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Statement of Catholics for a Free Choice Europe Regarding the European Parliament’s September 5 Debate on Dialogue Between the Commission and Churches and Non-Confessional Organizations

September 5, 2005

Presented by Elfirede Harth, Catholics for a Free Choice, European Representative

Catholics for a Free Choice (CFFC) welcomes the discussion in the European Parliament regarding dialogue between the European Commission and churches and non-confessional organisations.

CFFC strongly supports the inclusion of nongovernmental voices in the development of EU policy. This includes the voice of churches and non-confessional and philosophical organisations that have considerable knowledge and experience regarding many matters that come before the community.

At the same time, we strongly support the principles articulated in the oral question raised by Sophie In’t Veld and 37 members of Parliament, which states that “the dialogue will be balanced and inclusive with regard to the participating organisations.”

We further endorse the suggested practices raised by the question:

  1. No privileged relations will exist with any particular religion or movement; the dialogue will take place on the basis of an established list of participants, published on the website of the Commission;
  2. The dialogue will be transparent; to the effect that the meeting agenda and minutes will be published and meetings take place in public;
  3. The dialogue will be put on the same footing as the dialogue with other sections of civil society.

Given the fact that the European Constitution has not been adopted, the EU has to be run according to the rules of the Nice Treaty. Article 52 [1] of the proposed Constitution, which was quite controversial and a compromise, should not be the basis for the relationship between churches and non-confessional and philosophical organisations and the EU.

Thus far, the only official mention of religious institutions and non-confessional organisations existing in the Treaties of the European Union is a footnote in the 1997 Treaty of Amsterdam, establishing the European Union[2]:

11. Declaration on the status of churches and non-confessional organisations 
The European Union respects and does not prejudice the status under national law of churches and religious associations or communities in the Member States. The European Union equally respects the status of philosophical and non-confessional organisations.

In spite of the relegation of religion to the national realm in accord with the EU principle of subsidiarity and the strong claims made by some religious organisations that the EU has no standing to legislate relative to religion, practices have evolved in the EU in which certain churches have been informally and, in some cases, formally granted privileged status.

As members of one of these religions, Roman Catholicism, we are very concerned by this practice and believe that it actually discriminates against the views and values of many Roman Catholics.

There is, we believe, no justification or need for the EU to institute and maintain diplomatic relationships with religious authorities that present themselves as international political players. A limited number of religions desire such relations, most notably the Order of Malta and the Holy See. Most religious entities seek only the same status and rights as other NGOs and expect no such special privileges.

Diplomatic relations should be based on clearly defined definitions of statehood under international law and comparable state level practices of democracy, equality and respect for human rights as is demanded of member states. To establish diplomatic relations with entities where these principles are not part of the governing structure of the religion or organisation would be violative of EU values and principles as stipulated in the Charter of Fundamental Rights of the European Union, adopted in Nice in 2000.

This principle should extend to special institutional relationships with organisations representing the corporate interests of a special (religious) body. For example, at present the Commission of the Bishops Conferences of the European Community (COMECE), one of whose members is the apostolic nuncio to the European Union (a foreign diplomat), holds the status of official “civil society” interlocutor of the Catholic faith community with the European Commission. While we very much respect many of the specialized contributions of COMECE, based on the experience and programs of its members working in the fields of poverty alleviation, care of immigrants and other matters, these contributions are also made by other non-faith-based NGOs and by platforms of NGOs who hold no special status. A level playing field between and among all NGOs must be maintained. The Commission and Parliament should also consider whether or not the COMECE, as well as other religious groups, fully subscribe to the values of the EU on central issues like equality between women and men, divorce, same sex couples, sexuality education, contraception, abortion, HIV and AIDS prevention and the role of religion in policy making.

An important element of dialogue between governments and NGOs, including religious NGOs, is the question of their constituency representation. If NGOs put forward positions that the majority or a large minority of their constituents do not agree with, should the government take those NGOs seriously? An AP/Ipsos poll conducted in May 2005 [3] shows that there is widespread support for a clear divide between politics and religion. More than three quarters (77%) of citizens of the United Kingdom rejected the idea that their religious leaders try to influence government decisions, a position shared by 76% in Spain, 75% in Germany, 72% in France and 63% in Italy. In 1998, 46% of Irish Catholics found that the Catholic church has too much power [4], and in 2001, 56% of Polish citizens stated that the participation of the Catholic church in politics was excessive. [5]

In the example of the COMECE, which is recognized by the European Commission as interlocutor of the Catholic faith community, there are a number of issues on which the COMECE does not reflect the views of its constituency. Large majorities of Catholics throughout Europe believe that cohabitation before marriage is acceptable, a clear form of civil union increasingly recognized by the EU including 76% of German Catholics, 72% of Spanish Catholics, 62% of French Catholics and 58% of Catholics in Portugal. [6] One out of ten babies born in Spain, a country with a population of 90% of Catholics, has been conceived through medically assisted reproduction. [7] Opinion polls throughout Europe show increasing support for civil unions for both gay and straight couples, and the Netherlands, Belgium and Spain were the first three countries in the world to legalize gay marriage.

A good example of appropriate relations between the EU and religious organisations can be found in a number of areas. The EU cultivates working relationships with organisations of civil society that are working in all sorts of fields, such as employers and employees, farmers’ organisations, small businesses, the crafts sector, the professions, cooperatives and non-profit associations, consumer organisations, environmental organisations and associations representing the family, women, persons with disabilities and the scientific and academic community. Many of these organisations have a religious background and are, at least to some extent, controlled by religious authorities, for example, Caritas or the Catholic development aid organisations regrouped in CIDSE or the Protestant equivalent regrouped in APRODEV. These groups provide essential social services for the poor, do not have religious evangelization as their aim and abide by the laws governing any other organisation created by EU citizens. Therefore, they should have the same rights and obligations as all other comparable organisation. These organisations, religious and secular, are among the most active ones in the EU in establishing structured, efficient and transparent mechanisms of participation of civil society in the political life of EU democracy.

There are many complex questions regarding the role of religious organisations and churches in the EU. We believe Parliamentary discussion of the matter and eventually the guidelines established should be respectful of the contributions that can be made by religious organisations to the aims of the community and the developing world and respectful of the rights of religious organisation to free speech and participation in civil society, but they should also be equally concerned with ensuring no special privileges above those of all civil society organisations and all citizens of the Union. The moral mandate for governance in European society rests on the will and consent of the governed, not on the religious beliefs of any or all faith groups. That principle must be jealously guarded and protected by all.




1. Article I-52 Status of churches and non-confessional organisations

  • The Union respects and does not prejudice the status under national law of churches and religious associations or communities in the Member States.
  • The Union equally respects the status under national law of philosophical and non-confessional organisations.
  • Recognising their identity and their specific contribution, the Union shall maintain an open, transparent and regular dialogue with these churches and organisations.

2. Treaty of Amsterdam, accessed 2 September 2005.

3. Globus International Affairs Poll, accessed 2 September 2005.

4. cf. Andrew Greeley, “Religion in the Emerald Tiger: The Irish are still Catholic, but now on their own terms,” in America, 12 March 2001.

5. cf. “Poland: Poll scrutinizes attitudes toward Catholic Church,” in Relioscope, 21 August 2002.

6. Catholics for a Free Choice, World View: Catholic Attitudes on Sexual Behavior & Reproductive Health, Washington, DC: Catholics for a Free Choice, 2004.

7. cf. El Mundo, April 26, 2002.