Despite far-right gains in European election, there is hope for Pope Francis’ new humanism

Italian Interior Minister and Deputy Prime Minister Matteo Salvini holds a press conference in Milan, Italy, on May 27, the day after elections for the European Parliament. (AP Photo/Antonio Calanni)Italian Interior Minister and Deputy Prime Minister Matteo Salvini holds a press conference in Milan, Italy, on May 27, the day after elections for the European Parliament. (AP Photo/Antonio Calanni)

When he accepted the Charlemagne Prize from Europe’s leaders in May 2016, a month before the United Kingdom voted by a slim majority for Brexit, Pope Francis urged them to give to the idea of their union a new birth in our time. Recognizing that the European Union had in many ways lost its way, becoming weary and sterile, he called for it to be bold again, to integrate outsiders, to involve the young and to connect with the concrete needs and values of ordinary people. It was time, he said, to “update” the idea of Europe in what he called “a new European humanism.”

The gains by Euroskeptic and anti-immigrant, far-right parties in last week’s European Parliament elections (they now hold almost one fourth of the seats) suggests the warning may have come too late. Yet the sudden flourishing of Green parties, the engagement of young people and the surprise increase in turnout seem to offer another story: precisely the signs of new life the pope was calling for.

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The main story out of the elections is that the big parties grew smaller and the small parties bigger. The center is barely holding, while the extremes have grown bold. The result is a fragmentation of politics, one that brought into the European Parliament what has long been happening in the member states.

The big parties grew smaller and the small parties bigger. The center is barely holding, while the extremes have grown bold.

The two big center-left and center-right coalitions that have run the parliament in Strasbourg since the first European elections in 1979 can no longer do so. The socialist bloc, or Social Democrats, and the conservative alliance, or the European People’s Parties, now represent less than 40 percent of the voters. After losing almost 80 seats in the 751-seat Parliament, they have lost their joint majority (down to 179 seats for the E.P.P. and 153 seats for the Social Democrats).

Who has gained at their expense? First, the center-left Alliance of Liberals and Democrats, led by French President Emmanuel Macron’s La République en Marche, which won 105 seats. Then there are the Nationalists (hard-right parties, dominated by Matteo Salvini’s League Party in Italy and Marine Le Pen’s rebranded National Rally Party in France), which took 73 seats; the Greens, which won 69 seats, and Freedom and Direct Democracy (oddities like the Brexit Party in the U.K. and Italy’s Five Star movement), which won 54 seats.

Once you add in the other groupings on both left and right, such as the so-called Nordic Green Left (which includes Ireland’s Sinn Fein and Podemos in Spain), the conservatives and reformers (including Britain’s Conservative Party and Poland’s Law and Justice parties, which are more anti-E.U. than the E.P.P. is), and the non-aligned (don’t ask), the picture is even more fragmented.

But is that bad either for democracy or for the European Union project? The haggling over key jobs in the E.U. institutions will now be even more intense and tortuous. Ad hoc alliances and cross-group coalitions will be needed for even elementary legislative business. That puts the fringe into the center. The Greens, for example, are likely to emerge as key deal-makers, while the far-right parties could easily block measures that do not command cross-party support. The yawning ideological gaps will make it harder to create consensus over issues such as climate control and migration. But while all of that might sound gloomy, increased political competition may well lead to ordinary Europeans being more engaged.

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The yawning ideological gaps might sound gloomy, but increased political competition may lead to ordinary Europeans being more engaged.

Part of Francis’ critique of the European Union in his Strasbourg address in 2014 was that its institutions were too remote and technocratic. Euroskeptics have long lambasted “faceless bureaucrats” and “unaccountable officials” in Brussels, exploiting a disconnect compounded by the desire of the dominant socialist and conservative blocs to depoliticize debates wherever possible, focusing on procedures and technical matters. Lively disagreements across political divides could help change that culture.

It was precisely because Europeans now feel that their future is at stake in these debates that they voted last week in record numbers: While still low, a 51 percent turnout is much better than 43 percent last time and is the best yet. In 21 of the 28 voting states voter numbers increased, and in some countries—Spain, Hungary and Poland—dramatically. True, many were turning out for anti-E.U. and hard-right parties (in the United Kingdom, Nigel Farage’s pop-up Brexit Party topped the results), but the widely predicted wave of national populism failed to take more than around 170 seats in the Parliament.

When the United Kingdom voted 52-48 for Brexit in 2016, there were dire predictions that the rising far-right parties in other nations would soon catch the same bug. But if there was a Brexit effect in the European elections, it has been to turn E.U. quitters into reformers. Who now wants to follow the United Kingdom into the damaging, humiliating spectacle of trying to disentangle itself from the world’s largest trading bloc?

