The signing of the new European constitution in Rome on Oct. 29 was a bittersweet moment for Catholics on the continent. It is the latest achievement of a movement initiated by postwar Christian Democrats, like Robert Schuman, Konrad Adenauer and Alcide de Gasperi, which began with the European Coal and Steel Community in 1952. The expansion of the union earlier this year was made possible by Pope John Paul II’s tutoring of the anti-Communist resistance in Poland, his role as midwife of the nonviolent revolution that swept Eastern Europe in 1989 and his firm belief that Europe must fully breathe with two lungs, with the spirit of West and East. For Catholics, though, the edge was taken off the celebration by the European Union’s refusal to include any mention of Europe’s Christian heritage in the preamble to the constitution.
Joy over the signing was further muffled by the European Parliament’s rejection of the nominations for the European Commission because of the views of Rocco Buttiglione, Italy’s representative to the commission. Testifying before the parliament on his selection as justice minister, Buttiglione discovered that distinguishing between legal responsibilities and moral beliefs, as John F. Kerry did in the U.S. presidential campaign, was not enough to pass muster in post-Christian Europe. "Many things may be considered immoral which should not be prohibited," he told the legislators. I may think homosexuality [i.e., homosexual activity] is a sin, he admitted, even though this has no effect on politics, unless I say that homosexuality is a crime.
This infuriated the left-leaning parliamentarians. They forced incoming E.C. president José Manuel Durão Barosso to withdraw his whole slate of nominees. Mr. Buttiglione compounded his political offense by expounding the view that marriage was to protect women and children and that fatherless families are less than ideal.
Today the European Union embodies a vision of political, social and economic solidarity that excludes the family and the church. European integrationsomething to be encouragedis being driven by a socialist individualism in which the family, the fundamental unit of society and the cradle of moral personality, languishes. As a politician Buttiglione should have been aware of the trap that had been set for him; as a philosopher he might have found more persuasive language to express his views. But in the end, confirmation might have been impossible anyway. Despite the church’s complete embrace of economic justice for the poor and working classes, many Socialist politicians still wave the anti-clerical flag.
Both the European Union and the church need to take a fresh look at the plight of the family. The family has been weakened by the decline of familism in southern Europe, urbanization, the sexual revolution and nearly 50 years of Communism in Eastern Europe. Falling birthrates in Catholic Italy and Spain to among the lowest levels in the world testify to how thorough the transformation has been.
Over the centuries, the church has worked with different configurations of the family, from the patriarchal household of ancient Rome to the feudal dynasties of the Middle Ages to the modern bourgeois family. Even the early church had different approaches to family. As Jesus gathered together the new family of God, disciples were told to choose between him and their family ties. Luke, on the other hand, presents the classic images of the Holy Family, and the Pastoral Epistles provided moral guidance for households. Over the centuries, the ideals of virginity and celibacy were sometimes presented in ways that depreciated family life. Then the Second Vatican Council proclaimed the universal call to holiness and raised the family to the status of a church in miniature (ecclesiola).
Today an orthodox pastoral strategy on the family should be capable of complexity and variation. It needs to promote the natural family of parents and children, while also providing pastoral care for divorced and single parents, unmarried singles and other households, particularly those that care for children, the elderly, the disabled and the infirm.
The European Union faces its own family problems because of the collapse of birthrates to below replacement levels, the aging of the population, pressures from immigration and the rise of Islam. In meeting these challenges, it could benefit from cooperation with the Catholic and other Christian churches throughout Europe. As Pope John Paul II told Prime Minister Marek Belka of Poland, I trust that even though the European Constitution lacks an explicit reference to the Christian roots of the cultures of nations that today make up the community, the perennial values based on the Gospel, elaborated by generations of those who preceded us, will continue to inspire efforts of those who assume responsibility for shaping the future of [the] continent.