Church challenges secular culture of Europe

Church challenges secular culture of Europe

Peter Westmore

Within weeks of being elected Pope, Benedict XVI has intervened in two of the defining issues which will determine whether Europe will move further towards a secular and utilitarian culture, or acknowledge its Christian roots. Those issues were the proposed European Union Constitution, and a referendum in Italy on In Vitro Fertilisation and other such technologies.

In 2004, Pope John Paul II tried to have reference to Europe's Christian foundations included in the new EU Constitution, but was rebuffed by the politicians who drafted it, led by former French President Valery Giscard d'Estaing, who chaired the convention that drafted the constitution.

Since then, church support for the new Constitution has been qualified, despite the traditional support given by the Christian churches towards greater European integration.

When head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, the Pope made it clear that the absence of any reference to the continent's Christian roots in its constitution was unacceptable, criticising Europe's "aggressive secularism".

The new Pope also lambasted the foundations of the Union, describing European integration as an exclusively economic project which aimed to "exclude God from the public conscience", reducing Him to a "cultural residue of the past".

Ultimately, referenda in France and Holland, two of the founding member-states of the EU, rejected the new constitution because the European Union, centred in Brussels, was seen to be unaccountable, bureaucratic, and ultimately indifferent to the wishes of the people of Europe.

The Bishops' Conferences of the European Union issued a statement which said the defeat of the referenda "underlines the need to develop transparency, legitimacy and participation in the [EU's] system of governance. New ways of communicating the purpose of the European project itself and the process of European policy-making will have to be devised."

It added, "To be credible and owned by the European citizen, European policymaking has to be clearly rooted in a value system that respects and promotes Europe's heritage."

In Italy, the battle lines were drawn over attempts by secular humanists to reverse laws which limit IVF to heterosexual couples, and outlaw human embryo experimentation.

Until 2003, Italy had no law on artificial reproductive technologies, including IVF. Following clear evidence that IVF was being used indiscriminately, including on women aged over 60, a law was drafted by the Italian Government, and passed by the Italian Parliament, restricting access to IVF, and associated procedures.

The law prevents destructive experimentation on human embryos, embryo freezing, embryo experimentation, and outlawed the use of donor sperm and eggs.

Access to IVF and other assisted fertility techniques was restricted to couples in stable heterosexual relationships (including de facto unions). In effect, this meant that single people and homosexual couples could not participate. Embryos no longer could be screened for abnormalities.

The law also limited to three the number of eggs that could be harvested and fertilised at any one time, and then required all three to be implanted in the woman's womb at once. The aspiring mother could not refuse implantation once the eggs were fertilised. The freezing of spare embryos was forbidden.

Referendum

Not surprisingly, there was trenchant opposition from medical technologists, the feminist lobby and others, who called for a referendum to reverse the laws.

They collected four million signatures on a petition, which was presented to Italy's Constitutional Court, clearing the way for a referendum on the issue in June.

Supporters of a "Yes" vote wanted to repeal restrictions which limit fertility treatment to "stable heterosexual couples" who live together, are of childbearing age, and who are shown to be clinically infertile.

They also wanted to lift the prohibition on research using human embryos, embryo freezing, surrogacy and the provision of fertility treatment to single women or same-sex couples.

Last January, Cardinal Ruini, Vicar of Rome and head of the Italian Bishops' Conference, argued that Catholics should support the existing law, as the lesser of two evils.

He said, "It does not correspond to the ethics of the Church but it has the merit of safeguarding certain principles [in respect for human life]."

Speaking recently to a meeting of Italian Catholic Bishops in Rome, he added, "The only way to effectively oppose a worsening of the law is not to take part in the vote, while a 'No' vote - given that it would contribute to reaching a quorum - would be a help, albeit involuntary, to the supporters of the referendum."

Later, Benedict XVI told the meeting that this proposal had his full support. "You are obliged to illuminate the choice of Catholics and of all citizens in the imminent referendum on assisted procreation," he said.

The bishops' "clear and concrete" commitment to educating voters was a "sign of the pastors' concern for every human being", the Pope said. "We are not working for Catholic interests here, but for human beings created by God."

In the end, the Church and pro- life position was vindicated with a poor voter turnout of only 18.7 per cent on the first day of the referendum - well short of the 50 per cent required for it to be valid. This meant the existing law would in all likelihood stand.

Meanwhile, the decline of religion in Europe is a preoccupation of the new pontiff, whose papal name seems to have a particular significance in the light of these developments. It was St Benedict who, when faced with the decay of the Roman Empire and the onslaught of the Barbarians, retreated to establish hilltop monasteries which later became the foundations of European Christendom.

Faced with the widespread indifference to the Christian faith which characterises much of Europe, the new Pope seems to be following in the footsteps of his namesake, calling for Catholics to strengthen their core as a "creative minority in Europe" and re-establish Christian culture in a secular continent.

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