Political tightrope looms in EU/Vatican relations


Arguments currently swirling in Brussels over an invite to Pope Benedict XVI to address the European Parliament illustrate both the depth of current tensions between the EU and the Vatican, as well as the tightrope diplomats on both sides are walking in an effort to keep lines of communication open.

The President of the European Parliament, German Hans-Gert Pöttering, extended the invitation to Benedict XVI in a March 23 meeting with the pope in Rome.

In mid-April, a group of leftist parliamentarians and allied non-governmental organizations wrote to Pöttering to object. In his April 26 response, Pöttering denied that the invitation constitutes “special treatment” for the Catholic Church. Moreover, Pöttering said, he made the invitation only after consultation with the leadership of the various political groupings in the parliament.

Pope John Paul II addressed the European Parliament in Strasbourg in 1988.

Criticism of the invitation to Benedict XVI came from the Working Group on Separation of Religion and Politics, a group of 19 members of the European Parliament from various leftist parties. Staffing for the group is supplied by Catholics for a Free Choice, an organization which advocates for change in Catholic teachings on sexuality and reproduction. Also objecting to Pöttering’s invitation was the European Humanist Federation, a Belgium-based group that promotes secularism and the religious neutrality of public institutions, and which claims to represent the “not much under fifty percent of Europeans” who say they have no religious beliefs.

“A monologue by the head of one specific religion, who also happens to be the head of a foreign state, hardly qualifies as an open, regular and transparent dialogue,” wrote Dutch parliamentarian Sophie in’t Veld, chair of the Working Group on Separation of Religion and Politics, in an April 10 letter to Pöttering.

The letter from the Humanist Federation – ironically dated April 16, the pope’s birthday – is more barbed, charging that the invitation to Benedict XVI “threatens to undermine trust in the European Parliament.”

“People will not accept that a religion or belief they do not hold should be picked out to be honored and be given influence in the institutions of secular government,” it says.

The letter concludes, “If it is too late to withdraw your unnecessary invitation, then may we ask you at least to make arrangements for [the pope] to answer questions from Members of the Parliament, who can then ask him to defend himself and his policies in a far freer discussion than he normally encounters?”

The exchange over the invitation caps a particularly rocky two months in the relationship between the EU and the Vatican, which began in March with a conference in Rome sponsored by the Council of European Bishops’ Conferences to mark the 50th anniversary of the Treaty of Rome, which created the European Union.

Both the Catholic organizers of the conference, as well as Pöttering, had hoped that the event might mark a positive turning point in EU/Vatican relations after bruising battles over the Vatican’s call for references to God and the Christian roots of Europe in the new European constitution.

Pöttering, a member of the Christian Democrats in Germany and a practicing Catholic, had supported the Vatican’s position. At the Rome conference, he argued that the EU and religious bodies such as the Catholic Church should cooperate.

Hopes for a new era of good feelings were dimmed, however, when Benedict XVI received the members of the conference on March 24 and pointedly accused Europe of “apostasy,” a remark that in context struck some as ill-tempered. One Catholic who works for the EU said the remark had become “the Regensburg of Europe.”

Tensions deepened further on March 30, when Archbishop Angelo Bagnasco of Genoa, President of the Italian bishops’ conference, spoke to a meeting of diocesan communications personnel in Italy. Addressing proposals to grant legal recognition to same-sex unions, Bagnasco warned of the social consequences of abandoning objective standards of morality. He used language that some interpreted as comparing homosexuality to incest and pedophilia, which produced angry protests and even death threats against Bagnasco in Italy.

In Brussels, three leftist Italian members of the European Parliament proposed that Bagnasco’s remarks be condemned as part of a broader EU declaration on homophobia. That suggestion triggered an avalanche of criticism from Catholic officials. SIR, the official news agency of the Italian bishops, editorialized that “it’s time to say ‘enough,’” and condemned what it called “propagandistic and violently anti-clerical arguments from a handful of malcontents.”

In the end, the April 26 declaration did not mention Bagnasco by name, but denounced “inflammatory or threatening language or hate speech” from political and religious leaders. The text criticized “discriminatory remarks by political and religious leaders targeting homosexuals, since they fuel hate and violence even if later withdrawn,” and asked “the respective organizations’ hierarchies to condemn them.”

Analysts say that Pöttering faces skepticism on both sides in his attempt to keep EU/Vatican relations on an even keel. He’s caught between leftist members of parliament who aren’t necessarily interested in constructive dialogue with the Catholic Church, and senior Vatican officials who are increasingly dubious about the EU as a conversation partner. Some have come to see the EU as aggressively secular and hostile to the church, and would prefer to avoid direct dealings with European institutions.

In his April 26 response to in’t Veld, Pöttering said that one of his priorities as president of the European Parliament is “intercultural dialogue,” including exchanges with religious leaders. Referring to Article 52 of the draft European constitution, which deals with relations with churches and religions, Pöttering says “there is clear support in the parliament for engaging in such dialogue.”
t“Like yourself, I favor a clear separation of church and state,” Pöttering writes. “But I also share your view that churches can contribute greatly to public debate and to shaping a European Union of values.” He says that on May 15 in Brussels, the EU will hold a conference for “high-level leaders” from the Orthodox, Catholic, Protestant, Anglican, Sunni, Shi’ite and Jewish traditions, on the theme of “Building a Europe Based on Human Dignity.”

Pöttering says he hopes that background “will serve to demonstrate that your accusation of special treatment for the Catholic Church, and your consequent objection to the invitation to Pope Benedict XVI, are totally unfounded.”

Pöttering adds that he consulted all the political groups in parliament before making the invitation, and briefed them afterwards. Though Pöttering does not say so in his letter, EU sources told NCR this includes the leadership of the liberal coalition to which in’t Veld belongs.

A previous invitation for Benedict XVI to address the European Parliament was extended in April 2006 by then-President René van der Linden. A Vatican spokesperson at the time said the pope had “willingly accepted” the invitation, but so far no date has been set.

The Holy See has observer status at the European Parliament. The Holy See’s representative to the EU is currently French Archbishop André Dupuy.

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