Christendom & The European Union
This essay is a contribution from our symposium Toward a Just Political Economy. To receive a print copy and read the other essays, order here.
When a Supranational Union Lacks the Supernatural
A circle of twelve stars exalted above her head for public veneration on December 8, the Solemnity of the Immaculate Conception. This references not the Marian feast day itself but the 1955 launch of the Flag of Europe. A bright façade to a new organization transcending borders—the Council of Europe which would precede the European Union—the gold and blue flag displayed the grand ambition of creating not only a peaceful and prosperous political and economic order but, its founders hoped, a fundamentally Catholic one.
The man behind the flag’s design, Arsène Heitz, a Catholic and member of the Marian Order of the Miraculous Medal, more than removed doubt about the flag’s meaning, insisting several times that the design was indeed inspired by the woman described in the Book of Revelation: “clothed with the sun, and the moon under her feet, and on her head a crown of twelve stars” (Revelation 12:1).
Just two years later on March 25, the Solemnity of the Annunciation, the Treaty of Rome was signed upon Capitoline Hill—one that would formally establish the European Economic Community (EEC) that has evolved to become what we know as the European Union (EU), today bearing the same flag.
While the project of European integration of the past two-thirds of a century has revived countless debates about national sovereignty and migration, curiously little is still said about the conception of it borne by three of its pioneers and much of the political appetite of the time. Informed by a combination of Pope Leo XIII’s affirmation of the body-soul relationship between the State and the Catholic Church and the seemingly innocuous ecumenical model of Christian Democracy, Robert Schuman, Konrad Adenauer, and Alcide de Gaspari—the respective leaders of France, Germany, and Italy who are today revered as three of the European Union’s four principal founders—sought to heal the wounds of a war-torn and divided Europe with the remedy offered by the perennial social teaching of their universal faith.
As mentioned in Pope Francis’s latest encyclical, Fratelli tutti, it was “the firm conviction of the founders of the European Union” that their project of political unification would herald in an age of “bridged divisions, peace and fellowship” on the continent.1
In light of the ever-increasing desacralization of European culture and society, any Catholic ambitions surrounding the project’s origin seem curious. Rather than a new Christendom or even a collection of institutions sympathetic to Christianity, the average proponent of the EU today tends to see all religion, even in its private form, as an obstacle to its development of a universal, secular, and cosmopolitan Kantian state.
How a supranational union founded on such Catholic influences diverged from the ambitions reflected on its flag is worth considering both for a greater understanding of the EU today and a broader question: what an effective application of Catholic social teaching to government demands. I will attempt to introduce the notion that a subordinate body-soul reconciliation between State and Church simply cannot be denied to a supranational Christian state if it is to be sustained. Refusal to sow subordination to the supernatural society founded by Jesus Christ will not and cannot reap the full civilizing supernatural grace thereof that would nourish it. By the hesitation of Christian Democracy to recognize this, Christ’s eventual displacement in favor of an alternative spiritual authority was guaranteed. This alternative has come to be most recognizable both as capital, enchanting the EU’s institutions with the dogma of the market, and increasingly the sacramental liberalism that provides a replacement teleological purpose to the unification.
Developing Implicit Christian Democracy in the EEC
The Europe of 1957, the year that the Treaty of Rome was signed, was one traumatized by the bloodshed and horrors of the Second World War. To recover from the destruction, nations sought shared economic endeavor as a means of avoiding repeated catastrophe. It was hoped that, if nations shared the economic incentive for good relations with one another, another war could be prevented. The ensuing drive to eliminate tariffs and non-tariff barriers to trade through the Treaty’s creation of a common market was not merely an economic calculation of the sort associated with neoliberal prioritization, but an effort to literally rebuild a devastated continent.
This establishment of frictionless trade was however also openly aimed at something bigger than the cessation of war: the political unification of nations. As is famously explained by one of the leading scholars of modern European integration, Ernst B. Haas, the common market was not only aimed at economic recovery from war but necessarily spilled over into a process of ever-closer political union.2 As countries become more economically reliant on one another, so too must they harmonize their regulatory standards, their policymaking institutions and, ultimately, their whole politics. Accordingly, the Treaty of Rome did not hide its aim to “serve as a step towards the closer political unification of Europe.”3
Helpful to the momentum behind the EEC’s initial integration was also that the leaders of its six initial participants—France, Germany, Italy, Belgium, Luxembourg, and the Netherlands—mostly shared a homogenous Catholic vision. Subtly or explicit, the vision was one of a new Christendom in the form of Christian democracy: a post-revolutionary and post-war democratic order baptized by the teachings, imparted by the Catholic Church, of equal human dignity, subsidiarity, and solidarity that would, they hoped, respectively support the project’s pillars of human rights, federalism and a social market economy.
