God and Government

While Many See Europe as a Secular Haven, the Reality is a Very Different Picture.

By Terry Sanderson
Spring 2005

The Vatican is traumatized. The power it has taken for granted in Europe for centuries is suddenly slipping away from it at an alarming rate. Several recent events have caused alarm in Rome that Christian influence on the continent is under severe threat.

The refusal of the pope’s plea for a mention of a “Christian heritage” in the proposed European Constitution was a herald of several other setbacks. The unprecedented rejection of Rocco Buttiglione (click here to read CFFC’s fact sheet on Buttiglione), an ultraconservative Catholic candidate for the European Commission (and seen by many as the pope’s man) soon followed. In Austria, where more than 90% of the population is nominally Catholic but where fewer than 12% regularly attend mass, the rightwing governing party, the Christian Democrats, had its proposal to stress the centrality of Christianity in the preamble to its own new constitution toned down to become simply a reference to “the Creation.” The Social Democrats and the Greens want it scrapped altogether.

Cardinal Josef Ratzinger blames the rise of “aggressive secularism.” In an interview with the newspaper La Repubblica, he said secularism is being “transformed into an ideology which is imposed through politics and does not give public space to the Catholic or Christian vision, which runs the risk of becoming something purely private and thus disfigured. We must defend religious freedom against the imposition of an ideology which is presented as if it were the only voice of rationality, when it is only the expression of a ‘certain’ rationalism.”

But what is secularism in this context? Is it really a unified ideology seeking to usurp the Vatican’s power or is it simply the default position when there is a general loss of interest in organized religion?

Declining Interest in Religion

There is no doubt that all Christian denominations, Catholic and Protestant, are fading fast in Europe. While the admission of several Eastern European states last year has brought the Catholic population of the EU to 60%—at least nominally—the growing indifference to organized religion has been evident for 60 years, and is now accelerating. The churches of Europe stand largely empty. People no longer see religion as relevant and this apathy is reinforced for many by the apparent inhumanity and authoritarianism of some churches.

This simple truth has yet to be acknowledged by the Vatican. Instead, Ratzinger imagines that if the march of “secularism” could be halted, then the flocks would return to church. This is a grave error on the cardinal’s part. Look at what has happened in Britain, where the Anglican Church is established by law, but only three percent of the population attend its services on an average Sunday. Projections show that within a decade there will be more practicing Muslims in Britain than there will be Christians.

The last census in England and Wales in 2001, which had, for the first time, a question about religious affiliation, showed that 72% of the population defined itself as Christian. The church tried to gain some succor from this—people may not come to church, they argued, but most still support it. But then a survey by the British government showed that when asked to rank ten elements that were important in their lives, 80% put religion at the very bottom of the list.

This indicates that Britain is now a nation of “cultural Christians.” We have grown used to the heritage that Christianity has brought, but we don’t want it to rule us any more. And this attitude is spreading throughout Western Europe.

A Litany of Insubordination

In Spain, the new centre-left government under Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero has made clear that it wishes to reduce some of the Vatican’s traditional privileges, gained by a concordat signed with the dictator Franco. A recent opinion poll showed that 61 % of Spaniards supported the government’s most controversial new measure, the legalization of gay marriage. And 72 % said the Roman Catholic church, which currently receives an estimated €140 million ($190 million) from state coffers, should be left to finance itself.

The pope and his bishops are furious at these developments, but in the light of popular support for Zapatero, he is unable to do anything about it.

Even in Italy, where papal influence has always been strongest, things are changing. Church attendance here, too, is falling fast. Abortion has been legal for 25 years. Catholic teaching on personal matters is widely discarded; despite the pope’s intractable opposition to contraception, something like 80% of Italians ignore the ban.

All the same, the Vatican has recently been exploiting and reinforcing its residual influence throughout Europe to make concordats, formal agreements between the pope and a government for the regulation of church affairs, with as many countries as it can persuade.

In Germany, there has recently been a rush by both Catholic and Lutheran churches to push through concordats with all of the country’s sixteen states. One reason for this is clear. Church membership is declining and the churches can no longer claim to represent the majority of the German population. This is an embarrassment for churches, which have traditionally justified their power and privileges on the grounds that they were “the [German] people’s church” (Volkskirche) and as such wielded the ultimate moral authority.

A concordat offers the churches a way out of the problem of declining membership. It enables them to get around the inconvenient principle of majority rule, for it is an agreement which can be entered into by parliament, but it cannot be unilaterally altered, let alone cancelled, by either party (not that the Vatican would want to). A concordat is thus the churches’ way of extending its privileges, including massive state subsidies, even as its membership is decreasing—and also of locking these payments in. With a concordat there is no realistic possibility of reducing the state contribution.

Constitutional Implications

“The Vatican is using concordats to extend its privileges, including massive state subsidies and wants to codify these privileges into the new European Constitution.”

However, a second and more ominous reason has been suggested for the Vatican’s rush to make concordats with all the countries of the European Union at both the state and national levels. The church wants to codify these privileges quickly, so that they can be cast in stone by Article 52 of the new European Constitution.

