A shoddy debate degrades Brexit/Bremain referendum

Knowing that it’s no longer possible to imperiously direct their flock, as once they might have done, on how to vote in matters of great importance, and recognizing the reality of today’s social pluralism, the United Kingdom’s Catholic bishops and pastors are rightly reluctant to sound like they are telling their flocks how to respond when matters of great political importance are put to the question. If they ever really did, Catholics no longer form a voting-bloc. We live in postmodern society, it is regularly said, and part of this reality is that the grand narratives are no longer impregnable as once they were and those claiming almost any kind of authority over others attract suspicion rather than the trust or even blind obedience of the past.

Church leaders know this very well or are learning about it pretty fast. Caution is the watchword. All the same, there needs to be some kind of commentary or guidance from the U.K.’s pastoral leaders on what the tradition of the church has to say to a given situation. The rich tradition of Catholic social teaching, much of it radical, should be presented as an interpretative lens for reading the signs of the times. This is far from telling people how to think, although the opponents of faith, the hysterical and angry New Atheists, refuse to see that subtlety. So, here we are, now, in Britain facing a momentous question over our country’s continuing membership in the European Union. There is a valid Christian commentary to be made on the Brexit debate. But it seems at times muted, almost inaudible.


The common good, a concept emerging out of Catholic social teaching, is an important criterion and it’s good to see this category sometimes making an appearance in the Brexit debate. It stakes a plausible claim to be the fundamental measure by which a Christian should assess the arguments that a campaign like this one presents. Much of what has passed for informed debate up to now would have been much more stimulating had this been allowed to happen.

Too often, though, in these concluding weeks of the campaign, the conversation is dominated by half-truths, fear-mongering and bitterness. What a pity, what a missed opportunity this is. Each side, Brexit or Bremain, has had a close look at the tactics that won the day in Scotland at the time of the (first) independence referendum of September 2014 and has found that fear tactics eventually won the day. Indeed, then, the “No” campaign was quite happy to refer to itself as “Project Fear.”

But the trouble this time is that it’s almost impossible to say which side, leave or remain, better merits the Project Fear label. They are both at it. Recognizing the proven power of fear-mongering, each side puts little effort into presenting a positive argument for their position. “Vote Leave” have been for several weeks persisting in perhaps the biggest fear tactic of all, suggesting that the United Kingdom currently pays no less than £350 million per week into Brussels that could be spent on the U.K.’s National Health Service instead. They even have this figure painted, in huge lettering, on the side of the “battle bus” currently touring the realm. But their numbers don’t stand up to scrutiny.

Their other chief scare tactic is to encourage fears about immigration, if not fear of immigrants. Heavy hints are dropped that continuing immigration means more pressure on a stretched health service, conveniently ignoring the fact that the same health service would come to a juddering halt were it not for those many overseas-born health care professionals who staff it. Cleverly, fears about immigration and about the health service are conflated. If the common good is acknowledged at all in this debate, it is a narrow, distorted inward-looking version, limned not by progressive, generous, humanitarian concerns, but by constricted nationalistic fears, fed and watered by a rhetoric that borders on the xenophobic, even the racist.

That subdued Christian voice has been heard but a few times. Catholic bishops in both the hierarchies of mainland Britain have not said all that much, and not all that loudly, so far. Both the Catholic and Anglican leaderships have stated that they won’t be taking sides, despite the frothing hysteria of a few seldom-read Catholic commentators on the nutty right. These are the people who can’t wait for the chance to castigate the hierarchy (or Pope Francis, for that matter) for saying something they don’t like, such as encouraging a compassionate response to the continuing refugee crisis, while bemoaning any indication that the church leadership might even hint at suggesting a remain vote.

The leader of the Catholics in England and Wales, Cardinal Vincent Nichols, has come closest to taking an outright stance. He has said that “starting out on the path of division almost inevitably leads to further division,” clearly referring to that mid-20th century post-war desire to end division, indeed, to prevent another war, in Europe. The Catholic Bishops’ Conference of England and Wales has cited those original European ideals—peace, subsidiarity, solidarity—and have declared that our voting decisions should keep these in mind.

Whether this is bearing on the current conversation at all, wholly marked by strident antagonism, is doubtful. A month ago the Church of England issued a carefully crafted prayer for the referendum, praying for honesty and openness, which was predictably lampooned and mocked by the secular media. Both Catholic and Anglican leaders have clarified that their churches will not tell people how to vote—Archbishop Welby has said that there is no correct Christian view—while each has foregrounded the concerns that should inform a Christian’s decision.

The Catholic bishops have said that the vote has “considerations” for future generations as well as for Europe as a whole and for the world. This does look some distance from the neutral stance they claim to be adopting, yet it’s surely important that these considerations get some oxygen. Other religious figures, both Christian and non-Christian, marshalled by the former Anglican leader, Dr. Rowan Williams, have emphasized in a joint statement released recently two key points from a faith perspective: that faith should be about building bridges, not isolation and that the European project has delivered the longest period of peace in Europe’s history.

A crowded public debate held recently in the Jesuit Centre next to Farm Street Church in central London’s Mayfair brought together several speakers on the theme “A Christian Response to the E.U. Referendum.” Three prominent Catholic speakers—a writer, a politician and a Jesuit—rehearsed most of the main issues.

Theologian Frank Turner, S.J., stated that the European Union “is a good and necessary institution” and went on to comment that “peace trumps economics,” suggesting the whole European project having been more rooted in that desire for peace than simply about economics. Writer Jimmy Burns cited his own part-Spanish roots to bolster his point that Christians are called to set aside national interests in favor of the common good. Turning to “Laudato Si’,” he offered Pope Francis’ assertion that we “must regain the conviction that we need one another, that we have a shared responsibility for others and the world.”

Tory politician, the Catholic M.P. Jacob Rees-Mogg, held that his Christian faith led him to a belief in individual rights rather than, as he chose to put it, their being lost to “an unaccountable superstate,” although Turner pointed out that no E.U. laws are imposed without consent of all member states. Shared sovereignty, asserted Turner, is not a loss, but a gain. Sovereignty, and a supposed direct-rule from a faceless Brussels, often emerges as a key concern of voters.

Catholic social thought—not least, its principle of subsidiarity—underpinned a great deal of the 1950s founding vision of what subsequently grew into the European Union; one can legitimately inquire, of course, if any of that influence survives. The inspiration of Robert Schumann and the other founders is exactly how this body of thought should be deployed; presented coherently and cogently, and not in any way that might suggest an attempt to proselytize or restore Europe to some imagined “Christendom,” whatever that might be in the 21st century. It should oppose the pandering that we’re seeing right now as fear of immigrants and barely concealed lies about the economic consequences of either staying or leaving abound.

Though Project Fear may have ultimately won the day, the 2014 Scottish Independence referendum was unprecedented in its level of public engagement and debate. That was in turn reflected in the referendum’s massive voter registration and turnout. That might not happen in the Brexit referendum. What might happen if Britain stays in, and what might happen if it leaves, are entirely appropriate questions; indeed, they are the best questions to ask. But to answer them with fear and threats debases the whole debate. Cardinal Nichols is right to echo Pope Francis’ reminders of our call to build bridges, not to destroy them. Some of us here are just hoping that the tone of the debate may still rise in the final few days, but this European, for one, is not feeling confident about that.

David Stewart, S.J., is America's London correspondent.

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