Cardinal's EU critique points to a reluctance to play by rules


Comments display an alarming ignorance and suggest the church still does not accept pluralist democracy

CARDINAL BRADY'S criticisms of the European Union's approach to religion are based on very serious misconceptions in relation to EU law. More importantly, they appear to suggest he finds it disturbing and offensive for the church to accept the criticism and duty to justify one's beliefs that is the lot of all other participants in public debate.

This raises serious questions about the degree to which the church has reconciled itself to pluralist democracy.

The cardinal complains that: "It has not been unknown . . . for individuals to have to defend their right to hold political, public or legislative office within EU institutions while professing a public commitment to their Christian faith, sometimes against very public and hostile challenge."

This is presumably a reference to Rocco Buttiglione, whose sexist and homophobic views, which Buttiglione ascribed to his Catholicism, made him unfit in the eyes of the European Parliament to be justice commissioner (a portfolio that includes anti-discrimination).

Assessing the opinions of appointees to powerful political offices is, however, really a rather unremarkable thing for a parliament to do. Those who held racist, sexist or other discriminatory views on bases other than religion would have been equally opposed by parliamentarians.

The cardinal has not made clear why religion should get a free pass in this regard and how political choice and accountability could be maintained if such a pass were given.

Cardinal Brady further suggested that to question the views and opinions of nominees for public office ended up with Christians "being denied the right to intervene in public debates or at least having their contribution dismissed as an attempt to protect unjustified privileges".

There is a very big difference between being asked to justify one's views and being opposed by those who hold opposite beliefs on the one hand, and being denied the right to participate on the other. It is particularly strange for this accusation to be made in the context of the EU, which has set up a programme of structured dialogue specifically for religious organisations, in which the Catholic Church has taken a leading part. Other kinds of organisations have not had such special facilitation and have had to take their place amongst civil society in general.

Indeed the Lisbon Treaty has been criticised as granting too much privilege to religious bodies in this regard.

The cardinal also referred implicitly to a series of EU decisions that he felt contradicted the institutional, social and political aims of the church saying: "Successive decisions which have undermined the family based on marriage, the right to life from the moment of conception to natural death, the sacredness of the Sabbath, the right of Christian institutions to maintain and promote their ethos, including schools . . . have made it more difficult for committed Christians to maintain their instinctive commitment to the European project."

Here, the cardinal is simply wrong. The European Court of Justice has repeatedly upheld restrictions on Sunday trading as a cultural choice that member states are entitled to make. The EU has refused to require the introduction of abortion and the Citizenship Directive of 2004 did not require any member state to introduce gay marriage or civil unions.

Most strikingly, in directive 2000/78 the union actually granted exemptions to religious organisations in respect of anti-discrimination legislation, which it did not grant to any other organisations. The exemptions allow religious employers to require employees to adhere to their ethos even when it is discriminatory to do so.

More disturbing than his lack of information in relation to the union's approach to these matters is Cardinal Brady's instinctive opposition to the notion that religious bodies should have to account and argue for their beliefs and legal privileges in the same way as everybody else.

The EU has, in fact, granted religion a privileged position in public debate and EU law has in the area of employment given religious bodies exemptions and privileges that it has withheld from other organisations.

However, as a political organisation committed to democracy, the EU cannot exempt candidates for public office from being criticised or rejected on the basis of beliefs and opinions that may be religious in nature, but that may also affect the decisions they would make in office.

A democracy has a duty to make laws in the interests of all. As an entity whose population is religiously diverse, the EU cannot legislate purely on the basis of the theological convictions of a single faith without violating this duty. Furthermore, in democratic public life, individuals must account for their beliefs and will inevitably be criticised for them.

The Cardinal has effectively characterised the imposition on religious bodies of the duties to accept criticism and provide justifications for their political demands as tantamount to excluding religion from public life. Such a resistance to playing by the rules that govern the behaviour of all other organisations in political life would seem to indicate that the Catholic Church still has some way to go in reconciling itself with pluralist democracy.

• Ronan McCrea is a barrister currently completing a PhD on religion and EU law at the London School of Economics