When Article 52 says the European Union will respect “the various forms of relationships between the churches and the states,” that means that it will protect them by integrating them into Community Law, which can supercede national regulations (unless an opt-out is already in place, as is the case with Slovakia). After the likely ratification of the Constitution, all forms of relationship between religions and the states, i.e. the concordats, established churches and state religions, the clerical statute of Alsace-Moselle, church taxes and the offence of blasphemy will be integrated into Community Law.

After the Constitution is finally approved, the agreement of the 25 member states will be required to repeal a concordat—be it Bonapartist, Hitlerian, pro-Franco, Mussolinian or Salazarist. It will be just as if the party might want to modify the European Constitution itself. That is to say, an impossible task. That is why the Vatican is beavering away throughout Europe to endorse concordats before the final ratification of the European Constitution. This is the result: of the 25 member states of the European Union, 14 have a concordat with the Vatican. And most of the others have established religions.

Two Laws on Human Rights

A concordat also sets up a theological fiefdom where certain human rights do not apply—and where they can never again be reintroduced without the consent of the church. In short, concordats represent a fundamental threat to both democracy and human rights.

For instance, Slovakia—one of the ten new members of the EU—has announced that it will not recognize some sections of European human rights law, particularly those concerned with gay marriage. At a meeting of EU foreign affairs ministers in Brussels, the Slovak government said that it would take unilateral action and refuse to recognize any gay marriages, civil unions or similar arrangements made anywhere else in Europe. This is, of course, in line with Vatican policy.

Slovakia’s decision means that there will be two separate human rights laws within the EU, one dictated by consent, the other by the Vatican. Some EU leaders fear that if one country can opt out of laws, others could do the same about other laws with which they disagree, ultimately emasculating the Union and rendering the concept of universal human rights meaningless.

Article 52 of the European Constitution effectively ratifies all these concordats at the state and national levels once again and gives them the further protection of the European Constitution.

This means that in Germany a generally deductible “church tax” brings in between €8 and €9 billion for the two main Christian denominations each year will be inviolable. Up to three-quarters of this is spent on church personnel and bureaucracy. In addition, general taxation funds religious education at state schools, the training of priests and theologians at university, “pastoral care” (e.g. in the military and in prisons), church broadcasts on public television and radio, and more. The church operates its own kindergartens, schools, hospitals and homes for the elderly, which are all largely financed by the state.

Throughout Europe, commentators and politicians fear that religious power-seeking, both from Christianity and Islam, will lead to unprecedented conflicts within previously stable democratic nations. In some countries, such as Britain, there are desperate attempts to placate Islamic demands. At the behest of the Muslim Council of Britain, Tony Blair’s Labour government is proposing a new offence of “incitement to religious hatred” which its critics claim will amount to a new blasphemy law, severely curtailing free speech and criticism of religion. Now there are even calls for sharia law to be introduced in Britain to enable the Muslim community to settle its own civil disputes.

Multiculturalism, in the sense of allowing non-Christian and non-European immigrants to establish discrete communities, functioning apart from the host culture, is widely seen to have failed. Increasingly there are calls for greater integration and a proper embrace by immigrants of the native cultures of their chosen countries. In the light of the war in Iraq and the perception among Muslims that they are being persecuted because of their religion, this change of tack has created even more suspicion and enmity.

In the Netherlands, once a bastion of liberal tolerance, there have been assassinations by Islamists of public figures who criticized Islam. The taken-for-granted secularism and easy-going attitude to religious belief in the Netherlands is suddenly teetering under this new threat. There have been calls to beef up the blasphemy laws, to crack down on immigration, to force imams to preach only in Dutch.

In Belgium, too, politicians are in hiding because of threats to their life from Islamic extremists who will not tolerate criticism of their faith. This is leading to the rise of right-wing political parties who are seen as the only ones prepared to stand up for the values upon which Europe has been built.

In Germany, Europe’s largest member state, a strong debate is taking place about the integration of Muslims and Islam into German society. German Interior Minister Otto Schily told the news magazine Der Spiegel that his long-term goal is that Muslims in Germany accept a ‘European Islam’ which respects the values of the Enlightenment and stands up for the rights of women. Schily said that Germany’s regions should be more rigorous about deporting people when integration efforts fail. “They have to make more use of being able to deport hate preachers and similar figures than they have up to now,” he said.

In light of this, new interest is being shown in the idea of secularism as a means of accommodating all religions into a society that lets none of them take power. This is anathema to both Catholicism and Islam, which both at base see religion and the state as inseparable. But a conflict between the Vatican and Islam is already taking shape. Rome has asked the United Nations to recognize the concept of “Christianophobia” in the way it has recognized “Islamophobia” in order to protect more easily those Christians persecuted by Islam.

The cultural struggle to bring a truly secular ethos to Europe, in an effort to provide justice for all, may yet become all-out warfare.

Terry Sanderson is the vice-president of the National Secular Society in London, UK.

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