On Pope Benedict XVI's to-do list when he comes to the UK next year -- when, and for how long, are still unknowns -- could well be advocacy for the European Union. Britain's euro-indifference has hardened in recent years into a hostility to all things EU, to the point where Catholic advocacy of the project is another potential faultline between Church and British society.
To measure the gap, consider the enthusiasm with which the Commission of Bishops' Conferences of the European Community (COMECE) on Monday praised Ireland's approval last week of the latest unity-strengthening agreement. Bishop Adrianus van Luyn of Rotterdam, COMECE president, said the Lisbon Treaty would "allow the European institutions to work more efficiently for the sake of human dignity and the common good."
If you know COMECE, that's no surprise. The Brussels-based bishops' body has always been one of the most important backers of a united Europe. But in the UK, that kind of language sounds positively europhile. The Treaty is portrayed as a mandate for a "superstate", a "centralising, bureaucratic Brussels" with a closet agenda. Today's Telegraph -- revealing "secret" plans for the EU to become a "world power" -- is typical of the sort of reporting the British are fed each day. And that's the quality press.
The Lisbon Treaty is an attempt to get the EU countries working together more effectively by increasing some of its central powers. Opponents of the failed EU constitution say it is an attempt to smuggle constitution powers in through the back door, and to a large extent they're right: Lisbon takes away some national vetoes and bolsters some of the powers of the EU Commission. But unlike the constitution rejected by French and Dutch voters in 2005, Lisbon makes no reference to EU symbols -- the proposed flag and anthem -- which so horrified eurosceptics; and because it is not a constitution, there is no desire for God to be in it -- those disputes five years ago were a big part of the reason why the constitution never took.
The treaty's advocates say it will reform the institutions of the European Union, streamline decision-making and give the union stronger leadership, providing it with new instruments to do what it is supposed to do -- bring European economies and societies closer together.
Bishop van Luyn is emphatic that the Treaty -- revised to make it agreeable to the Irish -- spells out guarantees on life and family issues, and will not generalise the French model of laicite, or radical exclusion of faith from the public sphere.
"We expect that, thanks to the guarantees given to Ireland -- the right to life, the protection of family and the right of parents to educate their children -- that these rights will be made more secure in the whole Union," Bishop van Luyn says, adding: "We [...] hope that as consequence of the institutionalization of an 'open, transparent and regular' dialogue between the European Union institutions and the Churches brought about by the Lisbon Treaty (Article 17), we will be able to more effectively partner the European Union in all the areas where people are in need of justice and solidarity."
Ireland rejected the treaty in June 2008, but last Friday gave it the thumbs-up. Now only two countries are left -- Poland and the Czech Republic -- to ratify it. But they are not holding referendums. All EU governments except Ireland's argued that because Lisbon merely amended previous treaties, it did not require a referendum.
The British opposition Conservative Party has always agreed with Ireland, however, saying it should be put to a referendum, and that remains Conservative policy. If the treaty is still not ratified by the time they come to power next year, they could, potentially, scupper the whole idea either by holding a referendum or refusing to sign it (the treaty requires unanimity to be ratified). Whether, in reality, they would risk rejecting the will of all the other EU states, is doubtful.
In Manchester, where the Conservative Party is holding its conference, the media have been having fun exploiting disagreement among leading Conservatives over what will happen if the Treaty has been ratified by the time they take office (the more likely scenario). Conservative leader David Cameron is hedging his bets, repeating his call for a referendum now but not committing to one post-ratification.
Because neither Labor nor the Conservatives have ever tried making the case for Europe, let alone the Lisbon Treaty, but have spent years tip-toeing around, or capitalising on, popular euroscepticism, it is hardly surprising that the British people are ignorant and suspicious of the EU project.
The question is, should the Catholic Church make the case for it that the major parties are unwilling to? There is at least one British bishop who thinks so. He recently returned from many years working in church bodies in Europe, and is deeply shocked by the knee-jerk anti-Europeanism he has found in the UK.
Whether a papal visit is the right opportunity to begin to turn that around, however, is another matter.