Open debate between those with strong views on Britain’s future in the European Union is essential in helping everyone form his own mind. To that end, it has been good to read those who argue from a position within the Catholic Church and have some sympathy with the EU project. A risk we must guard against is that we allow an accidental patina of moral authority to attach to one side of the debate: There is nothing intrinsically Catholic about voting to stay in the European Union, whatever the original motives of its founders were.
True, the Church has always had sympathy with the concept of international bodies that increase cooperation between nations, champion the cause of justice, avoid war, and better assist the poor and the displaced. Those who champion the EU from this side have a legitimate case to make.
But there is another view, one that is no less Catholic. Also part of the Church’s tradition is subsidiarity, the principle that decision-making power should be exercised at the most local level possible and that central authority should act only as a last resort. Few could seriously contend that the European Union, with its regulation of the acceptable curvature of bananas, acts only in cases of absolute necessity.
More worrying still, it is an anti-democratic institution. A Catholic, qua Catholic, need not have a problem with the famous notion of “pooled sovereignty,” and I know few who do. But among the democracies of Western Europe, the EU represents not pooled sovereignty but its concerted surrender to a higher, unelected, technocratic form of governance, which is neither necessarily responsive to the needs of the people, nor subject to them in how they achieve, exercise, or lose power. Pooled sovereignty is what the EU would have if its parliament, whose members we do elect, had the power to create, ratify, amend, or repeal legislation – it can do none of these. In fact, the Church has a term for a system in which a tiny, appointed, insular elite exercises power without reference to those they lead; we call it clericalism, and it’s a bad thing.
Catholics are obliged, in the ordering of civil affairs, to recall the demands of justice and the Church’s preferential option for the poor. Here too, the EU seems a monolithic inversion of our Catholic principles. The inflexibility of the euro zone has meant that Greece and Portugal, for example, cannot devalue their currency or reorder their fiscal policies to aid their economies, instead having to rely on EU bailouts with strict austerity measures attached. A simple glance at the youth-unemployment figures in these countries tells its own story of how that has failed.
The Church has a term for a system in which a tiny, appointed, insular elite exercises power without reference to those they lead; we call it clericalism, and it’s a bad thing.
Meanwhile, some of the wealthier EU members have engaged in the sabotage of the Mercosur trade deal between the EU and several South American countries. Far from honoring a preferential option for the poor, it is an open attempt to protect the interests of French farmers from cheaper imports. This shameful protectionism not only excludes the working poor of South America from a market literally hungry for their produce it also aims to keep food prices as high as possible, to the obvious detriment of the poor in Europe as well.
Easily the most charged, emotive geopolitical issue today is the migration crisis. It is often insinuated that those favoring Brexit are crypto-nationalists looking to close the borders. But there is nothing very welcoming or caring implicit in the Remain argument, unless, of course, one believes that the Spanish have a more pressing moral claim on British hospitality than do Canadians. It certainly has nothing at all to do with Syrian refugees — in fact, the reverse can easily be argued.
We are often told that the migrant crisis is a European problem requiring a European solution, but so far none has been forthcoming. In fact, the EU’s intransigent insistence on forming a consensus, one-size-fits-all approach, which it is nowhere near doing, has ensured that those countries inclined to be as welcoming as they can have been actively discouraged from doing so.
While several senior bishops and cardinals have expressed their own “personal views” on the subject, the hierarchy of the Catholic Church has no official position on the ongoing debate about Britain’s future in the European Union. This neutrality is essential both for preserving the Church’s independence from civil influence and for respecting the freedom of conscience of her individual members. Given that each person’s assessment is based on his own insights, experiences, and expertise, it is not unreasonable for two Catholics to come to radically different political conclusions from the same material. It is perfectly possible to be Catholic and for Brexit. Indeed, it is possible to be Catholic and for Remain.
As the Brexit debate grows ever more heated, we have to remember that there is no empirical right or wrong, Catholic or un-Catholic, answer. The debate can, and should, carry on, between Catholics as much as anyone else. But as it does, we should be clear that neither side has a monopoly on how Catholic teaching and tradition can be applied to the argument.