Eurocrat Catholicism

Herman van Rompuy

President Herman van Rompuy (Photo: Council of the EU)

The Treaty of Lisbon–which is what they renamed the EU Constitution after its initial rejection– provides for a permanent president of the European Council. The former prime-minister of Belgium, Herman van Rompuy, is the first and (so-far) only person to have this office. I quiet, reserved sort of man, who writes poetry, van Rompuy is not as well known as the heads of the larger EU member states.  (In England he is probably best known for having been subjected to an angry rant by the head of UKIP). Rompuy is a devout Catholic. Recently he gave a speech in Heiligenkreuz  at a conference organized by the Kaiser-Karl-Gebetsliga. His speech was a quite eloquent presentation of a sort of a political philosophy quite common among western and central European “Christian Democrats,” and it was received by most of the audience with all the enthusiasm that eloquent statements of what people already think inspire.  A few however were not so enthusiastic, and I was among their number.

I see a kind of family resemblance between Eurocrat Catholicism (as I shall call it), the Anglophone “Whig Catholicism” which I have often attacked in the past. This might seem an odd claim as there are a great many obvious political differences between the typical patriotic, free-market, tea party Catholics of the US and the typical social-market-economist, anti-nationlist Christian democrat, but I claim that there are structural similarities in the way in which their Catholicism relates to their political ideas.

Van Rompuy speech was an appeal to Christians to support the ideal of reconciliation between nations which is the basis of the EU. He pointed out, quite rightly, that this ideal was an originally Christian-inspired one. Nearly all the founders of the EU were Catholics, and there is even a cause open for the beatification of the most important founder, Robert Schuman. As Alan Fimister has shown, Schuman was inspired to the founding of the EU by the social teaching of Pope Pius XII and the Christian humanism of Jacques Maritain. Van Rompuy emphasized the Christian inspiration for the work of reconciliation open which the EU was founded. The reconciliation of Germany and France was, he said, inspired by our Lord’s command to love one’s enemies. He also pointed to the Christian roots of the social market economy. He urged all Christians to support this project of reconciliation, peace, and prosperity.

The project of the EU, van Rompuy continued, is under threat on account of a crisis of European culture. “Europe is not a religious project, but the secular project of Europe begins to fail when the bearers of the idea of reconciliation, out of which it was born, falter.” Here we have the key word “secular.” For van Rompuy the secularity of the EU is something to be fully embraced by Christians. Secularism, he claimed, is the fruit of Christianity. The foundations of the autonomy of worldly authority were laid by the coronation of Charlemagne in 800 (a somewhat odd claim surely?).

I don’t disagree with van Rompuy that some Euroscepticism stems from a decline of Christian solidarity, but surely some Euroscepticism comes from the idea that the EU is dominated by an anti-Christian ideology that is accelerating the de-Christianization of Europe. One strand of the Eurosceptic right is quite explicit about this–think of Fidesz in Hungary, or in Austria of Ewald Stadler’s new party “Rekos.” Or think of the right wingers in Ukraine’s Maidan, and their attempt to separate the Maidan from its original pro-Eu program, as one of them said: “Europe means the death … of Christianity.” One doesn’t have to agree with the nationalist chauvinism and crankiness of the new European right to think that they might have a point w/r/t the EU.

From left to right: Archduke Lorenz of Austria-Este, Hermann van Rompoy, Abbot Maximilian of Heiligenkreuz, Bishop László Német of Zrenjanin in Serbia, Archduke Karl of Austria

From left to right: Archduke Lorenz of Austria-Este, President Hermann van Rompuy, Abbot Maximilian of Heiligenkreuz, Bishop László Német of Zrenjanin in Serbia, Archduke Karl of Austria

Van Rompuy was very explicit that the EU must remain an secular project: “a Christian does not believe in the erection of a ‘Christian Republic of Europe.'” Taken as a statement of principle–rather than as a banal assessment of the current situation–this is something with which Robert Schuman would certainly not have agreed. But van Rompuy immediately follows this with an even more radical statement: “it would be blasphemous to use the name of God for a political project.” It does not appear to have struck van Rompuy as odd to say such a thing at a conference sponsored by an organization which takes its name from the last Apostolic King of Hungary, Blessed Charles of Austria, by the Grace of God Emperor etc.