In the words of the Jewish philosopher Emmanuel Levinas, Europe itself, as a civilization rather than a continent, had owed its very identity to “the Bible and the Greeks.”4 For centuries, the Catholic Church had built on Aristotelian and Platonic foundations regarding what constitutes the common good, revolutionizing pagan cultures with radical ideas about equal human dignity and the protection owed to the weak. Reviving Christendom then, with these dignifying teachings that together transcended those of the fascism and communism of the time, should not have been an arduous task for a civilization already nourished by it, however astray the continent looked during the war. If nations would simply sacrifice some amount of their sovereignty for the sake of a greater object, a shared endeavor towards this universal common good defined by the Church could once again be achieved together on the entire continent.
Writing as early as 1936, an acclaimed French Catholic philosopher, whose thought would be a crucial influence on the project, famously stated that “The acceptance by all the members of the [European] federation of the reductions in the sovereignty of the State by an authentic international organization would lead, at the end, if they are conceived under the banner of liberty, to the establishment of what we can properly call in its own right a new Christendom.”5
A convert to Catholicism in 1906, Jacques Maritain is perhaps best remembered as a principal member of the 20th century Christian Democratic movement as well as a key influence on the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) drafting committee. Maritain’s work places especial emphasis on human dignity as the foundation of human rights, and the school of thought he popularized would become known as Integral Humanism, set out in the book from which the above statement is taken.
His ambitious statement was just one of many approaches being taken at a time of Thomistic revival. The rediscovery of St. Thomas Aquinas’s political philosophy on the rightful place of divine and natural law in government had just a few decades prior been sparked with relative success by Pope Leo XIII, becoming known as Neo-Scholasticism.
Distinctive in Maritain’s approach to Neo-Scholasticism was however a comfort with tailoring it to politically secularized democracies, striving to situate Catholic social teaching to the pluralism accepted as inevitable in the post-revolutionary era. As a result, the influential teaching of Maritainism popularized the idea that, defiant of the Church’s triumphalist past, to be Christian there was no need for a state to explicitly and exclusively recognize the Catholic faith, nor to subordinate itself to Rome. Rather, simply by elevating concepts such as universal franchise and inalienable human rights, which stem from divine and natural law regarding the human person, an anonymous Christian order would arise whereby natural harmony exists with the Catholic Church that espouses them. In other words, it was considered that there could be no separating a supranational democratic state from Christianity, for it is Christianity that offers its framework.
European integration would then, Maritain hoped, form a Christian democracy transcending borders whereby, although the Gospel would not be explicitly asserted, only Christianity would inform and make sense of the supranational union and its institutions. In turn, the continent would once more be united by the reign of Christ, only this time anonymously.
A friend of Maritain’s was Robert Schuman, a French statesman who was briefly Prime Minister and authored the Schuman Declaration that serves as a cornerstone to the EU. A Catholic who attended Mass daily and had fought against certain impositions of French secularity (laïcité), Schuman was a Catholic so devout that Dr. Alan Paul Fimister, author of a book about his life, has referred to him as an uncanonized saint.6 Indeed, Schuman allied himself with the past political approach of the Catholic Church more than most of his generation. He sought to unite the Maritainian idea of an anonymous Christian order, one naturally harmonious with the Church, with the more traditional belief that the ideal end of Catholic political action was also the civil recognition of Catholicism’s truth and the conversion of a significant number of the electorate (“numerical preponderance”), under a “conscious implementation of the Neo-Scholastic project of Pope Leo XIII.”7
Referring to the work of Maritain, whom he described as “that great Christian philosopher,” Schuman was however keen to take advantage of an international organization to revive a universal Christian order using any available expedients. Faced with the prospects of both Christian Democracy and European unification, Schuman accepted and pursued the optimistic premise of Maritainism that, since the dignified supranational democracy sought in a United Europe was derived somewhat from the Christian faith, United Europe would exist in harmony with the faith. In his one and only book Pour L’Europe, Schuman noted that “Europe is the establishment of a generalized democracy, in the Christian sense of the word.”8
Supernatural Ambitions Deprived of Grace
In terms of where the project of a new Christendom failed to meet the hopes of Neo-Scholastic political revival, the question is perhaps best approached by looking at what was refused to it. As Pope Pius XII, occupant of the Chair of St. Peter during the war, taught, the horrors of war were themselves a result of the de-Christianization of public life. Indeed, conflict arose from the separation of Church and State:
