Pope Francis: the European challenge
A Europe made of bridges, not of walls. Cardinal Pietro Parolin, Vatican Secretary of State, described this way Pope Francis’ idea of Europe at the eve of the Charlemagne Prize Award Ceremony in honor of the Pope. Since 1950, the prize is conferred to a person who has promoted European integration. Pope Francis is the second pope to win the Prize – St. John Paul II won an extraordinary prize in 2004. Pope Francis was chosen for the award because his words have an impact on the current notion of European integration.
Francis accepted the award, despite the fact that he usually does not accept prizes. He did it in continuity with the European effort of his predecessors, but also to give a sign to Europe. But what is the reason that Europe looks to Pope Francis to keep the European dream alive?
There are many motives, indeed. Pope Francis made his first international trip to a country of the European Union when he went to Lesbos, in Greece. Neither Tirana (Albania) nor Sarajevo (Bosnia) were capitals of countries included in the European Union. The trip to Strasbourg was only a visit to a European institution, not to France.
In Lesbos, Pope Francis met refugees waiting to get into Europe. There, he wanted to give Europe an example by using the practice of humanitarian corridors to carry with him twelve refugees who are being looked after by the Sant’Egidio community. In Lesbos, the Pope outlined his concept of Europe, that is, a welcoming Europe that does not send migrants back into the sea and that takes care of human lives.
This is the same idea that the top European ranks want to promote.
While the European Union is experiencing a strong crisis, the entrance of new immigrants is seen by many as an opportunity to build a new identity. This new identity is probably less Christian, and more multicultural. In fact the Christian roots of Europe have already been denied, and the project for drafting a European Constitution has been aborted. In the end, the themes of the Catholic Church’s social teachings hardly find a space in Europe; they are instead victims of a European pragmatism that does not intend to build a new society, but rather a cold, political world.
Pope Francis’ speeches delivered November 25, 2014 to the European Parliament and the Council of Europe provided the guiding lines of the reasons for the Charlemagne Award. Out of those speeches, the European leadership cut the more uncomfortable passages that spoke about the right to life from conception to natural death, that denounced the waste of unborn children and of the elderly. Even the references to the family seemed to be cut out from the European Parliament’s official release of the Pope’s address, whereas the themes of welcoming the immigrants and social issues in general were emphasized.
The same thing happened with Pope Francis’ acceptance speech. After the speech, Martin Schulz, President of the EU Parliament, and Jean Claude Juncker, President of the European Commission, held a press conference. They emphasized the Pope’s messages about unemployment and against nationalism, but they did not refer to the Pope’s dream for a Europe for and with families, meaning by “families” those formed by a father, mother and children.
However, the themes cut out are still hard-hitting. Through “soft-law” processes – meaning those operating with non-binding resolutions as a “moral suasion” on States – European countries are pressured ever so slightly to change their legislation. This the reason that the possibility of euthanasia in cases of depression is pushed forward, the presumed “right to abortion” is always reaffirmed and gay marriage is almost imposed on national laws.
The latest issue concerns surrogacy motherhood. Despite the fact that the European Parliament has disapproved the practice, and that the Council of Europe has already set aside a resolution proposing that the practice be at least regulated, the efforts pushing for an acceptance of the practice are still strong.
These efforts became evident in one of the meetings that took place during the latest Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe, when, in a side (and unscheduled) meeting, supporters tried to re-introduce discussion on surrogacy.
The real situation is that the Christian world (not only the Catholic one) is completely at the margins of the discussions. Themes are raised, Christian politicians and lobbyists take part in the discussions and explain their reasons. Sometimes, they lose the debate for several reasons that we can sum up in a word: prejudice. This happened, for example, with resolutions that extended the notion of family to homosexual couples.
However, any time family issues are raised, the discussion is closed with the excuse that the debate has already been concluded. Any affirmation about what the family really is is automatically branded “hate speech.”
Thus is religious belief reduced to silence. Already in 2012, the then “Vatican Minister for Foreign Affairs,” Archbishop Dominique Mamberti, explained the Church’s autonomy, stressing that religious communities are not lawless spaces, but rather spaces for freedom. This freedom needs to be guaranteed.
But is this freedom really safeguarded? At a wide glance, we can say that it is not. The 2014 Aid to the Church in Need Report on Religious Freedom revealed the shocking data that religious freedom was also being assailed in the western world. And the 2015 US Report on Religious Freedom, drafted by the US Commission on International Religious Freedom, raised “concerns” about religious freedom in Western Europe that were on a par with Bahrain, Bangladesh, Belarus, Kyrgyzstan and the horn of Africa.
In Bulgaria, a recent law requiring registration for religious communities places religious freedom at risk. In a commentary, Robert Clarke, from the Alliance for Defending Freedom compared the new law to the laws promulgated to control religion during the Soviet era of domination.
The Bulgarian law includes more than the obligation for registration on the part of each religious denomination. Registration is guaranteed only to religions that have a certain tradition in the country, and this clause would cut out many Christian confessions. The law also allows for monitoring their financial accounts.
These are the major European issues, extending far beyond the immigration issue, although this latter is an important one.
There must be a bridging between institutions and people, more than between States.