Of course, the nationalist surge will rein “integrationism,” or the drive toward a more uniform, centralized European Union, but that, too, may not be bad news in the long term. To pursue a more uniform, centralized Europe just at the moment when it is demonstrating its political diversity would only increase the disconnect. The task is not to impose an artificial, technocratic uniformity but to reconcile the diversity that is seeking expression. There are many different Europes—and many different visions of Europe—that can come together only through negotiation.

What role has the church, and Pope Francis, played? It is striking that the two big issues dominating the European political debate, immigration and ecology, are precisely those that the pope has put at the heart of his teaching and witness, placing the Vatican squarely in the firing line of the emerging far-right alliance in Europe. The pope’s consistent call to decarbonize and humanize capitalism makes him a natural partner for the rising Green movement in Europe, just as insistence on keeping the doors open to the stranger in need clashes with the far right.

As they have made clear in their increasingly vociferous opposition to him, Francis’ unambiguous stance on migrants and on friendship with the Muslim world is highly inconvenient, to say the least, to Mr. Salvini, the deputy prime minister of Italy, and Prime Minister Viktor Orbán in Hungary, who claim to be defending Judaeo-Christian civilization from what they perceive as the threat of an Islamic takeover.

Just how inconvenient was made clear in a poll by the French daily La Croix, which showed that in France non-practicing Catholics were twice as likely as practicing ones to vote for far-right parties. As Archbishop Jean-Claude Hollerich, the Jesuit archbishop of Luxembourg who presides over the church’s liaison body to the European Union, pointed out a few weeks before the elections, the fears being stoked by the populists have been increasing at the same time as Sunday worship has been declining. Linking the anguish behind the scapegoating of foreigners and “global elites” to the loss of family and roots, Archbishop Hollerich pointed out the irony of populists claiming a Christian identity while having “political desires in clear contrast with the Gospel.”

For now, the center in Europe is holding—just—and with it the European project, which is still strongly supported by churchgoing Catholics. But it feels finely balanced. Unless the church is quick to craft a compelling alternative narrative capable of rebuffing the siren call of nationalist populism, the paralysis of polarization threatens to deal a fatal blow to the idea of Europe. Now, more than ever, is the time for the reinvigorated Christian humanism the pope is calling for.

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Lisa M
4 months 2 weeks ago

I simply don't understand the problem. The pope is not inventing anything new. This is simple, basic Catholic teaching: "Love thy Neighbour as yourself. "No other commandment is greater than these." Where is the trust and faith that when we do the right thing we are serving the Lord? Turning our backs is hardly Christian, any which way to look at it, and any which way we profess our reasoning to be.

J Cosgrove
4 months 2 weeks ago

The question is how do you love your neighbor? And what is possible? It’s not just wishing especially if what’s proposed is not productive. I’ve seen nothing concrete the Pope recommended that would be helpful.

Dale Athlon
4 months 2 weeks ago

Love GOD comes first. Most liberals and soup kitchen Marxists seem to forget that.

Judith Jordan
4 months 2 weeks ago

Dale Athlon---
I am curious. What is a soup kitchen Marxists?

J Cosgrove
4 months 2 weeks ago

Just what does the term humanism mean? The term traditionally was anti religion. What are the specifics of the Pope’s new humanism other than cliches. The Catholic Church has a poor record of helping the common person and being Pollyanna has never been a way to help the masses.

Also the term “right wing” really has no meaning but is thrown around because the author seems to think it is a perjorative.

Charles Erlinger
4 months 2 weeks ago

With the aid of a lengthy book excerpt, I will attempt to shed some light on the development of the idea of the new humanism. If I am off base, I trust that someone will correct me.

This light comes from a lecture given in 1938 in the USA by the French Catholic philosopher Jaques Maritain. He and a few other Catholic philosophers, having reflected on Europe’s recent WWI carnage as well as the Russian Revolution, followed by the development of Soviet communism and German and Italian fascism, isolated the common thread of materialism as applied to anthropology, that is, as it distorted the definition of the human person. The book from which I would like to quote is:

Jaques Maritain, Scholasticism and Politics, translated and edited by Mortimer J. Adler, Chapter 1, “Integral Humanism and the Crisis of Modern Times.

“From this point of view, that of the concrete logic of the events of human history, I think that we may be satisfied with the following rather general definition of Humanism, which I have already proposed in another book.1 (A reference to True Humanism, Geoffrey Bles, 1938.)

