Christian Compassion in Europe's Secular Liberal Democracy
There is no sign that the British Government is softening its attitude towards refugees fleeing conflict and persecution in the Middle East. It has repeatedly been criticised for tardiness and lack of generosity by religious leaders of all denominations, but it still seems to be doing as little as possible. Last year it met criticism of its inaction by offering to take 20,000 refugees out of the camps on the Syrian border over five years. But even this meagre effort – in comparison with the immense scale of the problem - is now seen to be faltering. Cardinal Vincent Nichols told BBC Radio 4 last week: “At the moment it’s going very slowly and it’s a great disappointment.” The Government should have seen how many it could absorb in the first year and then multiply that by five, he said.
Similar frustration with responses to the crisis across Europe was what led Pope Francis to make his dramatic visit to the Greek island of Lesbos last week, and then to take back to Rome 12 refugees chosen from those waiting on the island, half of them children. Apart from gestures designed to draw attention to their plight in the world’s media, he could do little more to help them.
Francis did not specifically criticise the risky deal the European Union has done with the Turkish Government, one aim of which is to neutralise the influence of gangs of people-smugglers who make big money ferrying refugees from Turkey to Greece. It obliges Turkey to take back smuggled refugees who had not established their right to asylum in Greece. In exchange, the EU commits itself to settling elsewhere in Europe a similar number of refugees with valid asylum claims. As with the British scheme, however, the response has been slow. Among those dragging their feet are countries with substantial Catholic populations like Poland and Hungary, yet their consciences have been slow to stir. The papal example will be harder for them to ignore.
On the other hand, Greek Christians have been conspicuous in their efforts to relieve the humanitarian crisis, and one reason for the papal visit to Lesbos was to stand shoulder to shoulder with Greek Orthodox leaders and with the Ecumenical Patriarch, Bartholomew of Constantinople, who was the Pope’s official host. It was a subtle demonstration of soft papal power which may help to mend bridges between the Catholic and Orthodox worlds. Secular Europe may be indifferent to the suffering on its borders, but at least in this respect, Christian Europe was showing Christ-like compassion.
What this crisis has laid bare is a fundamental weakness in secular liberal democracy. The principle of the common good, which ought to be at the basis of all national politics, knows no frontiers. One’s neighbours are not just the people next door. They include a Muslim child floating perilously in a rubber dinghy off the coast of Lesbos. And that, in essence, is the sermon Pope Francis went to the island to preach.