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Brexit and Catholic Social Teaching

Tina Beattie-The Tablet - Mon, Mar 11th 2019

The role played by religion has been largely ignored in debates surrounding Brexit – but as a leading Catholic academic points out, religious faith continues to be a decisive factor in shaping the lives and identities of many British people

Donald Tusk’s Dantesque jibe that there is “a special place in hell” for those who promote Brexit without even a sketch of a plan of how to carry it out created a predictable flurry of indignation in the British media and among some politicians. “Mr Tusk is hardly in the Aquinas class as a theologian,” Jacob Rees-Mogg commented tartly. 

It was an awkward stumble into eschatology in a debate about Brexit from which religion has been conspicuously absent. Yet British culture has been shaped by Christianity, and the question, “What does it mean to be British?”, is deeply bound up with religious identity for many on both sides of the debate. 

It may or may not be true that the flag of the European Union is inspired by the Virgin Mary’s crown of stars – its designer, Arsène Heitz, later claimed that it was. What is not in doubt is that the idea of Europe in its modern form – not as an economic empire nor as a self-serving coalition of powerful states, but as a project of peace that emerged from the blood of the trenches and the ashes of Auschwitz – is to a large extent shaped around the principles of Catholic Social Teaching. 

Addressing EU leaders in 2017, on the sixtieth anniversary of the signing of the Treaty of Rome, Pope Francis invoked the founding fathers of the EU, for whom “Europe is not a conglomeration of rules to obey, or a manual of protocols and procedures to follow. It is a way of life, a way of understanding man based on his transcendent and inalienable dignity, as something more than simply a sum of rights to defend or claims to advance.”

The origins of the EU can be traced back to the Schuman Declaration of May 1950, when French foreign minister Robert Schuman gave a speech proposing the integration of French and German coal and steel production under a single authority, which would unite two of Europe’s historically hostile enemies in a new project of cooperation. 

Schuman described his aim as to “make war unthinkable and materially impossible and to reinforce democracy”. This idea rapidly gained support from other countries, including the first chancellor of the Federal Republic of Germany, Konrad Adenauer, and the Italian prime minister and foreign affairs minister, Alcide De Gasperi. All three were committed Catholics, and all were influenced by the core principles of Catholic Social Teaching: solidarity, subsidiarity and participation. 

If solidarity constitutes the unity of the European Union, subsidiarity, at least in theory, protects its diversity and the relative autonomy of the states and institutions within it; and participation encourages all its communities and individuals to have some sense of investment in and engagement with these larger institutions, to feel a sense of being included in the processes of formulating and implementing policies and laws.

Elements on both the Left and Right in Britain have always been uneasy with the perceived centrality of the Catholic Church to the European project. A Labour minister wrote in his diary after meeting Schuman that he was “a bachelor and a very devout Catholic who is said to be very much under the influence of the priests”. After the signing of the Treaty of Rome in 1957 the Conservative Party felt it needed to explain that the document had “nothing to do with the Vatican, the Pope or religion”. 

British social values are less deeply influenced by the Catholic tradition than those of our European neighbours. Many British people do not feel a strong sense of solidarity with other Europeans, particularly those who represent the cosmopolitan multiculturalism of post-imperial Europe. The ethos of subsidiarity has not been sufficiently robust to persuade people that Britain is not being run by policy wonks and legislators in Brussels and Strasbourg, and the sense that the EU is a participatory project in which all are both stakeholders and beneficiaries has barely registered, despite vast EU development funding in Britain’s poorer regions.

Given the traces of anti-Catholicism that still haunt the UK, you might think that drawing attention to the EU’s Catholic roots would strengthen the case of those who want to leave. Yet Catholics such as Rees-Mogg and Iain Duncan Smith are prominent among those campaigning for the hardest of Brexits, even though it violates so many of the principles of Catholic Social Teaching. 