Once the bitterness and the cruel strifes of the present have ceased, the new order of the world, of national and international life, must rest no longer on the quicksands of changeable and ephemeral standards that depend only on the selfish interests of groups and individuals. No, they must rest on the unshakable foundation, on the solid rock of natural law and of Divine Revelation.9
According to the magisterial understanding of the relationship between Church and State, affirmed by Pope Leo XIII, the Church is to the State what the soul is to the body. Writing in his papal encyclical Immortale Dei in 1885, Pope Leo XIII taught unashamedly that “The Almighty, therefore, has given the charge of the human race to two powers, the ecclesiastical and the civil, the one being set over divine, and the other over human, things. . . There must, accordingly, exist between these two powers a certain orderly connection, which may be compared to the union of the soul and body in man.”10
Pope Leo XIII’s interpretation of Thomism was a Christendom founded on a more explicit restoration, “both in rulers and peoples, of the principles of the Christian life in civil and domestic society.”11
Meanwhile, the interpretation being pursued by the Catholics most influential in the European supranational project was beginning to look quite different. Rather than accept the body-soul relationship between State and Church, Christian Democrats, here represented by Maritainism as a dominant stream of their thought, preferred to concede that this was an impossible task and to seek their own compromises. In L’Homme et L’Etat (Man and State), Maritain echoed a more Protestant desire for separating the two, writing that “The modern age is not a sacral, but a secular age. The order of terrestrial civilization and of temporal society has gained complete differentiation and full autonomy, which is something normal in itself, required by the Gospel’s very distinction between God’s and Caesar’s domains.”12
The EU’s failure, both typified and guided by Maritain’s championing of Christian anonymity, to accept the law of Christ as teacher of public as well as private life was destined at least for mediocrity if not for wholly bitter results.
Despite an EU thoroughly influenced by Christ, only a compromised and diluted foundation had been laid, deprived of the resources of grace necessary to building a just and divinely ordered civilization. As noted by integralist philosopher Thomas Pink in an essay on Maritainism’s flaws, insofar as the political secularization Maritain accepts “detaches the body of the state from the soul provided by the Church, so it limits the transmission not only of sanctifying grace but healing grace as well, and diminishes that civilizing influence.”13
With their control over the project (and this imparted grace) thus lost, Christian Democrats were forced simply to adapt by tackling what was now displacing their input: unrestrained capital and a newly sacramental, zealous liberalism. In other words, a supranational democracy ensued, only not in the “Christian sense of the word” so optimistically imagined by Schuman, but instead in the more enchantedly liberal sense of it.
Displacement of Christ as the Project Advanced
A new revered trinity: The Troika—comprising a trio of the European Commission, the European Central Bank and the International Monetary Fund (IMF)—emerged soon after 2008’s global financial crisis, in response to several sovereign debt crises afflicting members of the EU’s currency union, the Eurozone.
Insisting upon austerity as a cure to the crises, the Troika represented the neo- and ordoliberal governance that has come to characterize its institutions. The dogmatic nature of its approach manifested itself most famously during the 2015 Greek debt crisis, known in Greece simply as Η Κρίση (“The Crisis”), whereby the Troika’s commitment to its demands prompted mass rioting, the election of a party from the “radical left,” historic highs of unemployment at 28% (58% among under-25s), and the longest recession of any advanced capitalist economy in history, overtaking the U.S. Great Depression.
Contrary to the solidarity paid lip service to by the institutions of the EU, the smaller and less economically advanced countries of the supranational union were, by the early 2000s, beginning to see its shortcomings in action. The trade surpluses that larger members had accrued from a shared currency weaker than their own provided very little relief for the less fortunate now suffering from its constraints. Deprived any obligation to adhere to the social teachings of the Catholic Church, the soul, the body, represented by the Troika, comfortably leaned only on the dogma of the free market to dictate its actions toward the common good—in this case deeming investor demands for low debt-to-GDP ratios more meaningful than the alleviation of such suffering and the virtue of work.
Alongside the dogmatic forces disciplining and homogenizing Europe economically, the need for deeper meaning has not however gone amiss. Commenting on the need for a shared European identity and culture to sustain European unification, the Commission President from 1985–1995, Jacques Delors, noted that economic success would not be sufficient for the realization of a United Europe: “If in the next ten years we haven’t managed to give a soul to Europe, to give it spirituality and meaning, the game will be up.”14
With the continual failure to allow European civilization to be restored in Christ, through His Church, a spiritual and teleological purpose sought by increasingly prescient elites now has to be found elsewhere.
Today we may see the pursuit of spiritual convergence most clearly in the growing tendency to treat liberalism, and the chronological snobbery thereof, as sacred and inviolable.
