To be liberal does not mean tolerating bigotry


Mr Buttiglione's past does not bode well, writes Patsy McGarry, Religious Affairs Correspondent

During the 1951 Mother and Child crisis, taoiseach John A. Costello responded in the Dáil to an Irish Times editorial with the insistence that "I, as a good Catholic, obey my church authorities and will continue to do so in spite of The Irish Times or anything else".

He stood by his church authorities, instead of members of his cabinet or the Republic he had so peremptorily declared two years previously, and brought down his government, precipitating the worst Church/State crisis Ireland had seen since 1922.

Today's vote by MEPs on the new European Commission that includes Mr Rocco Buttiglione as Commissioner for Justice and Home Affairs has many echoes of that Irish experience 53 years ago. Whatever its outcome, it could propel the would-be new Commission in a direction similar to that of the ill-fated Irish inter-party government of 1948-51. And for similar reasons.

If the Commission, and by implication Mr Buttiglione, is approved, it will be by a slim majority, impairing its authority and that of its president, Mr Jose Manuel Barroso. If it fails, we will have a full-blown crisis.

Mr Buttiglione has made clear in the past that his personal religious beliefs take precedence when it comes to his public actions. Even allowing for internal Commission checks and balances, and his promise to step aside where a clash between his personal beliefs and public duty may take place, if elected it seems likely that he could still precipitate a clash within the Commission, or between it and the European Parliament.

His past conduct does not bode well - as a public man he has consistently obeyed his church authorities.

In an EU context he has actively supported discrimination against one of the most vulnerable groups in society - gays. In Italy he has attempted to row back advances made by women, and has proposed camps be set up for would-be immigrants in North Africa from where the most worthy could be cherry-picked for entry to the EU.

To portray attempts to block such a man from assuming one of the most sensitive portfolios in the EU as anti-Catholic, anti-democratic, or illiberal, is simply not convincing. And the shrill reaction of some on the Catholic right in particular, and of senior figures at the Vatican, has been as instructive as it has been hysterical. What is being opposed is Mr Buttiglione's narrow fundamentalism, not his Catholicism.

As 140 prominent European Catholics have argued in a letter to the president of the European Parliament, the president's two predecessors, Ireland's Pat Cox and France's Nicole Fontaine, are Catholic, as are the Commission president-designate Mr Barroso, and his two predecessors, Romano Prodi and Jacques Santer.

They might also have named a whole host of former European commissioners, including all of those from Ireland. In not one instance was the religion of any of those senior EU figures an issue with MEPs.

What is different about Mr Buttiglione is his record of a determination to translate ultra-traditional Catholic teachings into law, and the pertinence of this to the portfolio to which he has been nominated.

During his appearance before the European Parliament Committee on Civil Liberties, Justice and Home Affairs he argued that "the family exists in order to allow women to have children and to have the protection of a male who takes care of them. "

In 2001, during his first week as Italy's European affairs minister, he called for a ban on fertility treatments for women involving artificial insemination. He opposed granting same-sex couples rights to the same benefits as heterosexual couples and criticised a gay pride march in Milan, remarking that "all are free to call me a bigot and intolerant, but I very freely define homosexual behaviour as an indicator of a moral disorder".

At a 1989 Vatican conference on AIDS/HIV he described the disease as "a divine punishment for homosexuality and drug use". At the debates on the European Charter on Fundamental Human Rights he proposed deleting a provision for non-discrimination on sexual grounds.

He has proposed camps be set up in countries along the North African coast where would-be immigrants might be held and vetted, before being allowed into the EU on a quota basis. He said this would be useful to establish "the level of criminality" within each national grouping held, adding that "those who are Catholic and Christian" had low levels of such criminality.

That such views should be defended with such fervour by senior Vatican figures and their acolytes can only further damage the credibility of an already struggling institution, and its increasingly calcified thinking.

And is there not something contradictory in right-wing Catholic figures suddenly discovering a passion for tolerance? They, after all, belong to an institution which during this very papacy has banned dissenting theologians from teaching, banned discussion of women priests, described homosexuality as "evil", and told us it is preferable for women to stay at home as well as away from the altar.

Where the obligations of politicians are concerned it told us in a document last year that, when legislating for same sex unions, a Catholic politician had "a moral duty to express his opposition clearly and publicly and to vote against it".

Is that not interference with democracy?

And was it not political interference, in the run-up to the current US presidential election, for some Catholic bishops to advise that Catholic politicians such as John Kerry, who voted for abortion legislation while privately opposing abortion, be banned from Communion. Is it not for such reasons the US has had just one Catholic president to date (JFK)?

Is there not more than a little irony in an institution as undemocratic in its own governance as the Vatican, echoed by its more hardline supporters, choosing to present itself as a staunch defender of democracy in other institutions and states?

A little circumspection might be appropriate in the circumstances.

Meanwhile, we should be wary of a distortion of language which insists that to be liberal includes tolerating bigotry. It does not.