Is it really the explicit ordering to God that makes a political party blasphemous? Or is it not rather those political projects which in the name of “moderating” there ends try to insulate themselves from the divine? As I have argued before, “The attempt to insulate God from public life makes God irrelevant,” thus making faith implausible. But in addition to that all political projects which do not explicit order their subordinate common good to the most universal of all common goods, the Good Himself, tend quasi-inevitably to begin to set up their own perverse “highest good,” their own totalizing conception of the end of man.

Van Rompuy claims that the aims of the EU are moderate: “the EU was not founded to write the ‘end of history,’ or a ‘thousand year realm,’ nor was it conceived out of a Utopian ideal of the ideal state. Nevertheless it he does consider it “unique in human history.” And the confidence with which it promotes current progressive ideals ought to be breath taking. It is becoming ever clearer that those ideals are irreconcilable with Christianity.

But does this have any practical significance? Surely an explicitly Christian EU is not on the cards given the current situation anyways. Isn’t the best thing one can do the attempt to moderate its aims an encourage its good aspects? And that point doesn’t my disagreement with Rompuy amount to a mere verbal quibble? I think on the contrary that it means a totally different attitude toward powers that be. As head of the Christian Democrat Party of Belgium van Rompuy was willing to bow to the consensus on abortion, and even agreed to a juridical trick to neutralize the opposition of the Belgian King to an abortion law. Presumably he is “personally opposed” to abortion, but full adherence to the secular project means a respect for consensus values; it is not really reconcilable with opposition to “the world.” This is structurally the same problem that Whig Catholic Jody Bottum has run into with respect to gay marriage. Now there are of course plenty of Eurocrat Catholics who deplore van Rompuy’s handling of the abortion issue, just as there are lots of Whig Catholics who consider Bottum’s position on gay marriage a betrayal. But I think that in both cases such persons are not following the logic of their position as consistently as van Rumpuy or Bottum.

According to van Rompuy, “the Christian is not committed to any ideology or doctrine; man is the measure of all things.” It seems to me though, that that is an ideology, and not a very Christian one. It is the ideology of Protagoras.

7 thoughts on “Eurocrat Catholicism

  1. As a Belgian, seeing Van Rompuy identified as a devout catholic is new for me. After all, when he led the “Christian Democrat” party, they signed the law legalising abortion.

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    • I think that if you read the post again you’ll see that I didn’t mean “devout Catholic” to be taken at face value. I bring up the abortion scandal, and conclude by comparing him to the archetype of relativism, Protagoras.

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  2. Pingback: Juncker | Sancrucensis

  3. ” all political projects which do not explicit order their subordinate common good to the most universal of all common goods, the Good Himself, tend quasi-inevitably to begin to set up their own perverse “highest good,” their own totalizing conception of the end of man.”
    I’m curious — can you give any example(s) of any actual political project which has not quasi-inevitably begun to set up their its own perverse “highest good”?

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    • I think you are right that even political projects that do explicitly subordinate themselves to the Divine Good can fall into this danger. Nevertheless, Pope Leo XIII notes in Diuturnum: “But from the time when the civil society of men, raised from the ruins of the Roman Empire, gave hope of its future Christian greatness, the Roman Pontiffs, by the institution of the Holy Empire, consecrated the political power in a wonderful manner. Greatly, indeed, was the authority of rulers ennobled; and it is not to be doubted that what was then instituted would always have been a very great gain, both to ecclesiastical and civil society, if princes and peoples had ever looked to the same object as the Church. And, indeed, tranquility and a sufficient prosperity lasted so long as there was a friendly agreement between these two powers. If the people were turbulent, the Church was at once the mediator for peace. Recalling all to their duty, she subdued the more lawless passions partly by kindness and partly by authority. So, if, in ruling, princes erred in their government, she went to them and, putting before them the rights, needs, and lawful wants of their people, urged them to equity, mercy, and kindness. Whence it was often brought about that the dangers of civil wars and popular tumults were stayed.”

      A more recent example would be the authoritarian-corporatist state in Austria under Engelbert Dollfuß.

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