Rather than the true liberty offered by Christ, the EU has begun imposing on its members an assertive and by no means neutral perception of the human person which conflates liberty and license. While certain members, such as Poland and Hungary, implement a Christian vision of the common good in their countries, centered on the family, institutions of the EU respond by subtly threatening sanctions for violations of liberal democracy.
The destructive course of liberalism is today eroding, with little challenge, the institutions of family and marriage throughout the continent, which now sees negative birth rates, programs of child euthanasia and abortion-on-demand among the majority of members. Worse still, such phenomena are justified by reference to human rights that, long since forgotten, had been founded on a Christian view of human dignity.
The federation idealized by Maritainism is unable to hold the fort against an incoming tide of religiously fervent liberalism that is testing, and will continue to test, its sand-built defense of Christian order.
Fruits Yet to be Sown
The hope of reviving a new Christendom through a United Europe, otherwise disintegrating into warring ideologies, was by no means a light ambition. Comparing the Maritainian Neo-Scholastic approach to a traditionally understood Leonine one, it can be said that the body-soul model of the latter, rather than concession to pluralism, would also be doomed simply due to declining belief and growing secularization.
Yet, as a Christian, or even as a mere observer of history, I am bound to take a more childlike view of what is possible for the Divine Hand of God: that, where given fertile soil, its work can always accomplish, and has always accomplished, the impossible. The peaks of Christ’s Kingship in history have been won with great difficulty, amidst seeming impossibility.
By over-asserting the explicitness of Christianity in the universal franchise (democracy) and human rights agreeable to a secular pluralistic audience, Maritain was right to fear creating in them a rival for, rather than a friend of, the Catholic Church. Such precepts cannot be maintained in harmony with the Catholic Church without their source, which was stripped away by the compromise to which the project succumbed.
An attempted new Christendom that draws only externals from Catholicism while refusing to assert the core Truth from which they derive could only fail. As Pope John Paul II famously noted in a speech commemorating the 1,200th anniversary of the Coronation of Charlemagne, “the rights of God and man stand and fall together.”15A supranational body that wishes for its members to be ordered by the peace, solidarity, and justice derived from Christ must have a soul that does not only reflect, but is, the perfect society He founded and offered for the good not only of a nation, not only a continent, but of the whole world.
“Seek ye therefore first the Kingdom of God, and His justice, and all these things shall be added unto you.” — Matthew 6:33
1. Pope Francis, Fratelli tutti, 2020.
2. Ernst B. Haas, The Uniting of Europe. (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1958).
3. European Union,“Treaty Establishing the European Community (Consolidated Version) Rome Treaty,” March 25, 1957. Available from: https://eur-lex.europa.eu/legal-content/EN/TXT/?uri=LEGISSUM:xy0023
4. Emmanuel Levinas, A l'Heure des Nations. (Les Éditions de Minuit: Paris, 1988).
5. Jacques Maritain, Humanisme intégral. (Éditions du Cerf: Paris, 1936).
6. Alan Paul Fimister, “The Anonymity Of Christendom.” 2020. [video] Available from: https://youtu.be/IZZthQbLKX0.
7. Alan Paul Fimister, Robert Schuman: Neo-Scholastic Humanism and the Reunification of Europe. (P.I.E. Peter Lang: Brussels, 2008).
8. Robert Schuman, Pour L’Europe. (Editions Nagel: Paris, 1950).
9. Pope Pius XII, Summi pontifcatus. 1939.
10. Pope Leo XIII, Immortale Dei. 1885.
11. Pope Leo XIII, Divinum Illud Munus. 1897
12. Jacques Maritain, L’Homme et L’Etat. (Presses Universitaires de France: Paris, 1953).
13. Thomas Pink, “Jacques Maritain and the Problem of Church and State,” The Thomist: A Speculative Quarterly Review, Volume 79, Number 1, January 2015. 1-42.
14. Newsletter of the European Ecumenical Commission for Church and Society, “President Delors and the Churches,” Brussels no. 2, 2 May 1992, cited in: (Leustean 2012, p.4)
15. John Paul II, “Message of John Paul II to Cardinal Antonio Maria Javierre Ortas on the Occasion of the 1,200th Anniversary of the Imperial Coronation of Charlemagne by Leo III,” 2000.
Featured image: Immaculate Conception painting (c. 1618) by Diego Velázquez.
Elena Attfield holds a Master’s degree in the Political Economy of Europe from the London School of Economics. She is also an alumna of the University of Leeds. She works in regulatory consulting and has previously worked in government affairs. Half English and half Finnish, she was raised on a small farm in England. She invites you to follow her on Twitter.