Continental divide

A battle is brewing over God's place in the new E.U. Constitution as secularists gain the upper hand in much of Europe.

Published December 3, 2004 3:36PM (EST)

From the committee rooms of Vienna, Austria, to the classrooms of Paris, from the streets of Amsterdam, Netherlands, to the chapels of Rome, battle is being joined over God's place in the new Europe. In disputes about the European Union Constitution and commissioners and the right to parade religious affiliations in public, secularists have the upper hand.

But a backlash is predicted.

The schism opened during the writing of the new Constitution. Despite the protests of at least eight of the 25 member states and lobbying by the Vatican, the text finds no place for Christianity and its role in shaping Europe, just a bland formula referring to the "cultural, religious and humanist inheritance." This is one of several successes chalked up by secularism, indicators perhaps of the cultural divide between the new Europe and George W. Bush's America, where religious and moral values are seen to have played a key role in the Republican election victory.

Michael Mertes, a speechwriter for Helmut Kohl when he was chancellor of Germany, and a former editor of the liberal Catholic Rhineland newspaper Rheinischer Merkur, says: "Given the different national traditions in the E.U., rigid secularism has become a lowest common denominator."

The new commission led by Jose Manuel Barroso stumbled when the liberals and secularists dominating the parliament took exception to the arguably reactionary views on women and gay people of Italian nominee Rocco Buttiglione.

From Spain to Poland a new secularist ascendancy is sweeping all before it. In Spain, José Luis Zapatero's Socialist government is seeking to roll back the influence of the Roman Catholic Church. France, Europe's secular citadel, has banned Muslim head scarves in state schools.

In the Netherlands, a new breed of populist and militant secularists has emerged, personified by the assassinated Pim Fortuyn and Theo van Gogh, paradoxically dedicated to defending secularism and tolerance through increasingly intolerant views and policies, particularly on Islam and immigration.

In deeply Catholic Poland, there is widespread fear that E.U. membership will bring godless bureaucrats from Brussels, Belgium, bent on denying the Poles the most restrictive abortion laws in the E.U. And in Austria, where more than 90 percent are nominally Catholic but where fewer than 12 percent regularly attend Mass, the Christian right seems to have lost a constitutional fight for God. The government party, the Christian Democrats, wanted a preamble stressing the centrality of Christianity. It has been scaled down to a reference to "the Creation," and the Social Democrats and Greens want it scrapped altogether. But if the secularists are winning all the battles, many experts fear they may yet lose the war, not least because of the growing influence in the E.U. of the new east European states, inoculated by Communism against too much church-bashing.

Even the Czech Republic, which can lay claim to being the least religious country in Europe, wanted God in the E.U. Constitution. And the admission of 10 countries in May pushed the Catholic population, nominally at least, to almost 60 percent. "For Poland," says Aleksander Smolar, head of a Warsaw think tank, "this extreme secularism dominating life in the E.U. is completely indefensible".

At a meeting of European intellectuals in Vienna, Jozsef Szajer, deputy head of the main Hungarian opposition party, reacted bitterly to the Buttiglione humiliation. "Why is it that a Catholic man can't become an E.U. commissioner, while a former Communist can?" he asked. Edward Best, at the European Institute of Public Administration in Maastricht, in the Netherlands, is all in favor of keeping God out of politics, debate and constitutions. But he fears a mobilization of the religious right in response to the domination of liberal political correctness. "We're probably going to get a bit of a backlash. I'm worried about the Poles and the Italians."

New York sociologist Jose Casanova is even gloomier. Writing about the culture clash in Europe, he warned of a new "intolerant tyranny" of the secular majority, which assumes that its views are "progressive, liberal, and modern" while its opponents are "reactionary, fundamentalist, and anti-modern."

Joseph Ratzinger, the German cardinal who is one of the most powerful men in the Vatican and an aide to the pope, seems to see the Buttiglione affair as the thin end of the wedge. He complained that secularism is "starting to turn into an ideology that imposes itself by way of politics and does not leave space in public life for a Catholic and Christian vision."

"A struggle does exist," he told the Italian newspaper La Repubblica last month. "It seems almost indecent to talk about God in private life, as if it were an attack on the freedom of those who do not believe."

Other leading Catholic clergy and lay people are embittered by what they term the new "left-wing clericalism" dominating the E.U. "This is a Kulturkampf [conflict of cultures] dressed up as liberalism and tolerance," Cardinal Friedrich Wetter, archbishop of Munich, Germany, said of the Buttiglione debacle. "Today it would not be possible for the Christian founding fathers of a united Europe, Konrad Adenauer, Robert Schuman and Alcide de Gasperi, to become E.U. commissioners."

Buttiglione, chastened by his roasting by MEPs, is promising to begin a European project or movement, probably backed by the Vatican: a vehicle for Christian values still shrouded in uncertainty whose adherents have instantly been dubbed the "theo-cons." "Lots of people are calling me, from Italy and also from Spain, Britain and Germany, asking me not to let these issues drop, but to carry them forward with political and cultural initiatives. I too am convinced of the need," he told the Corriere della Sera.

Smolar thinks the war of ideas will get nastier. "Europe is the only utterly secularized continent on Earth. It's the exception."

By John Hooper

MORE FROM John Hooper

By Ian Traynor

MORE FROM Ian Traynor

Related Topics ------------------------------------------