However, statistics indicate that men such as Rees-Mogg and Duncan Smith do not represent the views of most British Catholics. When the results of the Brexit referendum are analysed by religious affiliation, Catholics constitute the most pro-Remain Christian grouping, with 52 per cent voting to stay in the EU. Anglicans constitute the largest grouping to vote to leave – 60 per cent wanted out and only 40 per cent voted to stay. 

There seems to have been a sharp difference between the urbane liberalism of almost all the Anglican bishops, including Justin Welby and John Sentamu, who were solidly Remain, and their largely pro-Brexit congregations, for many of whom “being C of E” is part of what it means to be English. Given that a significant number of Leave voters were elderly white Anglicans, Brexit looks in many ways like the Tory party at prayer.

There is, however, a darker, more despairing version of the Brexit history: the number of poor and working-class white people of all ages who voted Leave. These communities have been increasingly marginalised by neoliberal economic policies pursued by every UK government over the last 30 years. Many voters in constituencies in the Midlands and North of England felt angry and disillusioned. In Brexit Britain, we are seeing the truth of James Baldwin’s claim that “the most dangerous creation of any society is the man who has nothing to lose”. 

But different communities are rooted in different values and different versions of the past, in different interpretations of Brexit, and in different hopes and fears for the future. The Irish border has become the thorniest obstacle to securing a deal that will prove acceptable to both the majority in the House of Commons and to the 27 other EU countries. Religion is a major factor in this, but Ireland is only one example of the complex way in which religion and politics are embroiled. 

People in Northern Ireland were not killing each other over disputes about the nature of the Trinity. They were killing each other because of a history of colonialism in which religion was a significant marker of division between the colonisers and the colonised, the landowners and the disenfranchised. A different communal identity emerges in the Scottish context, where there is a widespread sense of betrayal over Brexit. Scotland voted 62 per cent Remain, 38 per cent Leave. 

Nation by nation, community by community, the story of Brexit morphs every time we change the historical and political lens through which we look at it. And what about the many other religious communities that regard the United Kingdom as home, including Christians of the post-colonial diaspora, and those belonging to other religious traditions or of no religious affiliation – the so-called “Nones”? Of the Nones 57 per cent voted Remain. Jewish voters were marginally more in favour of Leave than Remain, which reflects the final result, but might also reflect a feeling that Britain is less prone to anti-Semitism than some European countries.

Muslim voters were the largest single group in favour of Remain, with 69 per cent voting to stay in the EU: hardly surprising given that the anti-immigration rhetoric favoured by some Leave campaigners had more than a hint of Islamophobia. Most black, Asian and minority ethnic citizens voted Remain; some British citizens from Commonwealth countries voted Leave because they resent the fact that while EU citizens have freedom of movement, citizens of Commonwealth countries are subject to stringent immigration controls.

The most urgent challenge we face today is the environmental crisis. And Pope Francis’ 2015 encyclical, Laudato Si’, is an eloquent appeal to all people of goodwill to wake up to the impending catastrophe and to take urgent action both at the political and social level, and at the personal and individual level, to protect the environment and the poor communities that suffer most devastatingly as a result of environmental degradation. 

Climate change is a cataclysm that cannot be contained by customs posts or borders. So after Brexit – if it happens – we will have to find a way of communicating across boundaries and taking concerted action if we are to leave our children and our children’s children a habitable planet. When we look beyond the economics and the politics, and include factors such as religion, class and ethnicity, and begin to understand Brexit in terms of human belonging, it becomes clear how divided and conflicted our society is. 

One way or the other, the rhetoric of confrontation must yield to reasoned and informed dialogue. The shared pursuit of the common good, rooted in respect for the transcendent dignity of the human person and informed by the principles of solidarity, subsidiarity and participation at the core of Catholic Social Teaching might give us a common platform around which to rally in the face of widening social divisions and conflicts.

Adapted from the Corbishley Lecture given in November 2018 at the invitation of the Wyndham Place Charlemagne Trust.

Tina Beattie is professor of Catholic studies at Roehampton University, London.

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