In fact, European peoples are very much committed when they are made aware of the issues at stake. For example, two million citizens have signed a petition in Romania to defend the natural family. And the natural family has been defended by referendums and citizen initiatives in Slovenia, Slovakia and Poland.
In the end, the Church is alive and strong within its people, and its voice can be refined in diplomacy. This Church is longing for Pope Francis to broadcast his voice.
Members of the Council of European Bishops’ Conferences (CCEE) also showed the complexity of the issues at stake. The Council is composed of the presidents of the episcopal conferences within Europe, and it is different from COMECE, a committee that works as an interface between the European bishops’ conferences and the European Parliament.
Pope Francis met with the CCEE on May 2, thus marking the beginning of his European week.
During a press conference following the meeting with the Pope, Cardinal Angelo Bagnasco, President of the Italian Bishops Conference and Deputy President to the CCEE, underscored that “we all know that there are centers of power with the ability to change not the course of history, but the course of the river of history. Their final goal is to restructure the human being, and then society. Their scope is to better manipulate the human being, thus weakening society, and the feeling of belonging. And we all lament about the lack of the feeling of belonging.”
Talking about the topics discussed during the meeting with Pope Francis, Cardinal Bagnasco recounted that “we talked about peace, immigration, the Middle East, and also interreligious dialogue,” and identified “a common root for every issue in the need to respond to the complexity and sensitivity of the issues through new and more proper legislation.”
As far as legislation is concerned, the CCEE Vice-President said that “on one side, we must have right and straightforward laws,” but “on the other side, there is a proliferation of legislation that might signal the weakness of institutions. Legislation is needed, but it cannot cover every aspect of life. It is necessary to nurture conscience, and this must be done by member States and the European Union. We need a more in-depth formation of individual and collective consciences.”
The multiplication of legislation is in the end one of the most important problems of the European Union. Every State is pushing to enter in a wider economic union, as this brings benefits and financial aid. Even Turkey exchanged the return of refugees with the possibility for Turkish citizens to have visa-less access to Europe. In fact, the freedom of circulation does not reinforce the European identity. It rather reinforces its economic union. In this union, religions are set aside, or, in the end, they are used for a political end.
New legislation pertaining to the so-called 3rd and 4th generation rights tries to liberalize everything. The notion of family is enlarged, the right to abortion is promoted, and euthanasia is accepted. Behind this complete “freedom” of the human being to manipulate and end life, there is the final detachment from the love of others, in the end, the detachment of the human being from society.
In a private conversation, Msgr. Livio Melina, President of the John Paul II Institute for Studies on Marriage and Family, put it this way: “When the Church advocates sexuality united to love, for the union of sexuality and procreation and for sexuality within marriage, it is advocating for the dignity of love and of the human being. It is defending man’s ability to be a subject against those powers that want to reduce man to an object.”
In the end, when the human being “is outside this relation of love, it simply becomes an individual that strong powers can manipulate. Strong powers then give the human being the hedonist pleasure of sexuality, but they do not concede him the opportunity to love for real and to be bound to love. This reduction of sexuality is a means to control the human being, as the philosopher Herbert Marcuse already thought.”
Religious freedom, human dignity, the building of a social network: these are the fundamental issues of Europe today. These issues are defended by a small group of Christians who work in European institutions. On one side, there is a secularist view of religion, on the other side, religions as a space for liberty. On one side, love for the human being (and its integral development), on the other side, the human being as part of a bigger mechanism.
In his acceptance speech for the Charlemagne Prize, Pope Francis emphasized the need for integration, for the ability to dialogue and to generate. But he also stressed the problem of ideological colonization, a core issue in his pontificate. Another core issue is the topic of family, to which the Pope dedicated two Synods.
It would have been nice had these two Synod focused on the big issues of Europe (and of the world), rather than focusing on doctrinal and disciplinary problems (like sacramental Communion for divorced and civilly remarried Catholics). This focus on smaller issues effectively put aside the big challenges facing the Church in the European continent, and by extension in the whole world.
Pope Francis himself has underscored that Europe is a reference point. He did so during a meeting with members of the French group “Poisson Roses,” Catholics coming from the ranks of Socialism. “Europe is the only continent with a universal vocation,” the Pope said.
This universal vocation seems to be lost in front of a European Union that has all the more turned into an economic union. Yet, the Church always believed in European union. There is a Vatican diplomat appointed to the European Union, with the rank of nuncio and not with that of an observer, as is usual in the case of international organizations. The presence of the nuncio proves that the Holy See always considered Europe a unique entity, even from the political point of view.
Now, the Holy See is called on to fight to keep Europe anchored to its original values which Schumann designed while praying in the 1000 year-old cathedral of Strasbourg and then shared with De Gasperi and Adenauer: three Catholics gave birth to European Union.
Perhaps, the real response is in a speech that Pope Benedict XVI delivered in 2008 at the College de Bernardins in Paris. Benedict saw the seed of Europe in the quaerere Deum, the search for God of the monks of the Middle Ages. Traveling, collecting and translating documents, simply loving and spreading the word of God, they created the basis for the European dream. This search for God is the real soul of European Union: Pope Francis is certainly aware of this.