just a British problem but one shared by the whole of Europe. Our continent has reached a crossroads. There are very many crises facing Europe. The referendum in the UK is about much more than simply whether this country remains in the EU. It touches, as our friends from beyond the borders of Europe have reminded us in recent weeks, fundamental issues about Britain’s place in the world.
Personally, I regret that this referendum is taking place without sufficient awareness and reflection on the more profound issues of our time. Those campaigning for Britain to stay in the EU need to show that the challenges facing the UK and our European partners are better faced together than apart, and they need to explain why this is the case. A narrow utilitarian approach — trying to demonstrate how much better off each family might be in pounds and pence — will not work. The need for reform and renewal in Europe is evident. It is still not clear whether the EU is capable of such renewal, but the UK’s withdrawal would, I think, make renewal even more difficult. That is the main reason why I wish Britain to remain a part of the European community and cooperate with its partners in making a vital contribution to that renewal with its own particular creativity and its desire to build a union that is greater than the sum of its parts. The UK should not only look for its own interests, but be concerned for all human society on our continent and throughout the world.