“Not to prejudice further discussion, let us say that Humanism,—and such a definition may itself be developed along quite divergent lines,—tends essentially to make man more truly human, and to manifest his original dignity by enabling him to participate in everything which can enrich him in nature and history (by ‘concentrating the world in man’, in Max Scheler’s words, and by ‘making man as large as the world’). It demands that man develop his powers, his creative energies and the life of reason, and at the same time labour to make the forces of the physical world instruments of his freedom. Certainly the great pagan wisdom, which, according to the author of the Eudemian Ethics, aimed to link itself to ‘that which is better than reason, being the source of reason’, cannot be cut off from the humanistic tradition; and we are thus warned never to define humanism by excluding all reference to the superhuman and by foreswearing all transcendence.”

Maritain takes pains to distinguish from his concept of “integral humanism” the early Enlightenment concept , a fenced-off, “anthropocentric” concept of humans. In this concept, he says,

“Instead of a development of man and reason in continuity with the Gospel, people demand such a development from pure reason apart from the Gospel. And for human life, for the concrete movement of history, this means real and serious amputations.”

Excerpt From: Jacques Maritain. “Scholasticism and Politics.” iBooks. https://books.apple.com/us/book/scholasticism-and-politics/id522612011

J Cosgrove
4 months 2 weeks ago

The humanism he envisioned can only happen under free market capitalism. The key is freedom. Without freedom it is an elitist view because only a few will achieve it.
While freedom is necessary for human achievement, it must be checked by something. The best way to check it is Christian morality and not the government.

Dale Athlon
4 months 2 weeks ago

Humanism?????

A Pope is supposed to be for God, not man-centered ideology.

Alan Johnstone
4 months 2 weeks ago

The founding fathers of the Constitution belonged to states and were very, very cautious about uniting without pre-conditions. They had been a collection of colonies and remembered very well what it was like to have an overlord in the British Monarch.

I have it on good authority that a core intention of the constitution was to limit the amount of power given by "we the people" to their elected representatives.
Each state was considered a sovereign nation with its own governance and each was jealous of its own independence and power being limited or eradicated by the rulers of the Union.

The European Union had none of that, it was commenced and expanded by stealth and dissembling.
As it is, it is verging rapidly into another Roman Empire but with no uniting religion or ideology other than secular humanism at best and materialism by default.

The experience of Britain is that being in the EU saw a huge erosion of self-government and a viciously difficult task at proposed reversal.

I am dubious about the claim that Catholics in Europe are strongly supporting the continuation and expansion of the "European experiment" unless they are being led to believe that the unifying religion will be Roman Catholicism.
Good luck with that fantasy.

Charles Erlinger
4 months 2 weeks ago

Almost 70 years after Maritain spoke about the “Integral Humanism” that he envisioned, Pope Benedict XVI addressed in his New Year’s Day, 2007 “World Day of Peace” greetings, the subject again. The talk was entitled “The Human Person, the Heart of Peace.” He said:

“I am convinced that respect for the person promotes peace and that, in building peace, the foundations are laid for an authentic integral humanism. In this way a serene future is prepared for coming generations.”

In typical Benedict XVI fashion, he systematically defines, in detail, what he means over the remainder of that address.

It would be tedious to cite the continuity of orthodox Roman Catholic thinking on this subject between 1938 and 2007, not to mention the years between 2007 and today. But it is equally tedious to read statements by Catholics to the effect that the subject is heresy.

J Cosgrove
4 months 2 weeks ago

The term "humanism" has many connotations. You brought up one but in history there have been others and traditionally they were anti-religious. The one you brought up was anathema to the Church for centuries. I personally see no harm in it but it can only take place under certain political circumstances that are not in favor with the current Church. To call it Francis's humanism seems contradictory. Francis talks of a utopia in Europe. Utopia means nowhere. Francis should read the "Strange Death of Europe."

Charles Erlinger
4 months 2 weeks ago

On the specific question that is raised about what the Pope “really thinks” regarding the EU elections, so far as I can tell, based on the text of this article, the answer is unknowable. The information we have is what the author really thinks, with strong hints as to what the author thinks that the Pope thinks, or perhaps what the author wishes that the Pope would think. At any rate, we might be able to rest easy in knowing that if the Pope is thinking about “integral humanism,” it probably is not the heretical variety.

Dale Athlon
4 months 1 week ago

"Humanism" is a goal, like "Fraternity", of the Freemasons. It's not hard to document, and PF1's overuse of these terms is deeply troubling to Catholics who put FAITH first, as Jesus instructed us to do.

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